Disconnected and Uninformed: 
Dissecting and Dismantling India’s Political Gender Gap

Despite the growing focus on female empowerment in the developing world, many women remain largely excluded from the political process and a substantial gender gap in political participation persists today. Across the globe, women account for only 22% of members of parliament, up from 10% in 1995.[1]  In parts of India, less than 20% of rural women have ever made a claim on local government as compared to nearly 50% of men[2] and only 12% of members of parliament are women (see Figure below). Yet political inclusion is one of the fundamental tenets of democracy and furthermore, this is in spite of evidence that when women are actively engaged in politics, public goods are allocated differently and development outcomes improve.[3] 

Ghoda Dongri block of Madhya Pradesh exemplifies women’s political behavior in India. Only 9% of women have ever contacted their local leader and an even fewer - 3% - have made a claim on that leader. Most women are uninformed about their rights as citizens and as a result believe politics to be the man’s space. Women rarely run for election except when the seat is reserved for a woman, and even then most female leaders act as façade for the real political leader, their husbands. However, in neighboring Kesla block women have become a political force to be reckoned with. In the most recent local elections in spring of 2015, 22 of 28 elected positions were won by women, despite only one third of these seats being reserved for women. The women of Kesla have submitted over 1,900 applications for government services to Panchayat (local) and Janpad (block) officials and have succeeded in over 70% of these applications. Women not only attend Gram Sabha (local council) meetings but are active, coordinated, and engaged participants, often relegating their male counterparts to the back of the room and leveraging their strength as a collective group of women. Further, Kesla looks the same as Ghoda Dongri in terms of demographic or economic indicators. Yet, politically Kesla looks strikingly different.

How did the women of Kesla -- despite similar conditions of poverty and deprivation – become active political agents and overcome the high barriers to entry into political decision-making and political action? If not income, what are the mechanisms that engender this political action? Once women become active participants in local politics, how do their interaction with the political system differ from those of men? Having been excluded from traditional political networks, how do women organize politically and what does this mean for the execution and performance of local politics?

My dissertation seeks to better understand why women in India are particularly disengaged from politics and to identify the mechanisms through which the prevailing political gender gap is reduced. In doing so, my dissertation evaluates the mechanisms by which the state is strengthened through increased political integration of women in India by detailing the oft-unconsidered consequences of development interventions for political behavior and local politics. Additionally my dissertation evaluates how women who have become active political agents organize politically and are received and resisted by traditional political networks in order to present a novel theory of programmatic transition through the incorporation of outsiders.

I develop a theory of political behavior which sustains a gender-exclusionary political equilibrium. This equilibrium is rooted in a system of “family-centered” clientelism, where households coordinate their behavior and men act as the political agents of the household. I then present one channel through which we may observe a shift towards a gender-inclusive equilibrium: access to economic networks of other women. I argue that participation in networks of other women presents women with the opportunity to collectively coordinate and reduce inequalities in political resources. This will only happen, however, when these networks are activated towards political engagement. I further argue that when women are actively engaged in local politics, and particularly when they form a critical mass of engaged citizens, government performance improves, as women are more likely to demand programmatic policies as opposed to traditional clientelistic policies. I argue that these outcomes are the result of women’s experiences as political outsiders and the comparative advantages of their network for the provision of public goods. 

To empirically fill this gap in our knowledge, I first use original as well as national survey data from India to identify the general determinants of political engagement for rural women. Second, I test the ability of economic networks to induce women’s political participation and the contingency of this effect on the political mobilization of these networks. To do so I conduct two field experiments – a natural experiment and a randomized control trial – that address two specific questions: 1) Does access to social networks catalyze women to become active citizens by providing them with the capacity and tools for collective mobilization and the development of political skills? and 2) Does mobilizing these social networks towards politics through network-wide gender and politics trainings further activate these social networks and  increase women’s political participation? Third, I use primary survey evidence and a set of survey experiments to better understand how women and men organize politically and interact with the local political system, including evaluating their political networks, political demands and propensity towards clientelism and corruption. Ultimately, this dissertation seeks to shed deeper light on women’s political behavior and critically evaluate the link between economic growth and political inclusion. 

[1]   Inter-parliamentary Union, Women in National Parliaments, 2016.

[2]  Primary survey evidence from a survey of 5,337 women and 2,632 men in rural                                                 Madhya Pradesh conducted in 2016.

[3]  Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra, and Esther Duflo. "Women as policy makers: Evidence from a randomized         policy experiment in India." Econometrica 72.5 (2004): 1409-1443.