Panel Abstract

Women’s political engagement and public policies of social accountability in local self-governing institutions: Evidence from Assam

Earlier research shows that there is a significant gender gap in political behavior and engagement between men and women (Barnes & Burchard, 2013). Cultural and institutional factors may effect women’s engagement in the political process (Matland, R, 1998). Yet, there is no clear answer as to why women’s participation in political activities remains lower than men. Recent studies have shown that while the representation of women is comparatively lower than men, there are no significant differences between men and women in political engagement (Banducci & Karp, 2008). Some studies even suggest that policy reforms like quotas and reservation may have symbolic increase in women’s representation in democratic institutions. For instance, in India,33 percent reservation for women in village panchayats opened up spaces for women (Hust, 2004).This paper takes cues from both these sets of literature on women’s political engagement. Using a case study of rural areas in the Eastern Indian state of Assam, the paper explores factors that impede beneficiary participation, particularly women’s incorporation and engagement in social accountability mechanisms in local self-government institutions in the developing world. Through qualitative evidence collected from three different sites under two large rural development schemes –the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY)—, this paper argues that while the process of social audit allows some democratic space for seeking accountability for women, unfavorable social conditions and patron-client relations tamper with its intended outcomes. Under conditions of low literacy, widespread poverty and hierarchical social norms, social accountability mechanisms can be used to weaken rather than strengthend mocratic practice. Social accountability mechanisms thus reproduce hierarchical socio-cultural norms and patron-client relations, where beneficiaries depend on the discretionary authority of local self-government representatives to distribute benefits on a partisan basis, and, in return, elected representatives receive beneficiarya cquiescence in social audit.