Women running for India‘s parliament are barely a blip in the world’s biggest democratic exercise, which began last week and will play out in seven rounds, with results expected on May 23.
Candidate lists show that women now make up just 11.8 percent of the total candidates nominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and 12.8 percent of the total candidates nominated by the main opposition Congress.
In a country led for years by a woman, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, both major parties have long pledged to back laws that aim to reserve a third of parliamentary seats for women, but the number of women they have nominated this year roughly match those in the 2014 election.
“Very few women are asked [to stand for election],” said Santosh Ahlawat, the only woman MP from Rajasthan, and a member of BJP.
“I don’t know why women are punished. Are they punished for being women?” said Ahlawat, who was not nominated this year.
Only 209 women are contesting in the first two phases of the election, that is roughly seven percent of 2,856 candidates, an analysis by the nonprofit Association for Democratic Reforms showed.
That low figure has prompted criticism that the major parties have once again missed a chance to redress the gender imbalance.
“Patriarchal systems have been in place for ages, it is not going to be easy to dismantle them without institutional support,” said Lalitha Kumaramangalam, a BJP leader and former chief of a national panel that fights for women’s rights.
Congress representatives have also said that a law would be required to boost the number of women MPs.
Women make up 430 million of India’s 900 million eligible voters. In some northern states, such as Himachal Pradesh, with a population of nearly seven million, neither Congress nor the BJP has nominated a woman candidate.
Voters in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, together home to a population double that of France, will choose from just six women candidates from the BJP and eight from the Congress.
By contrast, more than 80 men from both parties are running in the two states.
Women are often nominated only from constituencies they are likely to lose, said Shahida Kamal of the communist party that rules Kerala, a tactic that suggests parties only run them for the sake of appearance.
“The Congress gave me a seat in the Kasargod constituency in 2009, where the party had not won in 25 years,” said Kamal, whose party has nine MPs.
Smaller parties are doing better at appointing women candidates, however.
The Trinamool Congress, led by influential female leader Mamata Banerjee, which rules West Bengal, has nominated women in 17 of its 42 parliamentary seats, or more than two-fifths.
“We do not need to wait for a law to do what is right – there is nothing stopping you,” said Mohua Moitra, a spokeswoman of the party who is also running for election.
Her party is now the fourth-largest in parliament, with 33 members.
In neighbouring Odisha, another regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, has nominated women in a third of seats.