Women’s political engagement by ethnic composition: Analysis of IHDS Round 2

At the start of the summer, I wanted to explore women’s political engagement in different nationally representative surveys in India and the India Human Development Survey seemed like a good starting place. While they have few questions on political participation, it’s generally difficult to find nationally representative surveys on public opinion and political participation in South Asia. I started working with IHDS Round 2, collected between 2011 and 2012. Over 42,000 households were interviewed in total and a special subset of questions were asked of over 39,000 eligible women.

Among other questions, the eligible women were asked if they were a member of a political party, if they attended local gram sabha meetings and how often they discussed politics with their husbands. I loosely categorized these as engagement in politics at the national level (political parties), local level (gram sabha) and intra-household level (discussing with husband). I say “loosely” because this categorization assumes that women see political parties as national even though the actual activities members carry out likely pertain to local party politics. Unsurprisingly, only 0.8% of respondents said that they were a member of a political party. The costs of joining a political party are likely high and the benefits low for the average woman citizen and political parties have historically not made significant efforts to mobilize women citizens’ votes. This is changing over time in urban contexts (see Tanushree Goyal’s work on women’s political mobilization), but the broader trend across rural India continues to hold. Moving to local politics, 8.5% of respondents said that they attended gram sabha meetings. The costs of participating in local level politics are lower than being a member of a political party and the benefits potentially much higher, so it makes sense to see women participate more. Within their homes, women are surprisingly politically engaged. 48.6% of women said that they sometimes discussed politics and 22.4% said that they often discussed politics with their husbands. Taken together, it implies that slightly over 70% of women interviewed demonstrated basic interest and engagement in political discussions. This is higher than I had previously assumed. Domestic work, limited mobility and lack of political skills may be preventing women from engaging in local politics, but at the basic level of household level discussions about politics, women do express a willingness to engage.

What do these figures look like for different types of women? Specifically, how does a woman’s ethnic identity (measured in terms of caste, religion and tribal affiliation) affect her engagement with politics at the local level and within the household?

In terms of attending gram sabha meetings, there isn’t much of a substantive difference across women of different groups. Women across the board are unlikely to attend gram sabha meetings, although Adivasi women are most likely to attend and Muslim women are least likely to attend. My prior was that Brahmin and Savarna women would be the most likely to attend gram sabha meetings because of their access to social and political capital, but this turned out not to be the case.

The differences are slightly more substantive for discussing politics with their husbands. Women belonging to the “Other” category, comprising of Christians, Sikhs and Jains are the most likely to say that they often discuss politics with their husbands (29.9%), while Muslim women are the least likely (16.7%). OBC women are the most likely to say that they discuss politics with their husbands sometimes (50%) while Adivasi women are the least likely (44.5%). Muslim women are the most likely to say that they never discuss politics with their husbands (33.3%) while women of other religions are the least likely (24%).

These graphs paint a fairly grim picture of women’s political engagement overall. But they also raise interesting questions related to the limiting factors for women’s political participation. Women do engage in conversations within the household about politics, but other factors constrain them from engaging in politics in the public sphere, which I conceptualize as twofold: a) the distinct gender norms operating in each ethnic group and b) the lack of incentives of political parties to mobilize women. I am interested to explore the first of these– the restrictive gender norms across groups in my research agenda going forward, and these descriptive statistics gave me a lot to think about!

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