Across India, there is a stipulation that 30% of all elected officials (at the local level) are women. In West Bengal, this quota is at 50%. What does this mean? It means that democracy in India reflects the reality of the country’s demographics—far more than government does in the United States.
If you talk to the average Indian (especially in my circle), reservations are considered regressive as a social policy. Upper-class upper-caste Indians believe that reservations impede their own success. I disagree—reservations work like affirmative action; there are a few people who are able to “play” the system but on the whole, the policy results in more equality.
A few weeks ago, I was able to visit with a women’s nonprofit, Nishtha, down in Baruipur, West Bengal. There, I was able to really understand what these reservations mean in action. I attended a community meeting about reporting sexual assault and domestic violence—over 100 women attended the proceedings, several of them elected officials. These women were brave as they shared their stories and demanded change in the system. Though my Bangla is not yet at a high level, I could feed off the energy in the room—it was palpable.
In the reservation system, women might take on an elected role at their father’s request- to continue their family political lineage. However, it is unfair to assume that these women never gain a voice of their own. The elected position brings with it agency and soon, elected women officials are speaking out on behalf of their own interests too. Numerous studies have shown that women govern differently—allocating more money to families and children, prioritizing social schemes, etc.-and this difference is key to representing all voices in a democracy.
This got me thinking—why don’t we have reservations in government in the United States? We talk so often about how women are less inclined to run for office due to a number of social and economic factors—wouldn’t this policy be the simplest way to ensure that our government reflects our country? I could see this panning out in several ways:
- A 50% reservation policy for the U.S. Senate. Because Senators are elected on a state-wide basis, it’s easy to make this happen—compared to within the House where it could become messy to allot 50% of a state’s congressional districts to women. Every state has a “male” and “female” senatorial slot and only men can run for the male slot (and vise versa).
- Reservations at the state level! State governments can enforce their own laws—and this would be a great way to phase in more democratic representation across the country. In Oregon for example, I could see this happening in the State Congress—there are half as many State Senators as Congressmen. If every District mandated one female and one male congressmen, we could be well on our way to (more) equal representation.
- Rotational system for Mayoral elections. I’m imagining something where if a city has a male mayor one term—the next term the office must be occupied by a woman. This might get complicated with reelection and other limits, but I could see this working in even a Deputy Mayor/Mayor situation where we must always have a man/woman team at work. Can you imagine how much more inclined women would be to run if this were the case? I know that I would feel encouraged.
I could see a reservation system increasing equality and democracy—and I think that even a generation (around 20 years) of this system could have long-lasting change. When we see women leaders, we are more likely to psychologically believe that women are capable of being leaders. And when we elect officials that represent all of our interests—we all win.