How ‘Political Voice’ Empowers the Powerless

Women in India often are targets of verbal abuse, discrimination, and violent crimes—crimes that are underreported. Fortunately, an increase in female political representation seems to be giving female crime victims a voice in the criminal justice system, according to new research by Harvard Business School professor Lakshmi Iyer and colleagues. Key concepts include:
  • Political representation of disadvantaged groups is an important means of giving them a voice in the criminal justice system.
  • An Indian constitutional amendment enacted in 1993 mandated that at least one-third of council seats at the village, intermediate, or district level be filled by women. The rise in female representation empowered more women to report crimes.
  • Female political representation also induced law enforcement officials to be more responsive to crimes against women.
  • Similar results were found in crimes against Scheduled Castes—the so-called untouchables who have historically been at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. An increase in SC political representation led to an increase of documented crimes against the group.
  • 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.
by Maggie Starvish

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.

In the working paper The Power of Political Voice: Women's Political Representation and Crime in India, Iyer, Anandi Mani (University of Warwick), and Prachi Mishra and Petia Topalova (International Monetary Fund) examine the effect that mandated political representation for women has had on crimes against women.

"We were hoping to find that this would reduce crimes against women," says Iyer. "But we found exactly the opposite."

When the researchers examined 22 years worth of data on reported crimes in a variety of gender-specific and gender-nonspecific categories they were initially surprised by what they found. After women assumed leadership positions, the rate of reported crimes against women went up: Kidnappings rose by 13 percent, rapes per capita increased by 23 percent, and the total number of crimes increased by an astonishing 44 percent.

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.

Because there are very few victimization surveys in India that can be used to estimate the true incidence of crime, Iyer acknowledges there is no way to directly support a hypothesis of increased reporting of crimes. However, the paper presents several pieces of suggestive evidence that point in that direction.

Initial Results Confirmed

The initial results of their work led the researchers to examine other data sources. In one survey that included men and women, respondents were asked about their interactions with the police. For example, did you go to the police in the last two years? If so, was your complaint attended to? Did you have to pay a bribe? The survey included gender and location information for the respondents.

Further, data showed that women display greater satisfaction in their interactions with the police when they live in villages with a female council head (Table VIII, Panel B in the working paper). Women are slightly more likely to approach the police in such villages (columns 1 and 2). While the sample of respondents who actually had dealings with the police was relatively small, the researchers did find that women in villages with female council heads were significantly happier with their law enforcement interactions.

"We could clearly see that the women, in places where the village head was a woman, were much likely to say the police acted efficiently and the case was solved," says Iyer.

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.")

Finally, though the data wasn't as strong as it was for women, the paper documents a similar rise in reported crimes against another disadvantaged social class in India: the Scheduled Castes. The SCs encompass members of the lowest tiers of the Hindu caste system that dominated India's social structure for many years. And like women, SCs were provided mandated political representation in 1993. This, posits Iyer, is further proof that when disadvantaged groups gain political representation, they feel more empowered.

The researchers also examined the impact of women in specific powerful positions (a district council chairperson or state legislator) and found that the effects of such presence were much smaller than that of increasing political representation in the aggregate. This is consistent with the finding that local representation matters for reported crimes against SCs, even though they have had mandated state-level political representation for more than four decades.

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."

About the Author

Maggie Starvish is a writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts.
    • Ankit Sura
    • Founder, STUDENTS TEAM foundation
    There are some cultural perceptions which need quantification. Some quantification which will strengthen the research will be those which reflect a cultural bias in the form of numbers such as provided by Sex Ratio Trends (, along with the number of Women colleges offering leadership credit hours, and surveying women academicians teaching such courses, to understand general perception of women student to such courses. Also, surveying women for their reaction towards sexual harassment, comparing how they feel towards the subject, what did they do when they faced it in the past, and what will they do in various hypothetical circumstances ( India has not had a strong Feminist movement because of a lack of collective courage. Reasons for this can be multiple, such as class difference, lack of knowledge, collective motivation, financial empowerment, and a protective family with hostile society.

    One key hypothesis could also be the dynamic population pyramid with increase in younger males, with increase in collective repressed sexual pressures in a transitional society, with increase in sexual mass media content influenced by western cultures.

    Population dynamics are intense and thus must be viewed from multiple facets to understand the predicament of a Lady in India.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Notwithstanding the few encouraging examples included in this write-up, the ground reality is that 'political voice' does not generally empower the powerless.Power is achieved for various purposes which do not include the well being of the powerless. Especially in India, the whole situation is so complex that a small number of sincere politically empowered do find it too difficult to create a 'helping' atmosphere. To solve even trifle issues, you need to proceed through a long chain which, despite best intentions, has more chances to break at any astage. Hence the shyness and disinclination to 'fight' the system. Efforts of those who try get blunted leading to reluctance to repeat their good intentioned moves.
    Corruption of all sorts is rampant. Anti-social elements are a plenty. Crimes against women in states headed by female chief ministers have not decreased. Even a sc woman CM is not doing much to bring any relief to the agonies of sc women!!
    At present, politics is a vicious game. It is not at all ripe to fructify the aspirations of the powerless.
    • Ravi Putcha
    • Thinker, blogger,
    The conclusion "police respond better when a woman is heading the local council" is far fetched and naive. More woman politicians doesn't necessarily mean more empowered woman - it should be in rest of the world, but in India the situation is different: Most women compete in elections as proxies to their corrupt husbands who are barred by law to get elected. In India, most often, politics is a vehicle for protection from law enforcement - that defeats conclusions made in this article.

    Indira Gandi was the prime minister for 15 years and that meant nothing to women of this country - we were down in the dumps (little changed for rural poor even today, though).
    • Anonymous
    It must become necessary to have an appendix for sample size, research methodology when publishing on an Harvard site. Becomes necessary with a diverse India.

    Also, were socio-economic factors considered. Changes here correspond to changes in reporting as well. What are the fixed variables ?

    A statement like 'Iyer acknowledges there is no way to directly support a hypothesis of increased reporting of crimes.' sadly is an admission by the autohr that the article maybe hearsay.

    Hope, it is not an opinion that the author felt necessary to express without supporting data.