Rita is sitting quietly inside a government-run hall at Banswara District in Rajasthan. Belonging to a small village in the district, Rita had come to the Ajeevika Bureau meeting in the hope that it would help her to become independent. The Ajeevika Bureau is an organisation that is working on the grassroots levels in Rajasthan, to train Tribal women to be community leaders.

Rita, who is in her late 20s is part of that group. After the meeting gets over she stays behind with a few women who discuss the day to day issues in their lives.

The Citizen travels across Rajasthan ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections to report on issues that have largely been ignored by political parties. “Dowry is such a major issue in Rajasthan,” Rita gave an example of one.

While traveling to various districts of Rajasthan, gender issues were found in almost all areas. Whether it is Alwar, Udaipur or Banswara. The grievances of women were ignored in all aspects, said the women themselves. “Women are highly exploited,” said Anita, who hails from a small village in Alwar. Issues such as domestic violence, forceful marriage, child marriage, dowry, girls being forced out of school or forced into labour were some of the many that continue to plague Rajasthan.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report showed that Rajasthan ranked second after Uttar Pradesh in overall crimes against women in 2021 and reported the highest number of rape cases in the country at 6,337. This marked an annual increase of 19.34 per cent as 5,310 cases were reported in 2020.

Teena, who hails from Banswara is a social activist belonging to the Adivasi community, said that issues of women are grave and the government has failed to address them.

“No attention is given to gender issues. We ourselves are witnessing an increase in the number of domestic violence cases. However, there is a gap between the people and the government. Issues as menial as FIRs are not registered,” Teena told The Citizen.

Crime against women is not only common but is also not taken seriously by the administration and is also an ignored issue during elections.

While, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been using gender issue as an election strategy for bashing the ruling Congress government, they have also not put forward their own strategies on how they will look after the issue.

In their strategy, BJP said it will organise ‘chaupals’ or corner meetings across the state to talk about women’s empowerment and will also hold discussions with Hindu saints “sanatan dharma” as part of its election strategy in Rajasthan.

“Is this enough? Women issues are gravely ignored and candidates just come to ask for vote,” Anita added.

Neelu, who hails from Chittorgarh but is working in Banswara said that lack of education is one of the major reasons why girls and women themselves are now aware about their rights. “We live in a patriarchal society. But in Rajasthan, women’s education is not given utmost importance. They are forced to leave their education and work on the fields or at home,” she said.

Located almost 20 kilometres away from Banswara is Kushalgarh, where Rekha lives. A shy 14-year-old girl, Rekha was forced to drop out of school after class 6. “We did not have the means for me to get educated,” she said in a low voice.

Her older brother, however, is in college. When asked why she drop out, because her brother was working, Rekha said she has no choice as she has to take care of the house.

Rekha’s parents work as labourers in the neighbouring Gujarat, due to which she is left alone with her younger siblings. “I cook, clean, take care of the children and sometimes do labour in someone else’s field,” she said.

Living in a small jhuggi, Rekha belongs to the tribal community. Most of the women were either drop outs or could not continue to study as parents preferred the boy study rather than the girl.

Between 2001 and 2011, Rajasthan saw an increase in literacy of almost 7%. The last recorded literacy rate is 66.11% as of 2011, up from 60.40% in 2001. In Rajasthan, 80.51 per cent of men (including urban and rural) are literate. In contrast, Rajasthan’s literacy rate for females (urban and rural) is 52.66%, reflecting the predominance of men in this state. Despite implementing programmes for women’s education and empowerment, as per the NSS report, Rajasthan has India’s lowest female literacy rate.

Manjuri, who also lives in Banswara said that even if there are schemes in place, people do not get their benefits on ground. “The administration has failed to implement these schemes on ground because most of the people do not know their use. Even the administration does not do anything in this regard,” she said.

According to a study conducted by the National Statistical Organisation, based on the survey Household Social Consumption (July 2017–June 2018), almost every second woman in Rajasthan’s villages cannot read, write or perform simple calculations. The National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-2021) indicated that 21,800 girls had dropped out of school before 2019-20. Of those, 13% did so because of household work and 7% got married even though child marriage is illegal.

