Women’s voices: A faint echo in the distant hills

By Swarna Rajagopalan

As voting gets underway in Uttarakhand, I embark upon an utterly unscientific survey of news reportage on the Assembly election campaign there. My methodology is chosen for its expediency—a simple Google News search for ‘Uttarakhand elections women’ and a review of a few pages of links. What did the English news media cover during this election season in this state?

Women in the elections

The lowest hanging fruit in gender aware reporting of elections has got to be the headcount—how many women were nominated? In a January 31, 2017 report for the Times of India, Shivani Azad however, goes beyond the immediate numbers to provide a great deal of context. She reminds us that most grassroots movements in Uttarakhand were led by women. She tells us that the state has 50 percent reservations at the panchayat level—so there should be a good pipeline for women leaders with experience. Despite this, out of 722 candidates, only 80 are women. Interviews with local women activists and professors explore reasons for this—patriarchal attitudes, discrimination and political violence.

The Times of India carried a report on February 15, 2017 about six constituencies where women voters outnumber men: Kedarnath, Pauri, Chaubattakhal, Dharchula, Didihat and Dwarahat. There are almost an equal number of women and men voters in Devprayag, Karnprayag, Pratap Nagar and Kapkot. In Pauri Garhwal, a Hindustan Times report tells us, that there is a 20 percentage point difference in literacy, but women turn out in larger numbers to vote. (Neither report states why this distinctive demographic ratio exists.) Even in these districts, women are rarely nominated although campaigns have focused on women’s associations like the local Mahila Mangal Dal.

An article on key political figures in Uttarakhand features one woman—Indira Hridayesh, a Congress MLA with clout, referred to as “iron lady.”  A report on Kedarnath places the rivalry between two very similar female candidates in the spotlight. DNA carried a report by Amita Shah on the former Maharani of Tehri, Mala Raja Laxmi Shah, who features on state BJP posters everywhere.

The Times of India carried a report by Seema Sharma on Feb 15, 2017, Uttarakhand polls: Feisty women’s party fights booze, about the Prajamandal Party, founded by women in Maletha, Tehri Garhwal to fight elections on local issues. Virtually all the reports in the English media on this party feature in the Times of India. What happened to everyone else?

The seeds of the party were sown when these women spearheaded a people’s movement and resisted mining in their area. That was in 2014-2015. That drove away stone crushing units causing dust pollution and harming the crops of the villagers, most of them farmers.

Emboldened by their success, they set up their party last year. The foremost problem they identified, says Rameshwari Devi, general secretary, was alcoholism. “Women do all the work -at home and in the fields -and they are beaten up by their drunkard husbands. Youngsters too are getting addicted. The problem has become grave with the state government opening liquor vends on the village outskirts. Prohibition is our top poll promise,” she says.

The women-led party is online—has a website that lists a mobile contact number and a Facebook Page. The website has an ‘about’ page, a media page, a page for donations and contact information. There is also a crystal clear summary of their platform and the intention to contest elections for ten Assembly seats. Despite this, the English media either did not learn about this citizens’ initiative or considered it unimportant.

Issues

Another report by Seema Sharma from Devprayag draws attention to the discrepancy between what politicians are talking about in campaign speeches—development and education—and the environmental degradation and water-related issues people are concerned about. Water seepage, river mining and poaching are other contentious issues. In the Tehri area, accessibility is a serious issue and Shivani Azad’s report mentions both the plight of pregnant women and children. Maternal mortality is an issue given the difficult of reaching hospitals and there is a tendency to ignore minor ailments in children. Mobile connectivity is another issue.

The vague term ‘women’s empowerment’ is a standard-issue feature in political manifestos. The Congress here is promising 33% job reservation to women in the government sector. The BJP has promised a cash award to girl children and to expand the scope of the widow’s pension. But it stops there. Liquor is used as a voting incentive, and the strong opposition to it by women across the villages of Uttarakhand is unheeded.

On the whole, in Uttarakhand, Times of India reporters (especially Seema Sharma and Shivani Azad) paid more attention to women and their concerns than did other English sources. Hindustan Times, Firstpost, Scroll and DNA at least carried one story each but where was the rest of the English media? Why are there no gender stories by male reporters? While women were sought out for quotes on ‘women’s’ stories, in general reportages, more quotes came from men—who assume expertise and to whom it is attributed routinely. But women at least feature in a few reports; other genders are completely invisible.

As some write, women have played an important part in the grassroots movements of the region. Come election time, it should have been a no-brainer to look for their presence and voices. The fact that only one paper seems to have reported on the regional party founded by women is shameful. It’s time to sensitise the editors of major Indian newspaper to gender issues.

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