The Uttar Pradesh Paradox: why do states which send the highest proportion of female MPs to parliament also have such high gender inequality?

Since his election, our Prime Minister has made the promotion of gender equality a central policy priority. On October 11th, he declared “[L]et us pledge to create an atmosphere of equality for the girl child. There is no question of any discrimination based on gender.” How does this political goal translate into implementation?

Women’s increased representation in political office is often seen as a crucial step to increasing gender equality more broadly, besides being an important shift in and of itself. Indeed, the Rajya Sabha has already passed a bill that would amend the Constitution to reserve 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and in state legislatures for women.

An analysis of states that currently send comparatively high proportions of women to the Lok Sabha reveals an unusual paradox: many states that perform well nationally in terms of female representation in Parliament have some of the highest levels of gender inequality. Nevertheless, in absolute terms women’s representation in the Lok Sabha is still extremely low.

Women in Parliament during the 16th Lok Sabha.[Link]


As the Swaniti Initiative’s JIgyasa heatmap from the 16th Lok Sabha shows, there is no particular pattern to which states have high representation of women in parliament and which do not. Some states with high representation, like Kerala, are widely regarded as having greater gender equality. However, what is seemingly incongruous is the comparatively high proportion of female MPs in states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, given that in these states women fare poorly by other measures.

This paradox raises the question: what does voters’ relative willingness to elect female representatives reflect? Moreover, often the willingness to elect women reflects greater gender equality, and in turn the simple fact of having female representation further improves gender equality. Has this been the case?

Gender equality measures and female representation in parliament

Percent of female MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha* Percent of female MPs over the past 13 Lok Sabhas, by rank Percent of female MPs over the past 13 Lok Sabhas** sex ratio(2011) female literacy rate(2011) % of women in the workforce (2011)***
Punjab 7.7% 2 12.6% 893 71% 18%
West Bengal 28.6% 5 9.9% 950 60% 23%
Madhya Pradesh 17.2% 6 9.7% 930 60% 36%
Uttar Pradesh 16.3% 7 9.4% 908 59% 24%
Rajasthan 4% 8 8.5% 926 52% 39%
all-India average 12.6% n/a 7.6% 940 65% 30%

Source: Planning Commission; Sikkim, Chattisgarh, and Delhi, which are the 1st, 3rd, and 4th ranked states in terms of representation over 13 Lok Sabhas, are not included because of their smaller population size.

*Percent of each state’s Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha who are women.

**1st, 2nd and 3rd Lok Sabhas not considered since many States were reorganized during this period.

***Calculated as the percent of the people in the workforce who are women.

This data table highlights the contradiction succinctly. Punjab, for instance, has the second highest percent of female MPs ever sent to the Lok Sabha, after Sikkim, though its sex ratio is 893 and women constituted only 18% of the state’s labour force in 2011. Uttar Pradesh, similarly, sent a 16% female delegation to the Lok Sabha this session and is ranked 7th nationwide. However, it has a 24% female labor participation rate and a 59% female literacy rate. The data for all these states follows a similar pattern: relatively high representation of women in the Lok Sabha and relatively poor performance on other gender indicators. Of course, in absolute terms the proportion of female MPs from these states remains low and unequal to women’s share of the population.

Interestingly, an October 2014 report from the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, which uses a range of indicators on gender inequality to rank 142 countries, India is at 114. Counter-intuitively, India ranks at 15 the WEF’s political empowerment sub-index, a measurement of the ratio of women to men in ministerial and parliamentary positions, suggesting that the trend of relatively high representation and low equality is reflected when comparing India to the rest of the world, too.

What can be inferred from the comparatively high representation of women in parliament in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh? Certainly the assumption that the election of female members of parliament occurs as a result of greater gender equality appears to be unsupported.

More broadly, the paradox demonstrates that the progress toward equality for girl children that Modi is campaigning for is not linear. While tangible and intangible benefits of increased political representation unquestionably exist, increased representation is not a cure-all.

What can be done going forward? Certainly, the use of reservations for women politicians, or at least for candidates, would be a straightforward and efficient solution to the problem of women’s political under-representation. More broadly, though, this case study demonstrates that progress toward gender equality is complex. Policies seeking to achieve gender equality need to create greater political representation, higher levels of literacy, increased workforce participation, and undistorted sex ratios. If Modi’s goal is equality, then only an effort to address inequality at every juncture will be sufficient.