However, none of these issues are the highlights of candidates. Congress recently announced five new guarantees as their election campaign.

At a public rally addressed by Gandhi, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot promised two "guarantees" if the Congress is re-elected in the state: cooking gas cylinders for ₹500 to 1.05 crore families and an annual honorarium of ₹10,000 to the woman head of a family.

The party also promised the following commitments if elected:

  1. Annual Honorarium for Women: One of the standout promises was an annual honorarium of ₹10,000 for women who are heads of families in Rajasthan. This initiative aims to empower and support women across the state.
  2. Affordable Cooking Gas: Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot pledged to provide cooking gas cylinders at an economical price of ₹500 to 1.05 crore families in the state. This initiative is designed to make cooking essentials more accessible to the masses.
  3. Women's Reservation Bill: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was part of the rally, highlighted the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament. While it's been approved, the implementation is expected to take 10 years.
  4. Eastern Rajasthan Canal Project: The Eastern Rajasthan Canal Project (ERCP), a critical infrastructure project to enhance irrigation and address drinking water issues in 13 districts of eastern Rajasthan, was emphasized. The Congress aims to expedite its completion.
  5. Affordable LPG Cylinders: Gehlot also committed to providing LPG cylinders at a cost of ₹500 to 1.05 crore families if the Congress retains power in the state.
  6. Grah Laxmi Guarantee: Under the "Grah Laxmi Guarantee" scheme, the woman head of a family will receive an annual installment of ₹10,000, providing financial support to women and families.

Meanwhile, reports suggest BJP is planning a massive outreach programme to take the central government’s welfare schemes to the common people, with a special focus on women and religious leaders.

According to BJP election management committee convener Narayan Pancharia, the party will organise “chaupals”, or corner meetings, across the state starting November 10 to talk about women’s empowerment and will also hold discussions with Hindu seers on “sanatan dharma” as part of its election strategy in Rajasthan.

However, nothing major was mentioned or announced by the party yet.

On the other hand, Congress promised that they will introduce “real Schemes, real Implementation”. While schemes like MGNREGA have benefitted the women, the change in government might change or tweak the schemes. “There are a lot of issues on the working front for women and even though women have benefitted a little bit from these schemes, different parties give us various promises. We know most of them will not be fulfilled,” Mamata who lives in Udaipur said.

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 or MGNREGA, earlier known as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or NREGA, is an Indian social welfare measure that aims to guarantee the 'right to work'.

While the scheme benefits many, Mamta said that many women still struggle to find work. When asked what issues need to be looked at by the candidates, Mamata said that women are not paid fully when they go to work.

“There is exploitation. We are not given food and have to start work early. We do household work and then go for work where we do not get a full salary and our money is cut,” she added.

Authorities, however, blame the women for their “ignorance”. While visiting a police station in Banswara, the Station House Officer, was sitting with a group of men. There was only one woman constable in the vicinity.

The officer was busy with the paperwork and instructing the juniors to strengthen their grip at checkpoints so that alcohol is not transferred. “This is a major issue during elections,” he said, adding,“Bribe and alcohol being given as bribe is at its highest during elections, so we are tightening our grip.”

But when asked about the gender issues in the area, the officer, who did not want to be named, thought a long time before answering. “Well, women are beaten up mostly or they run away from home,” he said. On enquiring what “run away from home” meant, he said they leave homes with young men and come back. “This is very common in the Adivasi community,” the officer said.

Neelu, who works with a policing programme in the same station explained that in Rajasthan women are not allowed to have “freedom” due to which they drop out and start studying so that they can earn money and also step out of the house. “Imagine if there was awareness,” she sighed.

This time, however, the major political parties in Rajasthan, are going to field more women in these elections. Despite tickets still being distributed, many women have been fielded to contest the elections.

