The Importance of Being a Female Leader in India


NEW YORK, New York — Maternal malnutrition, child marriage, illiteracy and female unemployment are concentrated in specific countries, one of which is India. Once an aspiring female leader in India overcomes these obstacles and runs for office, she will most likely face harassment and slanderous attacks, making it nearly impossible to continue. JustActions, an organization advocating for an end to global poverty by investing in women and exposing the root causes of women’s underrepresentation in politics. The Borgen Project spoke with Leith Greenslade, CEO of JustActions, to learn why women’s involvement in political processes leads to economic growth and development. In India, women’s political representation is low, but promising legislation along with JustActions’ solutions can change that.

Roadblocks That Aspiring Women Leaders Face

Maternal malnutrition is an early obstacle that disrupts womens’ path to leadership roles. Nutritional deficiencies among women are responsible for around 28.4 million lost years of life, compared to 21.3 million for men. When a woman is malnourished, it restricts her ability to work and earn money. She also struggles to prioritize her children’s health and education, continuing the cycle of poverty. Speaking on maternal malnutrition, Greenslade said, “A lot of women particularly in Asia … have iron deficiencies or they’re underweight and they simply don’t function at the physical level with the energy that’s needed to participate fully in public life … as a leader. I think we often overlook that.”

JustActions lists illiteracy, child marriage and motherhood pay penalties as other roadblocks. Illiteracy disproportionately affects women. Two-thirds of the 770 million adults who can’t read or write are women. Additionally, the International Labor Organization uncovered a motherhood pay penalty in many countries, regardless of income. Women who can’t perform uninterrupted labor due to childcare responsibilities are paid less and lack public power.

Greenslade shared her innovative solution: “So instead of one CEO, why couldn’t we have co-CEOs where two women shared that role? Or instead of the principal of a school, co-principals where two extraordinary women could share that role and raise their kids. I wish we had more shared leadership models. I think women would love that.”

In India, there are universal barriers to women’s leadership.

  1. Half of all young women are anemic and enter pregnancy underweight.
  2. Women make 25% of the income men make and generally take on childcare responsibilities, making it nearly impossible to pursue an ambitious career.
  3. India has significantly increased literacy over the past few decades; however, 313 million citizens are still illiterate. Women make up 59% of this number.

Surviving as a Female Leader in India

Last year, Amnesty International published a report showing that female politicians in India face regular abuse on Twitter. The study found that women who attempt to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party face 56.7% more harassment. “One in every seven tweets that mentioned women politicians in India was ‘problematic’ ‘abusive.'”

Unfortunately, the abuse is not just online. Women who run for office often face sexual harassment and defamatory attacks. Presidents of village councils endure humiliating treatment. Dalit women are often “forced to sit on the floor during meetings or” are prohibited “from unfurling the national flag on Independence Day.”

Gender Quota Laws and JustActions’ Solutions

The Global Gender Gap Index reveals that there’s a 78% gender gap in political empowerment (people “at the highest levels of political decision-making”) and India is no exception. In recent weeks, India has held rolling elections in four state assemblies and one union territory. Only one-tenth of the candidates are women. If the Women’s Reservation Bill passes, “one-third of all seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house,” and all state legislatures will be reserved for women. However, this bill has lingered in the hands of male politicians for decades, waiting to amend the constitution.

JustActions proposes that countries set a goal to have 50% women in government, corporate and university roles by 2030. It encourages “quotas that reserve at least 30-50% of candidate” positions for women. This ensures that the next female leader in India is not alone. The organization calls on specific policies and programs to ensure that public leadership roles are compatible with motherhood.

Even though men dominate higher leadership positions, there are gender quota laws in village council elections. Half of each state’s village council posts are reserved for women. This has helped elect one million female village councilors. After India enacted this gender quota, the country shifted its priorities. Greenslade said, “With more women in leadership positions, all of a sudden clean water, schools and health care became priorities.” The more educated a population is, the stronger its economy. Therefore, having more than one female leader in India mobilizes development.

Connection to the COVID-19 Crisis in India

The most pressing issue in India right now is the shortage of oxygen in hospitals for critically ill COVID-19 patients. The government doesn’t invest in healthcare, so the pandemic hit hard. As more women integrate into the political system, neglected sectors, like the healthcare and school systems, will finally become priorities. This may prevent the next public health crisis and mobilize developmental efforts.

Crucial Legislative Solution

The bipartisan Girls LEAD Act will increase female participation in democracy, human rights and governance. Legislation such as the Girls LEAD Act will help increase the number of leadership roles women hold, a goal that JustActions endorses. Through U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, the Act will address barriers to female political participation and invest in female-driven civil society organizations.

Female inclusion in peace negotiations decreases corruption and enhances living standards in the education and healthcare sectors, according to research. Greenslade touched on this, saying, “When there are women around the peace-negotiating table after the conflict, the peace is more likely to hold for a period of time. And I firmly believe that there would be more peace if more women were in positions of leadership in all countries.”

Ending issues like maternal malnutrition and illiteracy will increase female leadership, and it works both ways. If all women receive a guaranteed education and a leadership opportunity, the rate of childhood marriage and violence against women will decrease and more societies will become democracies.

It takes inhumane strength and persistence to become a female leader in India, but the Girls LEAD Act and organizations like JustActions are working to make it easier. As more women in India become politicians, the country’s economic growth and development will prosper.

Rebecca Pomerantz
Photo: Flickr


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