Assembly elections were held in Goa with all the vibrant fanfare, cheery songs and cheeky bunting that accompanies polls across India. But apart from the usual carnival, Goa’s polls saw an unusual first move too. Trying to encourage new voters, the Election Commission (EC) decided to hand out “gifts” at polling booths. How nice, you might think. But the gifts came wrapped in meaning, for women first-time voters were given pink teddy bears while men received pens.
The EC, laudably, is known for seeking ways to popularise voting and make younger citizens in particular enthusiastic about joining India’s biggest and most democratic party. But this choice of “return gifts” is a telling misstep. Giving women a teddy bear, while gifting men pens, carries a strongly sexist note. Why should gifts for women be a little bit of antacid-shaded fluff, while men get a “serious” pen?
Gender equality is a troubling paradox in Goa. Compared to the rest of India, women in Goa have a much higher rate of literacy, many more women head households and access better healthcare. However, there is also a sharp gender downside. Women in Goa find much less employment compared to men than in other states; Goan women’s labour force participation is abysmally low, 2011-12’s NSS data and other statistical studies finding about 28 per cent women in Goa employed for reportedly over 70 per cent men; women employed in other states number over 31 per cent. This means lower incomes for Goan women, who also suffer a cultural acceptance of denial of property rights while facing domestic violence, bigamy and the refusal of men, accustomed to traditional, male-run bodies like the communidade and gaunkars, to share panchayat power with women. Given the struggle women in Goa face for democratic empowerment, equating their gift — of citizenship — to a coy plaything, is only pressing the wrong buttons.
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