The Platform


Because women make up such a huge chunk of the electorate in South Asia, their engagement is fundamentally important.

In 2024, more than half of the world’s population is going to the polls, with citizens of South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan having recently shaped their governments through the ballot. In India, a staggering 986 million voters are gearing up to participate in the Lok Sabha elections scheduled from late April to early June.

This raises a fundamental question about the political future of the region: will the electorate be able to ensure that a substantial number of women are elected to parliament, thereby making governance structures and politics more inclusive, or will the gender gap persist, undermining the potential of women as a sizeable demographic and a crucial electoral bloc?

Historically, South Asia’s political landscape, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, has been dominated by cult and dynastic politics. Several leading female politicians, who have governed their respective countries entered the political arena buoyed by strong family backgrounds.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first woman to be elected as prime minister of any country when she led her party to victory in 1960 in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Indira Gandhi led India as prime minister for a cumulative span of 16 years across two tenures. Benazir Bhutto was a two-time prime minister of Pakistan and the first female leader in the Muslim world. Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh has emerged as a formidable political figure, serving as prime minister for an unprecedented five terms, including four consecutive ones since 2009.

Although their political journeys were intertwined with dynastic politics, their demonstrated leadership shattered the myth that women could not lead in patriarchal societies. They remain iconic figures in the history of South Asian democracy. Yet, their rule, while iconic, has not significantly altered the course of mainstreaming women in politics and governance; it has, however, emboldened women to assert their rights more forcefully.

Despite social, cultural, political, and structural barriers, political systems in South Asian countries have been slow to create an enabling political and electoral environment for women. However, over the past decades, burgeoning rights movements and the amplification of women’s voices advocating for their representation in parliaments and decision-making structures have led to constitutional provisions that grant women representation in national parliaments and state assemblies through certain quotas.

Nonetheless, women remain underrepresented as their share in politics and governance fails to reflect their sizeable population. The average representation of women in parliaments hovers between 19% to 25%. In Bangladesh’s Sangsad, the proportion of women has risen to 20% of the lower house. Sri Lanka, however, exhibits a stark gender imbalance with only 5% of parliamentary seats occupied by women. In Pakistan’s recent elections, women’s presence did not exceed 16%. Nepal’s constitution is an encouraging outlier, reserving 33% of seats for women.

Despite significant population numbers and a large voter base, the overall representation of women and the persistent gender gap in South Asian countries paints a somber picture in the realm of politics and governance. To enhance women’s representation in national parliaments, a certain number of reserved seats for women is allocated to winning political parties, yet the ratio remains disappointingly low. The introduction of quotas, alongside majoritarian electoral systems, has made political systems somewhat more diverse but not fully inclusive or representative; comprehensive policy actions are essential to integrate women into parliamentary politics and governance effectively.

As populations grow, women are becoming an increasingly significant group on the political stage, with women in India notably emerging as a distinct and crucial voting bloc. The consistently high turnouts of female voters in recent state assembly elections signal a major shift in India’s electoral landscape.

It is projected that women voters will outnumber male voters in India starting in 2029. The rising engagement of women in the political arena of India over the past decade was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the women’s turnout was marginally higher at 67.18% compared to 67.01% for men. This marked increase in women’s turnout in 23 state assembly elections over the past five years—women’s turnout outpaced that of men in 18 states—is a trend that cannot be ignored.

India’s electoral body is currently preparing for elections later this year, with a voter registry that includes 471 million women, 497 million men, and a significant number of third-gender individuals, all set to exercise their civic duties. Political analysts assert that the number of women voters has never been as pronounced as it is today, and women voters are being increasingly acknowledged as a constituency capable of swaying electoral outcomes. The psychological impact of the women voters has become more pronounced and significant with the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which aims to increase women’s seats in parliament and state assemblies to 33%. This bill underscores the growing acknowledgment of women as a potent political force. However, it will not apply to the 2024 elections but will take effect after 2029.

The rising number of women voters and the high turnout in elections are becoming decisive factors in electoral politics. This upsurge may compel male-dominated mainstream political parties to ensure more gender parity in representation and empowerment in the future. During election campaigns in South Asia, particularly in India, governments and mainstream political parties have been observed attempting to woo women voters with women-centric promises and social protection subsidies.

In various states of India, women voters have been targeted with subsidized offers such as gas cylinders, electricity, smartphones, nutritious food and rations, quotas in government jobs, and monthly cash assistance to poor and middle-income households. Women activists critique these women-centric subsidies as reflective of patriarchal and feudal thinking, presuming that women will cast their votes in response to such incentives. The question then is how most political parties perceive women: do they regard them as equal citizens, or merely as recipients of charity?

In the recent elections in Pakistan, all mainstream political parties, in defiance of legal requirements, conspicuously failed to allocate at least 5% of seats to women candidates for contestation on general seats. This juncture is critical for governments and mainstream political parties of South Asian countries to observe and recognize the changing electoral landscapes with the emergence of the women’s constituency. There is an urgent need to foster gender equality and increase women’s representation in all democratic structures, including within the political party framework, policies, and actions. Legislation must be introduced in the respective constitutions and legal frameworks, aligned with international instruments and the framework of Sustainable Development Goals, to enable women to participate in political systems in a dignified manner and without the fear of gender-based violence.

Ikram Ali, an alumnus of Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad with a Master’s degree in History, is a seasoned expert in election management and political reforms. With a rich tapestry of experience spanning over 15 years, Ikram has honed his expertise through collaborations with preeminent global organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and Democracy Reporting International (DRI), advocating for comprehensive political and electoral reforms in Pakistan. As a testament to his commitment to enhancing democratic frameworks, Ikram is a certified BRIDGE (Building Resources in Democracy, Governance, and Elections) Workshop Facilitator, specializing in capacity building across democratic institutions. His dedication to fostering governance excellence was further recognized in 2018 when he completed the prestigious South and Central Asia Legislative Fellows Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, affirming his role as a distinguished scholar and practitioner in the realm of democracy and governance.