By Vrinda Saxena
As Meghalaya heads for polls on February 27, same as Nagaland, the large gender gap is hugely apparent, and this time looks us straight in the face. Of the total 374 candidates contesting for these seats, only 32 are women. This comes as an even greater surprise when one considers the matrilineal nature of Meghalaya’s society.
Position of the political parties
When BJP Mahila Morcha President Vijaya Rahatkar visited the state last year in May, she said that the party would try and get as many women in the field “just like in Maharashtra and Haryana”. BJP’s Chief of the State Unit Shibun Lyngdoh added, “As a party, we support reservations for women”. Ultimately, only two women, Pelcy Snaitang from Ranikor and Marian Maring from Nongpoh, have got tickets from the party.
The Congress too was not far behind in voicing their support for the cause of gender-related issues, attacking RSS-BJP for allegedly “disempowering women”. The party has fielded seven women this time. In the words of Congress President Rahul Gandhi, the party needs to “balance the number of men they put up to fight polls with the number of women.”
When it comes to analysing the causes behind this skewed political representation, what requires attention is that if it is only economic features that hold back women, or if other sociological factors are a major influence too.
It seems that socio-political institutions like the dorba-shnong (village council), and religious institutions are also to be blamed for inadequate representation of the fairer sex. For instance, the rangbah-shnong (headman) can only be a man. Earlier, the top leadership positions were dominated by men, but the situation has been changing for the better. Positions such as an assistant secretary and treasurer are increasingly seeing women in power. However, finding a woman president and the secretary is still rare.
Matriliny too provides no respite. Through this, only the clan carries the name of the mother, but it does not guarantee proportionate distribution of power into her hands. On the contrary, since co-habitation is par for the course in Meghalaya society, abandonment by the husband immediately implies the women becoming the sole caretaker and bread earner roles for the family. This could be yet another factor in the low visibility of women on the political scene.
Righting a traditional wrong
Yet, we would be mistaken if we took it as only a lack of enough women candidates. Validation by the public, in terms of votes, builds political careers that also determines what the movement for women’s representation achieves in the long run. Sample this: In 1986, when Meghalaya hosted a SAARC ministerial meeting on women in development, the state assembly did not have a single woman legislator. The highest number of women people have ever voted to power in the 60-member state assembly remains a meagre five.
Secretary of women’s relations of Presbyterian Women’s Fellowship of General Assembly, Presbyterian Church of India, Insam Riame says, “The participation of women is increasing. Meghalaya is still better off (in having women pastors). Here women are allowed to be elders. Other parts of Northeast do not even allow that.“
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