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Discerning Causality in Women Empowerment

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There is no causal relationship between grassroots women empowerment and top leadership, in Nepal or elsewhere, argues AVANTIKA REGMI. She calls for a bottom-up approach.

All over the world and closer to home in South Asia, women
are increasingly occupying positions of power.

But is there any causal relationship between women empowerment at the grassroots and women empowerment at the top political positions and vice versa? Do women come to power because they have become more powerful at the grassroots level? If not, do women become powerful at the grassroots if person(s) sitting at the top are women?

Let us take a look at some powerful women and try to understand the reasons behind their real or perceived powers:

In the United States, Senator Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner of the resurgent Democratic Party and may soon become the Democratic Presidential nominee. And if she wins, then President Hillary Clinton will, in deed, become the most powerful person in the world and, for the first time in its history, the US will have a female President.

The Philippines has already seen two women Presidents – the current one is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the former was Corazon Aquino. In fact, Aquino was the first female President in Asia. She came to power after the autocratic and corrupt Marcos regime collapsed in 1986.

Closer to home, in Bangladesh and Pakistan, females have been actually ruling the roost. In Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed played the game of musical chairs for the top post until recently, and until the military got fed up with their way of ruling. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto became the premier of the country not once, but twice.

Sri Lanka has its own distinction. It has been fortunate to have produced the world’s first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She served as PM three times. Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was President for almost ten years (1994-2005).

India, which already has made history in terms of electing a woman premier (Indira Gandhi ruled India for fifteen years: 1966-1977, 1980-1984), may soon have a woman president. Prathibha Patil, who resigned as the Governor of Rajasthan, has the support of an inarguably the most powerful woman in India-- Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Patil is the ruling UPA government’s presidential nominee. If the Indian opposition does not rock the boat , Patil is all set to become the first female President of the Republic of India.

Uttar Pradesh, one of the most populated and politically important states in north India, is led by Mayawati, the chief minister. She is a national leader of the dalits, the oppressed and the untouchables. Endearingly called “bahenji” (sister) by all, from her father to her followers, the demunitive Mayawati is the only representative of her gender brigade on the dais when she attends functions or addresses rallies.

So the question is this: Are these women really occupying the top post because of women empowerment taking place at the grassroots level?

Let’s look at each case. Hillary Clinton is the wife of a very popular, two-time US President Bill Clinton. Arroyo is the daughter of a former President of the Philippines and Corazon Aquino is the widow of the assassinated leader, Benigno Aquino. In Bangladesh one is the widow of the former army dictator and the other the daughter of Bangladesh’s father of the nation. Khalida Zia became the Prime Minister after the assassination of her husband General Zia ur Rahman, who was also the President of Bangladesh. And Hasina Wajed is the daughter of Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman. Bandaranaike was the wife of Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Solomon Bandaranaike. So, Chandrika Kumaratunga is daughter of two former PMs. Behenji Mayawati is the protégée of Kanshi Ram, and Sonia Gandhi is simply the wife of Rajiv Gandhi, and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, both former PMs. And finally, if Pratibha Patil becomes India’s first female president of India, it would only be so because she is a consensus candidate and not necessarily the best candidate.

The purpose of pointing out these facts is simply to show that these women occupy/occupied power not due to women empowerment at the grassroots. They simply got hoisted because of powerful fathers or husbands or mentors. Many had not even risen from the political ranks and some were even homemakers who suddenly were thrust into the role of leaders. In other words, women occupying top positions may not be an indicator of women empowerment in the true sense of the word, at least not in South Asia.

What about this anti-thesis: Does women empowerment at the highest echelon of power (President, PM, CM, MP) reflect in the empowerment of the average woman vis-à-vis men?

In other words, when these women (hoisted to top positions or otherwise) come to power do they ensure that women empowerment occurs at the grassroots level? Do women at the grassroots level become empowered after getting women leaders, in fundamental areas like economic participation and decision making, ownership of properties, accesses to resources, in issues related to women’s reproductive health and fertility choices and educational attainment, amongst other issues?

Before analyzing this aspect, let me point out that in the case of Nepal we have not seen any woman at the highest positions of power yet, but occasionally we have seen one or two names popping up in a list of predominatly a daura-suruwal-clad jumbo cabinets. Pressure is mounting on the legislature to ensure a sizable percentage of women at high levels – in the parliament, in the upcoming Constituent Assembly and ministerial berths and all other political institutions. People have also come up with the proposition of 50-50 male-female representations– both in the cabinet positions and in political committees. The interim constitution has stipulated 33 percent of women representation in the reinstated parliament. But the current female representation is only 17 percent. This 17 representation, too, would have been far less if the number of female representatives from the Maoists’ side had not been 40 percent of their total size.

