In the world’s biggest democracy, the right of vote stands as a strong testament to one’s individual will and agency. However, for a long time a large section of society was barred from exercising this fundamental right due to reasons such as social norms, cultural expectations and logistical hurdles.

Since the beginning of democracy, India grappled with a persistent gender gap in the voter turnout. This year, India has 96.8 crore voters registered, wherein 49.7 crore voters are men and 47.1 are women.

However, according to the recent report released by State Bank of India, “for every 100 incremental male voters, there were 110 incremental female voters in the first four phases of the General Election”. This trend is further evidenced by the increase in new voters, out of the 1.9 crore new voters, 93.6 lakh are women as compared to 84.7 lakh men

These figures mark a milestone in India’s democratic evolution, reflecting the impact of initiatives aimed at empowering women, and promoting their political participation. However, the journey to achieve this milestone has been marked by challenges and obstacles faced by women across the nation.

Before the country gained Independence, women were deprived of numerous fundamental rights, including the right to vote and the right to hold public office. This period was marked by significant gender inequality wherein the societal norms and legal frameworks were against women’s participation in the political sphere.

To curb this, Margaret Cousins founded the Women's Indian Association (WIA) in Madras. The WIA focused on advocating for equal rights, educational opportunity, social reform and women's suffrage in the country.

Another organisation All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) along with Women’s Indian Association worked tirelessly to promote women's education, social reforms and political participation. These women including Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Annie Besant emerged to be known as Suffragists.

The Suffragists joined hands with the Nationalists because they realised that their political aims were entwined with those of the Nationalist Movement. By finding a convergence in their goals, both the nationalists and feminists garnered more supporters which helped resolve their issues together.

India gained Independence in 1947, and in 1950 the newly adopted Constitution granted universal suffrage to all adult citizens, regardless of gender. This proved to be a remarkable legal milestone for women's political rights.

It laid the foundation for women's inclusion in the democratic process. However, the early decades post-Independence saw limited actual participation of women in elections due to prevailing socio-cultural barriers.

One of the most significant legal reforms which transformed the way women participated in politics was the introduction of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1992. In these amendments,one-third of the total seats were to be reserved for women in Panchayati Raj institutions(PRI) and urban local bodies.

Through these reforms, the government wanted women's representation begun from the grassroots levels and also encouraged them to participate more actively in the electoral process. The impact of these reservations has been profound, leading to a substantial increase in the number of women elected to local government positions and giving rise to a culture of political participation among women.

According to SBI report, as of September 2021, in the 32 States and Union Territories (UTs), out of 3,187,320 PRI representatives 14,53,973 were women, which constitute 45.6% of the total PRI representatives in India.

Furthermore, the report also noted that “..when women are involved in local governance, policy areas such as education, health, and child welfare often improve.

“Women leaders in local bodies have been instrumental in initiating and implementing policies that benefit children, families, and the underprivileged.”

Another legal reform, the Representation of the People’s act was also introduced to improve the electoral process and make it more inclusive. Initially, women from the rural and marginalised communities found it difficult to cast their vote due to the complexity in the procedures and lack of awareness.

In this context, Representation of the People’s Act sought to simplify these procedures by introducing measures such as door-to-door enumeration by electoral officers and special registration drives. Moreover, the Election Commission of India also focused on improving voter education in order to increase women voter turnout.

Measures such as extensive voter education programs were introduced to inform women about their electoral rights, the importance of voting and the procedure of voting. Public service announcements(PSA), educational programs on television and radio and collaboration with community organisations have been used to reach women across different regions and socio-economic backgrounds.

There are several reasons that have been found to impact a woman’s right to vote, such as gender stereotyping, lack of proper networks and resources along with the financial and mental load of running a household, all have a role to play in curbing a woman’s liberty to exercise this fundamental right.

Patriarchy and politics have strong entwined roots in an Indian woman’s life, because patriarchy has always neglected the feminist politics. Women are stereotyped as ineffective leaders.

While they are busy dealing with the mental and physical loads of running a household, they do not have enough chances to create networks and resources that can give them a footing as a political leader. Previously, women were not considered a large enough, important enough vote bank and their issues took a back seat when it came to manifestoes.

Women in the 21st Century are accessing education, financial independence and most importantly, they are aware of their political rights. This coupled with the fact that they are being recognised as a vote bank, and given access to polling stations has been instrumental in the increased female voter turnouts.

Several state governments have begun to take steps to increase women voter turnouts. One of the most effective and well managed steps in this direction was the creation of pink voting booths run by only female constables.

This helped greatly when it comes to attracting women to vote as they feel comfortable having women constables help them navigate the entire process smoothly. It has been observed that these women-led booths run smoothly, systematically as women are seen to be better at following a systematic approach to these tasks.

A woman is not just a voter, her vote will keep in mind the access to basic needs, because women often bear most of the brunt of the crisis faced by a family.

ALVIYA HAIDER is a freelancer who writes on gender, art and culture, lifestyle, and entertainment. Aarushi Gambhir is a disability rights activist, writer and speaker.