Indian Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi gestures as she greets supporters before filing her nomination papers for the general election at a district court in Rae Bareilly, on April 2, 2014.
To avoid upsetting her husband, Urmila Devi told him she’ll heed his request to pick India’s ruling Congress party when their 50-family village votes this week. Once inside the polling booth, she plans to ignore him.
“I’ll vote for a different party,” Devi, 26, said on May 1 outside her one-room house in Galanodhan Purwa village in Uttar Pradesh state, where she takes care of her two children. “I’m concerned about women’s safety. It should be the government’s top priority.”
Devi is among a growing number of women who are eschewing traditional gender roles in India and asserting their voice in elections ending May 16. Higher literacy rates, greater financial independence and a desire to stem violence against women, epitomized by the gang-rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in December 2012, are prompting the change.
“Over the years, we’ve asked women if they voted on their own or if they voted for whoever their husbands or fathers asked them to,” said Sanjay Kumar, New Delhi-based director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which conducts opinion polls. “Women were reluctant to tell us earlier, but increasingly they’re saying they’re voting on their own, no matter what the men say.”
About 56 percent of eligible female voters cast their ballot in the previous election in 2009, compared with 58 percent of total registered voters, the narrowest gap in data going back to 1991, according to the Election Commission of India. Fifty-nine women were elected to the lower house of parliament that year, or about 11 percent of all lawmakers, the highest percentage in India’s history.
The ratio of women voters increased to 883 per 1,000 male voters in the 2000s from 715 per 1,000 male voters in the 1960s, according to data compiled by Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. The data, based on elections in 16 states from 1962 to 2012, shows that female voting has risen while the number of males going to the polls has been stagnant.
“Women have traditionally not been considered a vote bank, but there’s a heightened sense of gender inequality in the country now,” said Ravi, also a visiting fellow at the Indian unit of the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution, who has studied voting behavior over the past five decades. “That’s bringing more women out to vote.”
Most polls show Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party winning the most seats in elections ending May 16 while falling short of a majority. The Congress party will probably suffer its worst ever defeat as voters punish it for corruption scandals, slowing economic growth and rising prices.
Both parties have pledged in their campaign manifestos to increase education, job skills, safety and enforcement of property and marital rights for women.
Women have had the right to vote and contest alongside men since India’s first elections after independence in 1951. Sonia Gandhi, Congress party’s president, ranked 21st last year in Forbes’s list of the world’s most powerful people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s effort in 2009 agreed to push for a law that would reserve at least half the seats for women at local government institutions in villages and districts. The Election Commission has improved security at polling stations and added toilets to encourage more women to vote.
Even so, in much of India, women tend to vote for whichever candidate their husbands choose.
In Uttar Pradesh, Chabila Verma says she doesn’t know anything about the elections apart from the Congress party’s symbol: an open outward-facing palm. The mother of three relies on her husband, a brick maker, to guide her vote.
“He has more knowledge than me, as he listens to what other people discuss about politics,” the 25-year-old said on May 1 as she took a break from threshing sheaves of mustard in Khajuri village. “I can’t say ‘no’ to him for such a small thing. My father and mother have taught me to obey him.”
India ranks 101 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 global gender-gap index, which examines economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. That is the lowest ranking among the so-called BRIC economies, which also includes Brazil, Russia and China.
Women comprise about 11 percent of India’s lower house of parliament, 112th in a list compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union after Rwanda, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. The Congress and the BJP have pledged to pass a bill stalled for four years that would reserve a third of all seats in the lower house and all state legislative assemblies for women.
Devi, the housewife who’s ignoring her husband’s wishes, says she’s excited to vote and hopes her ballot will bring change to India. Her desire to improve security for women is shared by Pinky Singh in New Delhi, who also didn’t follow her husband’s call to vote for the upstart Aam Aadmi Party.
“My mother voted, but she always did whatever my father told her to,” Singh, a 27-year-old housewife and mother of three, said last month, adding that her decision to vote for Modi’s BJP caused friction with her husband. “We had a few fights about that.”