It is clear that in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, women have occupied the top positions for relatively longer durations than in many other countries. On the other hand, women representation in their parliaments or lower houses has been significantly low: Bangladesh at 15.1 percent, Sri Lanka at 4.1 percent and India at 8.3 percent. Pakistan fares better than the rest with women’s representation at 21.3 percent in its parliament (source: Interparliamentary Union Web site). So, its clear that having women at top positions does not automatically lead to an increase in the number of women representatives in the parliament.

But it may still be possible that women in the top posts in nations like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could have empowered the average women and vital indicators at the grassroots should reflect it. Let’s check that.

The Gender Gap Index, which quantifies the gap between men and women in four fundamental categories, is the best such indicator. It looks at the differences in males and females with respect to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment for 115 nations. These 115 nations comprise 90 percent of the world population (Source: The Global Gender Gap Report, 2006).

There are five types of ranking in the Gender Gap Index – (1) Overall ranking; (2) Economic participation and opportunity ranking; (3) Education attainment ranking; (4) Health and survival ranking; and (5) Political empowerment ranking. These rankings open a window to see how well Nepali women fare with respect to women in other nations in our neighborhood and elsewhere who have/had women leaders at the top position.

Not surprisingly, we land at the bottom of the heap with an overall ranking of 111 out of 115. This means Nepali women are really discriminated against, and men in Nepal are far ahead than women. In all the other four ranking categories we are at the bottom ten as well. Bangladesh notches far better than us with overall ranking of 91 while Pakistan is ranked immediately below us at 112. India’s overall ranking is 98 and Sri Lanka is way ahead of any South Asian country at number 13. The Philippines ranked 6 and fares far better than the US (ranked 23). So, this means that even though India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had women at the top position there is no causal relationship between women holding the top position and overall women empowerment at the grassroots level.

Interestingly, however, the political empowerment ranking (uses 3 independent variables – ratio of women in parliament over men; ratio of women having cabinet post over men; ratio of number of years a nation led by female over male) shows something else. We, of course, are ranked very low at 102. We score better than Saudi Arabia! No surprises that Bangladesh is ranked 17, Pakistan 37 and Sri Lanka 7. The Philippines ranks number 16 and the US ranks 66.

So, did political empowerment of women reflect in economic empowerment and education empowerment and health and survival of women? Bangladesh stands at 17 in terms of women political empowerment but its ranking in other vital rankings is nothing to be proud of. So is the case of Pakistan and India.

The US, which ranks 66 in political empowerment of women, however, ranks very high in the economic participation and opportunity ranking (ranked 3) and heath and survival ranking (ranked 1) although its ranking in education attainment ranking is not so good at 66. The performance of the Philippines is far better in all the other three categories than the rest of the nations compared in this article.

So, what can be expected if reservation is made for women in politics in Nepal? Certainly, Nepali women will get politically empowered and the country will significantly improve its standing on the Gender Gap Index. Women would move shoulder-to-shoulder with men in shaping the political destiny of the nation.

But this will not automatically empower women to become economically independent. This means they may have to continue to depend on their fathers before marriage and husbands after marriage, for protection. It also means that merely an increase in the number of women in Nepal’s parliament does not mean one should expect that the girl child will go to the same good quality school as the boy child goes. Also, don’t expect girls to get the same quality of health care and food as the boys.

To conclude, a top-down approach of women empowerment by reserving seats in political bodies is an artificially pumped up approach, and is all set to make no improvement in the lot of our women where it matters the most: economic independence, education, health and food.

Political reservation only makes good headlines and brings good mileage. What is really required is a bottom-up approach. Instead of political reservations and controversies surrounding it, major thrust should be on developing policies for the education of the girl child and initiatives to bring economic independence to women. This does not require filling up the parliament with women as there does not appear to be any causal relationship between the two (women in power and overall women empowerment). The fact is, we cannot deny that men members of parliament can ensure women empowerment.

Women have to rely on their own steam. Only then, over time, there will be a gradual but permanent increase in the representation of females in seats of high power.

Previous articles by the author:

* The New Nepal: Enter Ethnic Politics?, Jan 14, 2007
* Against Early Disarmament, July 27, 2006

Avantika Regmi can be reached at


A very convincing argument. I agree that reservation is a patronizing appraoch and in the long run it will only add more injury on the lot of women.

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