The Powerhouse of Politics
“…don’t be afraid of choosing a dream, don’t be afraid of being alone on the path, don’t be afraid of failures and don’t be afraid of appreciating other women…” Maheshmurti Leni Sahebrao Jadhav
Over the last 20 years, the number of women in parliament have doubled. However, as of June 2016, only 22.8 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women.1 It is essential to ensure that women are well represented in parliament. Gender diversity brings about important changes: Research on local governments in India revealed the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils were 62% higher than that of men-led councils. In Norway, it was found that the presence of women in municipal councils showed a direct relationship with childcare coverage.2,3
Studies have found that women are more likely to concentrate on issues that matter more to women such as childcare, gender equality, reproductive rights, flexible working hours, elderly care and children’s welfare.4,5,6. Globally, women are also known to be less corrupt.7 Research shows that a higher proportion of women in government resulted in lower levels of corruption at both the national and local level.8 The advantages of women’s participation in governments are distinct. How then, can we ensure that women are well represented in parliament? I had the pleasure of speaking to Maheshmurti Leni Sahebrao Jadhav about it.
In conversation with Maheshmurti Leni Sahebrao Jadhav on women’s role in politics and what can be done to enable women to take on positions of leadership and governance.
Maisha: Your extraordinary passion to make a difference in your community has encouraged you to take up politics. Please share with us how you decided to join the National Student’s Union of India
Leni: As a teenager, I read a book with the title, “Yashwantrao Chavan to Vilasrao Deshmukh”. It contains the biographies of all the chief ministers of my state, Maharashtra. However, not a single one of those ministers was a woman. I was curious to find out why and asked my father about the absence of female ministers. My father explained that it was because of a lack of opportunity and proper exposure for women. That was the deciding moment for me when I promised that I will strive to be the first lady chief minister of Maharashtra. As a 17 year old girl, that was my pledge to myself and till today, I hold that dream close to my heart. I still believe in that dream and want to become a significant voice that will shape the political scenario of India.
National Student’s Union of India (NSUI) is the frontal wing of the Congress party and the world’s largest student union and I served as the General Secretary. What attracted me towards it? Firstly, it is the only student organization where all office bearers are democratically elected by students unlike other organizations where one needs to have strong connections or ties with senior leaders to obtain a position of leadership. Secondly, all the activities conducted by NSUI during my college days were very constructive. NSUI believes in 5 main values. Namely, they are democratic, secular, inclusive, progressive and constructive in nature; all these factors were the main points of attraction for me to be part of this students’ union. Also, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who is my inspiration, was the pioneer of NSUI and that was another factor that motivated me to choose NSUI.
Maisha: What are some of your proudest achievements as part of the NSUI?
Leni: When I think of the answer to this question, my journey over the past 8 years play through my mind like a bitter sweet movie. My biggest achievement till date is to be elected as National Delegate from Maharashtra in the year 2010-11 and to hold a respected post of NSUI as the National General Secretary. This was a phenomenal opportunity for me as it gave a girl hailing from a non-political, middle class family the chance of living her dream of being a part of politics and the Congress party. One of the best experiences was the field work at Jhasni, where I got an opportunity to work with village women in “Self Help Groups” which, deal with micro financing.
In January 2013, I received a once in a lifetime opportunity to speak in front of the Prime minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, members of the All India congress committee including the President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Vice President Mr. Rahul Gandhi and all Union Ministers and Chief ministers and office bearers of frontal organization. I spoke about Higher Education, Women and Politics, a field that is my speciality. I organized and led a campaign, “Enhancing Quality and Equality in Education” with the aim of identifying challenges students face to access higher educational institutes of established standards via essay competitions and seminars. I worked on the ‘Draft New Education Policy 2016’ where we organized consultations in major universities and colleges to obtain direct narratives of college and school students, teachers, and parents. Our recommendations have been submitted to the Human Resource Development Ministry. I am proud with what I have achieved so far, but I believe that this is just the beginning and I have miles to go before I rest.
Maisha: Many women face challenges in accessing leadership positions in politics. Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
Leni: What is a life without challenges? However, if you are a woman, it seems that these challenges are automatically doubled. I feel that my biggest challenge was to break the status quo and strive to realize my big dreams into reality. It was very easy for me as a practicing Advocate since I was doing very well in it but I chose politics over leisure as it was important for me to achieve my dream. Convincing my parents was the first biggest challenge and I subsequently faced a series of questions and unwarranted suggestions from friends and colleagues. However, I was determined and moved from my small town to capital of the country, which was a big step in my life. Financial stability was also a major challenge especially because I work as a volunteer in NSUI and I usually finance my daily expenditures by doing legal translation.
