April 2013 newsletter – The power of political voice

The power of political voice

Anandi Mani reports on her research into the effect of women’s political representation on crime outcomes in India.1

The assurance of personal safety and fair treatment under the law are two of the most fundamental aspects of civil society. However, protecting these rights of disadvantaged groups, such as population minorities and politically underrepresented citizens, has remained a challenge in many countries. A recent case in point that has generated widespread outrage at the national and international level, is the violence against women in India.There has been much discussion of how governments can intervene to avoid such outcomes. While a range of policies — from affirmative action quotas in education and jobs, to legal protection and better law enforcement — have been considered in the past, our research finds that there is another novel approach that can be effective: greater political representation (PR) for women.

We studied this link between political representation and crimes against women in the context of a law enacted in India in 1993. Under this law, the central government introduced a mandate that women hold one third of all positions in its system of local government, called Panchayati Raj.3 This meant that both one-third of all seats in these councils, as well as one-third of all chairperson positions across councils, were reserved for women. This amounted to a dramatic increase in the number and fraction of women in political office, given their pre-existing political participation in India then.4

No doubt, a disadvantaged group individual's election may reflect the changing preferences of the electorate, or the changing social status of such groups. These factors could directly influence crimes committed against such groups, rather than the fact of PR for such groups. But to measure the impact of women’s PR on crime, we exploited two features of the 1993 reform: (i) that it was mandated and (ii) that different states in India implemented it in different years, for reasons largely unrelated to crimes against women.5

Using data from the National Crime Records Bureau, we compared crimes against women in each state before and after the introduction of mandated PR for women. We found, to our initial surprise, a large increase of 26 per cent in the documented crimes against women after the increased political representation of women. This included an 11 per cent increase in the number of reported rapes, and a 12 per cent increase in the kidnappings of women. The two figures below show sharp differences in the incidence of kidnapping rates of women and men, before and after the implementation of the reform. Data on other gender-neutral crimes show no pattern pre vs. post reform either, confirming that the observed increase in crimes against women is not part of a generalized crime wave, resulting from the election of relatively inexperienced women.

However, a more detailed analysis showed that these increases in crime numbers against women are actually good news. They are driven not by a surge in the actual crimes committed against women, but by increased reporting of such crimes. Several pieces of evidence support this conclusion. Most of them point to an increase in the responsiveness of the police under women political representatives — which encourages women victims to voice their concerns as well.

Kidnapping of women and girls per 1000

Kidnapping of men and boys per 1000

A lack of police responsiveness has been previously identified to be a major problem in India.6 A study in the state of Rajasthan found that only 50 per cent of sexual harassment cases and 53 per cent of domestic violence cases were registered by the police-and that too when a male relative tried to report it on behalf of a female victim.7 However, survey data from the same study that we analyzed shows that in villages with women-headed local government councils, women are significantly more likely to say that they will lodge complaints with the police, should they become victims of a crime.8 There is also no difference in crime rates against women between villages with and without women leaders. This suggests that the observed increase in crime rates nationwide following mandated PR for women, is not driven by greater actual incidence of crime. 
Another nationwide survey assessed actual interactions of women and men with the police.9Women in villages with female council heads reported greater satisfaction in their interactions with the police and a lower likelihood of being asked to pay bribes. Again, there was no difference in the experience of men, as a function of the gender identity of the village council head.

There is also a strong perception that police behavior is affected by the presence of local women leaders. In the State of the Nation Survey, nearly half of respondents identified their village council member as the locally influential person they would turn to in cases of difficulty.10 They strongly believe that the police are more likely to listen to them sympathetically and take action if they are approached with such a locally influential person by their side.

National crime data on police action indeed confirms the above perceptions of women under female political representatives: Arrests for crimes against women increased by 31 per cent in a state, after the implementation of PR for women. Taken together, the three pieces of evidence cited above suggests that female victims are met with greater responsiveness and action from the police, when more women participate in local governance.

As mentioned earlier, the 1993 reform increased the participation of women in local government at three levels of administration, at the district, sub-district and village level. We tried to understand at what level women's participation in politics makes the biggest difference. For this, we exploit the fact that, during any election cycle, only a third of district council head positions within any state are randomly assigned to women (whereas a third of the members across all these councils are women). This allows us to assess the marginal impact of a female district council head, over and above the impact of women political representatives at lower levels. We find that women political representative have the most effect on giving voice to women victims not so much in the highest position at the district level, but at lower levels. In other words, greater proximity of female political representatives to potential victims is an important factor in giving effective voice to women, to bring their grievances to light. This is consistent with related research which shows that women are more likely to attend village meetings and speak up during them, if the village council leader is a woman (Beaman et al (2009)11).

Our findings are particularly remarkable, given that the 1993 reform did not assign any formal authority over the police to local government councils. Law and Order, including decisions on police budgets and staffing, remain matters decided by State governments. Thus, the observed effects of political voice for women are driven largely by the gender identity of those holding political office, rather than their formal authority. These findings thus negate the skepticism expressed in some quarters about the effectiveness of female leaders in ensuring better outcomes for women.12However, they highlight that what matters is the presence of women not just at the top, but in the broad base of political institutions.

Finally in light of recent media attention to crimes against women in India, our work shows that crime statistics need to be interpreted with care. Not all documented increases in crime are necessarily bad news: reporting biases are an important factor to be accounted for in crime data, especially against disadvantaged groups.


1. This is based on joint work with Lakshmi Iyer, Prachi Mishra and Petia Topalova titled ‘The Power of Political Voice: Women's Political Representation and Crime Outcomes in India’ published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, October 2012 issue. Author contact: A.Mani@warwick.ac.uk

2. See, for instance, New York Times, December 22, 2012 (‘Clashes Break Out in India at a Protest Over a Rape Case’) and The Guardian, January 4, 2013 (‘Rape protests spread beyond India’)

3. Panchayati Raj includes elected councils at the village, intermediate and district levels.

4. By comparison, in a setting in which there are no quotas for women, only 5.4% of members of the State Legislature over the past three decades have been women.

5. States had varying pre-existing cycles of local government elections, which was one major reason for differences in the dates of implementation of the reform. In many of these cases, the state government waited for the term of office of incumbent local officials to expire before conducting fresh elections in compliance with the 1993 reform. Another reason for delay in implementation were law suits challenging specific aspects of the reform. For instance, Bihar conducted its first Panchayati Raj election only in 2001, since a lawsuit had been filed regarding the representation of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs).

6. See New York Times, January 22, 2013 ‘For Rape Victims in India, Police Are Often Part of the Problem’.

7. Banerjee, Abhijit, Esther Duflo, Daniel Keniston, and Nina Singh. 2011. ‘Making Police Reform Real: The Rajasthan Experiment.’. Data source: J-PAL Indian Crime Survey data on willingness to report crimes and individual level crime victimization survey.

8. There are no differences in men’s willingness to report crimes across councils with female versus male leaders.

9. Source: Millennial Survey, which covers 36,542 households in 2,304 randomly selected villages in India.

10. The State of the Nation survey includes 14,404 respondents from 17 major states of India.

11. Beaman, Lori, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova. 2009. ‘Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?’ Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124 (4): 1497- 1540.

12. See for instance, a piece by the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on March 8, 2011 titled ‘Do Women Leaders Matter?’