Do women political leaders help women?

This is a timely paper given today’s election results. We have seen two women emerge as leaders in the state elections results – Mamta Banerjee in West Bengal and Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu. Both have clean sweeped. It is not new for Jayalalitha as she has been the CM before but completely a change for West Bengal which has lived in communist rule for 34 years.

So what would one expect from a women leader? One of the first thing would be improvement in women security. As a woman it is a shame to live freely in this country. You have fear lurking in most corners of the country. As a woman you would ideally want to improve things somewhat for woman. Reduce crime rates against women, punish the culprits severely, make the police more sensitive and severe in case of women related crimes etc.

This paper by Lakshmi Iyer, Anandi Mani (University of Warwick), and Prachi Mishra and Petia Topalova (IMF) looks at these issues at a village level which has a female council head. Here is a nice discussion of the paper.

India is a country where many women struggle for survival from the day they are born. Girls in India are less likely to be breastfed than boys, for instance, and less likely to be immunized.

But India also has the highest number of elected female representatives in the world. A 1993 constitutional amendment meant to broaden the scope and accessibility of democracy called for the creation of directly elected local councils at the district, intermediate, and village levels, and mandated that one-third of all council seats be filled by women. The amendment is an ongoing policy experiment of sorts, on an epic scale.

“If you have a local leader who is from your social category, you are probably more likely to approach him or her for help.”

As Harvard Business School professor Lakshmi Iyer and her colleagues discovered, it’s been producing encouraging results. Their research suggests that disadvantaged or minority groups in India whose members are elected to local governments have not only more of a “political voice” but also more access to and better results from the justice system.

They have collected data from past 22 years on reported crimes in a variety of gender-specific and gender-nonspecific categories. The findings are plain surprising.

  • First instead of declining one sees reported  crimes against women rising (which is not surprising reading the newspapers everyday).
  • The authors thought this would be because of backlash against women leaders with men committing more crime.
  • The authors probed more and found the rise is not because of actual increase in crime against women.
  • It is because women are now reporting crimes more as they are feeling confident that some action will be taken and further atrocities will not be done. As they have a woman leader they report crimes more
  • Hence they have become more empowered to act

Initially Iyer and her colleagues considered that the increase in crime might be due to a backlash effect; perhaps people were angry at seeing women in office and retaliated. But further research indicated that crimes against women probably weren’t increasing. For one, murder rates of women did not increase. (Murder is one crime that always tends to be reported, says Iyer. “It’s just very hard to hide a dead body.”) And neither gender-neutral crimes (such as robberies or arson), nor crimes in which the victims were identified as male, showed any notable increase.

So the observed increase was likely caused by a greater number of crimes being recorded, either because more women victims were willing to come forward to report crimes, or because the police were more likely to give them a sympathetic hearing because of the increase in women’s political representation.

The findings are interesting as basically village councils don’t have power to influence police.

In another survey that looked at people’s perceptions of the police, respondents said they believed that bringing a local influential person with them to report a crime would significantly increase the likelihood of a police response.

“When people were asked who is the leader you would most likely go to if you had a problem, most respondents said it would be a local village council member,” says Iyer. “It ties in with this idea that if you have a local leader who is from your social category, you are probably more likely to approach him or her for help.”

(Interestingly, local councils have no formal power over the police, who are under state government control. “There are no formal ways for them to punish a policeman if he refuses to help a crime victim,” Iyer says. “So the fact that we see these effects despite this lack of formal power is very interesting. It speaks to these more informal ways of influence.”)

Similar results are seen for disadvantaged social class in India: the Scheduled Castes. Though weaker than the results seen in women. Finally:

Overall the findings suggest that women (or other minorities) might be better able to maximize their voice by increasing their representation more broadly, rather than targeting a few high-level positions.

Informal ways of influence are of great interest to Iyer, an economist who studies the intersection of politics and economics in developing countries, examining how distribution of power impacts policy and social groups.

“I don’t think we can understand the effects of economic policy without understanding the political setting,” she says. “We can propose any number of potentially useful policies, but unless you understand the political setting, there’s very little chance of them working.

Hmmm..Pretty much what others and this blog has been saying.

I am wondering how the results would hold for states? Look at Delhi for instance. It has a woman chief minister for 12 years now but has it improved for women? One keeps reading how bad things are in Nation’s capital in terms of women security. And then all these acts that lead to more women representation do not make sense as if a nation’s capital which houses all these women leaders is  not safe, what does one expect from others? Or can one say things would have been even worse if it did not have a woman CM? Are women in Delhi reporting more crime because of woman CM? It will be interesting to look at the above study from the state level perspective.

We also have UP which has a woman chief minister and now West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Both TN and UP had the same women as CMs even earlier. Did their tenure help earlier? Do we have some hope from these now?

If the research shows it has not helped then these leaders need to be questioned. They are the best bet to improve things given the powers a CM has. Delhi experience clearly needs more explanation. It does not look good at all.

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