The BJP is likely to give more representation to women in Rajasthan. Reports quoting party leaders said that BJP has set aside a higher percentage of tickets for its women leaders. It is to be noted that in earlier Rajasthan elections participation of women candidates has remained abysmally low.

In the past 14 Lok Sabha elections held since 1952, 180 women candidates were in the fray, many among them repeat-nominees, and 28 were elected to the lower house from the state which has 25 constituencies. A report by ‘India Today’ said that in seven Lok Sabha elections held between 1952 and 1989, not more than six women candidates had contested.

The highest 31 women candidates were fielded in 2009 while the figure was just two in 1952 Lok Sabha elections when Sharda Bai and Rani Devi Bhargava contested from Bharatpur-Swai Madhopur and Pali-Sirohi seat respectively. However, security deposits of both the candidates were forfeited as they failed to get one-sixth of the votes polled.

According to a report by Network of Women in media, India (NWMI) the present Assembly has only 27 female legislators, out of a total of 200, which amounts to only 13% representation. The three women ministers in the state cabinet, Mamata Bhupesh, Shakuntala Rawat and Zahida Khan, have been given charge of ministries like Women and Child Welfare, Devasthan and Science and Technology respectively.

Teena pointed out that there is distrust among people when it comes to women candidates. “While the face might be a woman, the benefits are reaped by a man. If a woman wins an election, we see their husbands or relatives even taking decisions on their behalf. Now where will the trust come from,” she asked.

Indira Gandhi Free Smartphone Yojana, implemented just before the elections gave smartphones to women and young girls have come under scrutiny by the opposition. The Gehlot government had said the initiative, ‘Indira Gandhi Free Smartphone Yojana, 2023,’ estimated to cost Rs 12,000 crore, was a way to empower women, especially widowed/single women and female students.

Under the scheme, 1.35 crore women of Chiranjeevi families will be given smartphones with 3 years of internet connectivity. In the first phase, smartphones have been given to 40 lakh women and girl students. Under the scheme, DBT of Rs 6800 is being given to the beneficiaries for each smartphone and initially 20 GB data is being provided.

“We are still concerned about its implementation,” Teena added.

Many of the women that The Citizen spoke to said gender issues, despite various schemes in their name, are not the main issue during elections. “Don’t give us schemes, but free us from this life of suffocation where we have no rights,” Rita said.

According to Election Commission data, the percentage of female voters stood at 64.21% in 2003 and had gone up to 74.67% in 2018, marking a 10% jump. During the same period, the percentage of male voters increased by only 4.85%, from 69.90% in 2003 to 74.75% in 2018. Rajasthan currently has 52.6 million voters in total; male voters number 27.3 million and female voters 25.2 million. The number of third gender voters is about 606.

“Many women, especially in the backward sectors, rarely have any idea about who is contesting the elections,” Manju meanwhile said.

This can also be attributed towards how the candidates approach the women. The Citizen found out that despite the police taking strict actions, alcohol was being served to the villagers, and votes were being asked for in return.

“Most of the men in the village are drunk and we came to know that they are being called by some party people who serve them alcohol,” Rekha said. When asked whether these candidates approach women, Rita said that they just ask them to vote. “On what basis shall we give vote,” she asked.

Women are angry and upset over the years of patriarchy and social structures made to oppress them. They told The Citizen how the situation has not improved over the years and women have to fight for basic issues.

“From education to health, where are women supposed to go? There are no proper provisions and they are used as scapegoats during elections. Women now have brains to understand what politicians are doing” Anita, a resident of Alwar said. She further said that “all political parties are the same when it comes to women issues”.

“We need women empowerment and we need to see work at the grassroot level, only then will we see change,” Teena added, averring that the gap between the people and the administration needs to be filled, not just during elections.

While major issues are ignored, the parties are still trying to attract women voters, which is why end moment schemes and guarantees are being promised.

The Rajasthan Legislative Assembly election is scheduled to be held on November 25 to elect all 200 members of the state's Legislative Assembly. The results will be declared on December 3.