To ensure women equality in the political sphere, the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments ensure reservation of not less than one-third of the total number of seats for women in panchayats and municipalities. But the implementation of these laws in the actual sense is still to be achieved. At many times, it has happened when a male person cannot stand for elections because of reservation for women, they put forward women of their family to contest for election. These women who stand for elections in place of their male relatives, in most of the times, are identified and recognized as wife, sister, etc., rather than their individuality as a woman.
Here comes the idea of proxy women which refers to those women who serve as ‘proxies’ for their male relatives by exercising only nominal power whereas the real power is exercised by the men. They do not hold the actual decision-making power as their decisions are always directed and influenced by the men or they just present the decisions of the male relatives. They even do not enjoy their own identity and recognition; rather they are considered by everybody as someone’s wife, sister and so on. Their role as political representatives does not have much significance; they maintain their loyalty to their family than to their constituencies. It is not even surprising in many places if people are served by a male relative when a woman candidate is elected.
Hence, in the process, proxy women serve the patriarchal interest of their family. They do not have any power except their formal signature. This issue of proxy women is very beautifully described in a recent web series titled Panchayat where the husband of the current village sarpanch exercises all the actual powers instead of his wife, the formal sarpanch. In fact, in the days of national importance, the flag is hoisted by him instead of his wife. The woman, who is the real sarpanch, does not know how to hoist the flag; she does not know the National Anthem; she is not aware about the responsibilities and duties of a sarpanch and, above all, she is okay with all these things. Everybody considers the husband of the sarpanch as the pradhan.
The working of women in politics as proxies is also supported by some other factors. Many women, who do not have any idea about politics, stand for elections, either voluntarily or forcefully. The male party members also prefer such woman candidates as they can use their lack of knowledge to make them subordinate to them. So, within the party itself, they feel inferior. Same things happen in the Legislative Assembly also. They do not include these women or they do not give importance on the opinion of these women in their major decisions regarding policymaking or in party-related issues. In this way, these women merely act as proxies in politics. They do not enjoy the real power, position and recognition.
This issue of proxy women is one of the main reasons behind the failure in achieving gender equality in political participation and the decision-making process. Unfortunately, at many times, women are forced against their will to contest elections as the male persons of their family cannot stand for elections because of reservation for women. Although in the formal sphere, the participation of women increases, but in the actual sense, the scenario remains almost the same as these proxy women represent not their own views and decisions, they just represent the decisions of their male relatives. Also, in many cases, the male members are exploiting this provision by presenting their female family members for their self-interest. Thus, men subvert the whole idea of women reservation.
Therefore, there is a close connection between the issue of proxy women and inequality in participation of women in politics and decision-making. The provision of reservation of seats for women increases women’s participation only in formal sense, but if we go beyond, we can see very less effect of it in the actual sense. So, to alleviate women inequality in the real sense and to give them power to participate in policymaking so that they can decide for themselves, the issue of proxy women has to be solved. Both the people and government have responsibilities here. Firstly, the women representatives have to be aware about their powers and responsibilities. They have to know the fact that they are exploited by their male members and they should not normalize these things; they have to raise their voice for themselves. Secondly, the government should be interested in implementing these provisions in the actual sense. They should inquire whether women get the power in reality or not; whether they are participating for themselves in the decision-making process or not. Thirdly, people have to be aware about the real interest behind these provisions. They have to know that women as individuals are standing for elections, rather than as someone’s wives, sister, etc. Women’s individuality should be respected and recognized. In many cases, we have seen that the women representatives are introduced through the identity of their male relatives which has to stop. The government should focus on reforms from within rather than focusing merely on paper reforms. Then only the issue of women empowerment will see a positive way.