Do political parties’ election manifestos miss out on #MeToo rage?

An interview with Dr. Pallavi Guha, Assistant Professor, Journalism and New Media, Towson University, USA

#IMPECTStudy Earlier this year, while delivering the Dr. Anamika Ray Memorial Lecture 2019, you spoke about the need for sexual violence to be made an electoral issue (The Sentinel, January 11, 2019). Do you find anything in this line in the manifestos of political parties for the coming 2019 general elections in India?

Pallavi: To be honest, I only went through the manifestos of the Congress and BJP as these two parties have more national reach as compared to the other parties. BJP has spoken about the issue of rape and about constituting a system of faster judicial clearance for rapists. Congress has spoken about the review of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act 2013; but both the parties have not been very specific. They have not focused about a lot of other issues such as how they are going to be inclusive of women from religious minority communities, women belonging to rural areas, lower caste women. They haven’t spoken about how they are going to deal with sexual harassment and assault cases involving intersectional indentities. So I feel that the suggested changes are not much in depth as of now, its kind of very fleeting. Since the #MeToo Movement happened in September and October last year, I was expecting that it would be more integrated in some form in the manifestos and the campaigns too.

#IMPECTStudy #WeAreWatchingYou has found a common issue in the manifestos of different political parties, especially BJP, Congress and DMK — under women’s category, the promise has been made for 33% reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies through constitutional amendment (the Congress has also promised 33% reservation for women in Central government posts). Is this a timely development? If yes, where will it take us?

Pallavi: We are having this discussion and debate about 33% of women’s reservation in parliament and central government posts for some years now. But the proposals that have been presented in the manifesto are not very concrete. If we look at the first phase of polling held on April 11, there are only around 7-8 % of the candidates were women in the total number of candidates contesting the election. There were 1279 total candidates for the first phase and out of these, only around 89 were women. If the women don’t constitute 33% of election candidates across the parties, then I am little skeptical about how they are going to preserve 33% for women in the parliament in the long run.

#IMPECTStudy Can empowerment of women and reservation for women go hand in hand to bring about women’s development overall?

Pallavi: The issue of women’s reservation is very complex, there are so many other factors that need to be considered. If the reservation would benefit only women from the privileged class and caste, then I am not sure how much that will help to empower women. The needs of women from every caste, class, and religion must be addressed. Women belonging to different communities have different kinds of issues.Women’s empowerment is possible when women of all status are represented equal.

#IMPECTStudy What is more important — women’s security or development? The #IMPECTStudy #WeAreWatchingYou has found that out of 13 promises made in the Congress manifesto under ‘Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice’, at least six relate to women’s security like ensuring working women’s hostels, safe transport facilities, sufficient night shelters, review of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, 2013, establishing a separate investigative agency to deal with heinous crimes against women, making registration of marriages compulsory and providing a creche in every anganwadi centre. The BJP manifesto under ‘Women’s Empowerment’ lists 14 points for women’s empowerment and five points for women’s development. However, apart from a general promise to give more priority to women’s security and referring to the setting up of Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, the BJP manifesto carries only one specific point related to security — to help bring about time-bound investigation and more convictions in rape cases, it promises forensic facilities and fast track courts. How do you compare the thrust given by these two major national parties to women’s security?

Pallavi: I think it is difficult to separate women’s security from women development. Unless, women feel secured how can they develop? I will again reiterate that the manifestos from both the parties have not mentioned in detail about the kind of security they will provide and how will they do it. When Congress is focusing on the review of Sexual Harassment of Women at Work places Act 2013, what kind of review are they talking about, which specific things in the Act will be reviewed, all that is not clear. Again, BJP claims in its manifesto that they will do speedy investigations of the rape cases, but what else are they going to do? How are they going to provide security in workplaces? It is the women’s responsibility to be safe; it is the responsibility of the larger society in creating awareness on gender sensitivity right from the childhood, so that sexual harassment, abuse, and rape does not happen in public and private spaces. These important things are missing in the manifestos.

#IMPECTStudy What is the difference between women’s development and women-led development? Is there an attempt to change the narrative of women’s development to women-led development when the BJP manifesto promises subsidised educational loan for higher education, access to credit and other resources, capacity building, market and distribution network for women entrepreneurs and 10% material to be sourced for government procurement from MSMEs having at least 50% women employees? 

Pallavi: I understand women-led development as more developing women leaders to spearhead the development of women in the society. If there are more women in leadership position, it will create a role model for other women. There is a saying, you can’t be what you can’t see! BJP explicitly talks about women-led development in its manifesto.

Even if Congress does not talk about specifically women-led development in its manifesto, it talks about educating women, empowering women, assisting and enforcing women and putting them into leadership positions, which would translate to women-led development.Having said that it is the responsibility of women only to lead development for women. It should not lie on women alone, but the larger society and the country should also create conditions for women development.