India has a very celebrated culture but at the same time our society has also lived through inhumane practices like “Sati”, where a woman was burnt alive when her husband died. We have come a long way since then and have abolished such practices but we are still trying to break free from the clutches of patriarchy. Learning to believe that our lives are much more than getting married, bearing children and performing household chores is when we break out of our shells and understand the world is our oyster. My personal journey would have been a little easier if I had not encountered the few misogynistic men who fail to view women as an equal counterpart. However, I have to say that conquering these challenges has shaped me into the woman that I have become today.
Maisha: Less than 22% of parliamentarians around the world are women, when women make up approximately half the population of the world. Why do you think women are so under-represented?
Leni: I am where I am today to prove a point in the male dominated political world. It might sound tactless but I have learnt this the hard way that we need to be ruthless at times to prove ourselves. I understand that society will never grant you a place you deserve until you fight for it. The story is common in India and also for the rest of the world where suppression of women in politics is visible. In India, The Women’s Reservation Bill was passed by the upper house in 2010. It was discussed that there will be 33% reservation for women in general elections and state legislative elections but the lower house was not keen in taking it up, resulting in the lapse of the bill. The debate and discussion is still ongoing in our country and hopefully the passing of this bill will surely help to spearhead deserving women into politics. We do see very few women in politics at the moment and those who have made their place, hail from political families and therefore, inherit their political dynasties. It is only when individuals like us take ourselves seriously and have a strong resolve to fight the challenges that we are faced with to enter the political arena can these statistics improve.
Equal representation of women is very important and will most definitely result in tremendous growth of our nation. Women in positions of leadership can change the idea that women are liabilities and they can be pivotal when they joins hand with men for nation building.
Maisha: What do you think different aspects of society can do to help women overcome these obstacles?
Leni: Be it the field of politics, sports, entrepreneurship, artist or any other job, obstacles are inevitable but coming over them is the actual challenge. My first advice is that being brave and walking on your desired path without any fear and putting your best effort is a finest way to start. You must be also prepared to face failures as it only makes you stronger in the long run.
In terms of policies, it is important for a government to think about stronger policies for women. I believe that education is key in empowering women and enabling them to progress in all areas. However, in various countries including India, the high school dropout rates of girls after the age of 12- 13 are high when they enter the phase of puberty and they have their periods. Something as natural as a period can still be an obstacle for girls to access education. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that schools are equipped with proper hygienic conditions. Social awareness is also critical to change the mindset of people who still believe that periods are a taboo.
Maisha: Thank you for sharing your wonderful journey with us. What advice would you give to young women who would like to hold leadership positions and want to be at the decision making table?
Leni: My own journey has just begn and it’s too early to advice anyone but the chapters of my life has taught me a few things. Firstly, I need to emphasize to young girls, believe in yourself and your dreams! There will be times when your own family and friends will make fun of you or at times even confront you. Take that with a pinch of salt but never stray from the path that leads you to your dreams. The society out there will feel cruel at times, it will try to supress you but you must have a strong willpower to overcome it.
Whenever I feel that my ego takes over and I am in conflict with myself, I seek my escape through spirituality. I make time and read Gandhiji’s Jantar. It says, “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much for you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man or woman whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her. Will he or she gain anything by it? Will it restore him or her to a control over his or her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to “Swaraj” [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts in yourself melt away”. This is one of the last notes left behind Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought. This has inspired me positively in my life and has also made me humble. To all the young girls out there I will say don’t be afraid of choosing a dream, don’t be afraid of being alone on that path, don’t be afraid of failures and don’t be afraid of appreciating other women. I think this would be a way for true liberation of the woman.
This interview series with outstanding young women aims to promote Sustainable Development Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.
This interview was also published on YMAZING: Generation Y – Generation Z – Millennial
- Single House or Lower House. Inter-Parliamentary Union. “Women in national parliaments, as of 1 June 2016”.
- Chattopadhyay and E. Duflo (2004_. “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India,” Econometrica 72(5), pp. 1409–1443
- A. Bratton and L. P. Ray, 2002, “Descriptive Representation: Policy Outcomes and Municipal Day-Care Coverage in Norway,” American Journal of Political Science, 46(2), pp. 428–437.
- See Burrell, B.C., A woman’s place is in the House : campaigning for Congress in the feminist era. 1994, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
- Swers, M.L., The difference women make: the policy impact of women in Congress. 2002, Chicago: University of Chicago Press;
- Lijphart, A., Debate- Proportional Representation III. Double Checking the Evidence. Journal of Democracy, 1 2(1):42-8.