Social Identity

India’s Women’s Reservation Act: A big win for governance and beyond

  • Blog Post Date 15 December, 2023
  • Perspectives
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Amidst debates about whether the Women's Reservation Act  passed in September this year – will reduce gender disparities on the ground, Wattal and Gopalan summarise evidence from several randomised evaluations on women's participation in local government. These studies find that more women leaders in local governments can lead to greater investment in policies which are a priority for women, as well as improved social perceptions of women and changes in women’s aspirations and attitudes towards gender roles. 

After debating for nearly three decades, in September the Indian parliament finally passed a bill that guarantees 33% seats for women in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the national parliament) and state legislatures. This is a historic step, not just because the bill paves the way for greater political representation of women in the world’s largest democracy, but also because it holds the promise to empower women at large. 

India’s Women’s Reservation Act will take another six years to come into force (Singh 2023). In the meanwhile, the ongoing debate on whether it can benefit women across the board shows the difficulties in making just affirmative action policies in a country as big and as diverse as India. Nonetheless, it may be instrumental in closing some gender gaps in political participation – a goal which, the Global Gender Gap Report 2023 reveals, is still a distant reality for India and for much of the world. In an attempt to close these gender gaps, quota policies have been adopted by 137 countries in some form or the other, as per the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 

A question that frequently arises is whether reservations for women will translate into substantial changes on the ground. Will women leaders make decisions that are any meaningfully different from men, or will they simply be stand-ins for their male counterparts? Will the presence of women leaders actually have an impact on the day to day lives of their constituents? 

Implementing policies that women care about 

Researchers from J-PAL’s network have conducted eleven randomised evaluations across 24 states in India, as well as in Afghanistan and Lesotho, which can help answer some of these questions (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, 2018). These studies – although done in relation to local governments – give a strong indication that gender quotas in politics are worth pursuing to fix the gender imbalance in political leadership and to ensure policymaking represents women’s interests and changes commonly-held perceptions about gender. 

Perhaps the most compelling evidence in support of reserving seats for women comes from a study done between 2000 and 2002 in West Bengal and Rajasthan (Beaman et al. 2004). An amendment to India’s constitution in 1993 called for a random third of all the village council leader positions to be reserved for women (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004). This random assignment allowed a research team comprising J-PAL co-founder Esther Duflo, Lori Beaman, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Rohini Pande and Petia B. Topalova to compare the policy decisions taken in villages that were part of the quota system and had female council leaders compared to villages that were not.  

Their study found that women leaders In selected village councils invested more in policies that the women cared about. In West Bengal, surveys by the researchers found that women raised more complaints than men about difficulties in getting drinking water and poor roads. On average, village councils headed by women invested in nine more drinking water facilities, and improved road conditions by 18% compared with village councils headed by men. 

The findings from Rajasthan also point in a similar direction. Poor access to drinking water was the top policy priority for the women surveyed, while a higher share of men cared about bad roads. Village councils reserved for women invested in more drinking water facilities on average, and made fewer improvements to road conditions.

Changing the way society sees women 

India has had many powerful female politicians and yet the share of women parliamentarians has consistently remained lower than the global average. According to the UN's Global Gender Gap report, only 11 out of 146 countries (led by Albania, Finland and Spain) have 50% or more ministers who are women. In India, according to the report, less than 7% of ministers are women. 

UNDP’s 2023 Gender Social Norms Index found that almost everyone in India holds some kind of discriminatory attitude towards women. Given this, it is unsurprising that women spend more time on domestic chores than men; only a quarter of Indian women participate in the labour force, and many often endure sexism at the workplace while earning less than their male colleagues.  

Quotas alone may not be enough to change deeply held beliefs that contribute to gender bias. But bringing more women into positions of power through affirmative action can be useful in changing the perception of women among men. Evidence from a randomised evaluation in village councils in West Bengal’s Birbhum district supports this claim (Beaman et al. 2009). Researchers observed that the reservation policy caused men to recognise that women can be effective in leadership roles, and led them to associate women less with domestic work. 

Changing the way women see themselves 

To be sure, it is not just men who think women cannot be effective politicians and business leaders, or that they should just tend to the household. According to UNDP’s 2023 Gender Social Norms Index, many women also share such sentiments. But evidence suggests that attitudes towards gender roles – particularly among younger people – can be changed, and that an effective affirmation policy can, in fact, make young girls and their parents break traditions (Dhar et al. 2022). 

A separate study in Birbhum, West Bengal by Beaman, Duflo, Pande and Topalova (2012) found that adolescent girls in villages that implemented gender quotas in two election cycles were more likely to not want to be homemakers or have their occupation determined by others. Parents in such villages also had higher aspirations for their daughters. The most significant change was for occupation-related aspirations. The fraction of parents who believed that a daughter's (but not a son's) occupation should be determined by her in-laws declined from 76% to 65%. In the same study, researchers found that this change in aspirations led to subsequent improvements in broader development outcomes – quotas in two consecutive elections (first in 1998 and then in 2003) completely erased the gender gap in education attainment, measured through the likelihood of attending school, and ability to read and write. Quotas also reduced the time young girls spent on domestic chores – the gender gap in time spent on household activities declined by 18 minutes. 

Female leadership may even enable other women to speak up about their policy preferences (Beaman et al. 2010). Researchers found that in village councils that were assigned gender quotas, women were more likely to speak up in council meetings. 

Affirmative action policies are not a silver bullet. There might never be a simple fix to a problem as enduring, entrenched, and complex as gender bias. That said, evidence suggests that political reservations for women have the potential to be an effective tool in the fight for a gender-equal world and to improve development outcomes for women in the long-term. 

Further Reading 


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