#IMPECTStudy While delivering the Dr. Anamika Ray Memorial Lecture 2019, you had pointed out that the #MeToo movement was restricted to 28% of working women. In this context, you had called for activism on social media to be more inclusive, so that the voices of entire 48.1% women of Indian population get heard (The Sentinel, January 11, 2019). The Congress now promises a comprehensive review of Sexual Harassment of Women Act, 2013 and extends it to allworkplaces; it also promises additional measures to address all forms of harassment of women. So has the Congress got it right and is its response in keeping with the #MeToo movement?

Pallavi: I think the inclusion to review the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act 2013 in Congress’ manifesto is a very smart move. But what I fail to understand why there were no additional and particular measures in the manifestos to address all forms of harassment of women. Whatever little campaign videos I have come across on social media sites and television, I don’t see any intersection of #MeToo movement and discussion on sexual harassment and assaults neither in any campaigns nor in social media at any point. Yes, the Congress has responded to the #MeToo Movement through the inclusion of reviewing the Act, but it has not given any details about what and how they are going to do it. I am also surprised that despite the parties having crowdsourced their manifestos for the election #MeToo Movement did not become a poll issue.

#IMPECTStudy The BSP-SP-RLD alliance manifesto under ‘Women Are Equals’ has stressed women’s equality more through primary healthcare, better law and order, and identifying and resolving systematic discrimination against women. Has the Mahagathbandhan missed an opportunity to bring about ‘Mahaparivartan’ by failing to properly raise the issue of sexual violence in their manifesto?

Pallavi: I haven’t at all gone through the Grand Alliance manifesto, so I would not like to comment on their manifesto. But yes, I do believe that sexual harassment and assault of women are also related to women’s health.

#IMPECTStudy Do you think it is sufficient to highlight the issue of sexual violence through promises in party manifestos, unlike the 2014 general election in which women’s safety was a political campaign following the Nirbhaya movement in 2012-2013?

Pallavi: It is not just sufficient to have printed words or put the issue of sexual violence in the party manifestos. It is also important to include the issue into campaign narratives and ultimately making policies. For instance: How many people read the manifestos? But a lot of people attend the rallies in both urban and rural areas and people listen to the speeches on television and social media platforms; therefore it will not help unless the campaigners and the candidates address the issues of women safety, sexual assault, harassment and sexual violence against women.

#IMPECTStudy In the election coverage by The Times of Indiaand The Hinduthis time, stories and issues related to women seem to have received less importance. The common themes published are restricted to information on women candidates, their profiles and the much debated issue of 33% reservation of seats in Parliament and State Assemblies for women. What do you think about the political discourse in the country when it comes to women? Are women’s issues getting marginalised in the media too with such restricted coverage?

Pallavi: The issue of Sexual harassment of women has much less focus in this election than it did in the election campaign of 2014. Yes, it is true that the coverage of information on women candidates has been significant, but that too is restricted to the superficial things of how they look, how they present and information about their families. This narrative in the media impacts women candidates and the voters.

#IMPECTStudy In an article published by Youth ki Awaaz, it has been said that 21 million women will be denied the right to vote in 2019 electionsbecause their names are not registered in electoral lists across the country. This is alarming, for it translates to 38,000 missing women voters per constituency on average. But neither political parties nor the media at large are talking about it. At a time when political leaders are trying to create voting awareness among citizens, are they and the media even aware about under-representation of women voters? Are such vital issues falling through the gap between media and political communication, with the discourse pre-dominantly constructed around a narrative of political one-upmanship and put-downs?

Pallavi: I read about the report but I have not read the entire report and of course it is alarming. So the data on missing women voters needs to be translated in terms of percentage. That will give us a bigger picture of the issue. I am also concerned about how long have women voters been missing the opportunity to vote. In the past seventy years, has the percentage of women voters decreased or increased? Has this been something that is going for years ? So there are some of the questions, which will give us a bigger picture and better context. There is also a need to find out the reasons behind the missing voters. The women voters are missing because they are not allowed to vote or have they moved after marriage or they have not registered. Are most of the missing women voters from the rural areas or urban areas? These are some of the things that need to be investigated well. Also these discussions have not taken place significantly in social media platforms and as an issue it has been neglected.

#IMPECTStudy Do you think the present election climate in India has no place for meaningful women’s issues occupying centre-stage on social media? Has #MeToo movement received any traction at all in the election campaigning by parties so far?

Pallavi: From the print, television and social media discussions and also the campaigns so far I have come across this election, I feel this would have been a great opportunity for the political parties to talk on the issues of sexual harassment of women, but very less discussion have taken place on this as compared to 2014. There is hardly any intersection of #MeToo Movement and the issues related to women’s safety being raised this election. Parties in their campaigning need to be more inclusive and detailed, when they discuss sexual violence.

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