Political Representation and Empowerment: Women in the Institutions of Local Government in Orissa after the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution

  • Evelin Hust (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


The strengthening of women's participation in all spheres of life has become a major issue in the discourse of economic and social development in the last decades. Virtually every international and bilateral development agency has proclaimed policies to integrate women better into economic and social processes. The promotion of women in politics, however, especially if it is supposed to be implemented through affirmative action is still contested. This is in spite of the fact that women, who form around 50% of total world population, share a considerably lower presence in elected political bodies: Women made up only 11.6% of MPs in 176 parliaments in 1995 (IDEA 2002). Apparently universal franchise is inadequate to overcome structural constraints that impede female presence in political offices. Thus, despite their numerical strength, women are still a minority in respect to political power and positions occupied. Interestingly enough India is one of the countries where a women's quota of 33% was introduced at least at the local level. The same strategy for the State Assemblies and the National Parliament is still highly contested and the so-called "Women's Bill" failed thrice to be passed so far. At the same time, some readers might be astonished that India has realised a women's quota at all, since India is often portrayed as backward in regard to women's position in society. News on dowry deaths, widow burning, and the abortion of female foetuses still dominate the rather undifferentiated public image of India. Nevertheless, in 1992 the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution laid down new rules for the establishment and design of rural local government (called Panchayati Raj). This Amendment also stipulates that at least 33% of the seats and positions have to be filled by women. Proponents of this measure believe that the quota for women will lead to their empowerment, whereas critics claim that those women will be mere "proxies" for influential males and will be mainly drawn from the elite. The opponents furthermore point out that women in rural India are not equipped for participating in politics, since they lack basic qualifications. Indeed, India's rural social structure can still be characterized as being predominantly patriarchal. Women face restricted mobility in the public space; yet, this differs with respect to caste, class, religion as well as age and family status. As already mentioned, treating women as a political group with common concerns provokes the question in how far gender actually transcends caste, class or ethnic affiliation. Which interests should the elected women represent - those of other women, of their caste, clan or religious community? How can rural women, who are initially without doubt less equipped for political office (lower formal education, less political experience, less public exposure etc.), overcome these inhibitions? And how do male colleagues, officials and the village communities react if they are forced to elect and deal with female representatives? In order to pay tribute to the contextual nature of empowerment this study was conducted in a single State of the Indian Union. Orissa was selected because it is in one of the most "backward" States in the Indian Union and thus presents an environment that is not very conducive for women's empowerment to begin with. If one can prove that empowerment happens in such a setting, it is fair to assume that it should definitely take place in a location which provides better conditions, like, e.g. in a State like Kerala. Therefore, the selection of a "worst-case scenario" permits to draw more general conclusions. A quantitative survey was conducted with 105 women and 80 men mainly at the gram panchayat and few at the panchayat samiti level during the first field trip in 1998/99. In the second round in 1999/2000, selected female representatives, male panchayat members, officials, villagers and women's groups were interviewed in intensive semi-structured interviews.


India, Political Science, Women's Quota, 73rd Amendment, Panchayati Raj