In 1993, India ushered in a radical political reform by introducing a mandate that women hold one third of all seats in its system of local government, called the Panchayati Raj.
Our research examines a 22-year period before and after these political reforms, which brought women into local government to an unprecedented degree, and the possible impact on crimes against women.
We find that the presence of female leaders in local government leads to large and significant increases in reported crimes against women. Our research shows that this is not because of an increase in the rate of crimes against women, but because of an increase in the willingness of women to report such crimes.
Overall, reports of crimes against women grew by 36 percent when female elected leaders were present in elected political roles, even when their roles had nothing to do with government response to crime. Having female leaders in local government triggered a 19 percent increase in reports of rape, and a 13 percent increase in reports of kidnapping of women. Arrests for these crimes also rose commensurately.
Our findings suggest that the political reforms lend women a stronger voice in society, as evidenced by their greater willingness to come forward to report such crimes.
The presence of female leaders in local government triggers a 36 percent increase in reported crimes against women
We believe our project is the first to examine this link between political representation and crime against groups of people who have been traditionally under-represented in the political sphere.
Violent crime against women is a subject of particular interest because it offers a useful barometer of women’s socio-economic status and level of empowerment in broader society. It also suggests the extent to which the presence of political leaders of under-represented groups can lead to changes in attitude toward the group.
Our analysis includes results from the 17 major states of India, covering more than 97 percent of the population, over the period from 1985 to 2007. For various practical reasons, the timing of the implementation of political reforms across Indian states differed. These states also had different pre-existing levels of crimes against women and other minorities. These differences in timing of reform implementation and in pre-existing levels of crime allowed us to identify the impact of the reform across areas with and without female leaders.
In analysing the overall effects of such policies on the incentives of criminals and victims, we considered several opposing forces that could be at work. On the one hand, criminals may be deterred because of the increased likelihood of facing punishment for their actions as the result of elected political leaders perceived to be more sympathetic to their victims. But on the other hand, victims may be encouraged to report crimes more often for these same reasons. In addition, the police may be more inclined to record crimes against women when a woman is in elected office.
While our research found a spike in reported crimes against women, we found no significant effects whatsoever on any categories of crime not specifically targeted against women, such as kidnapping of men, crimes against property or crimes against public order.
As a result, we believe that our evidence makes a strong case for the view that the growth in crimes against women was the result of increased reporting rather than an increased incidence of such crimes, and that the increased reporting stemmed from changes in political representation.
We should note that the constitutional amendment that mandated women’s elected seats did not give local bodies any real control over the law-and-order machinery, and therefore is unlikely to have an effect on crime through channels other than politicians’ identity.
However, state office holders do play a role in determining punitive action for crimes. Our research finds that having a woman as the head of a state government, rather than a local council, creates a substantial reduction in the actual rates of crimes against women. We speculate that these contrasting effects of having women in state or local elected positions stem from the stronger power to take punitive action vested in an office holder at the state level.
This article summarizes a working paper, “Political Representation and Crime: Evidence from India’s Panchayati Raj.” The article is available at:
Anandi Mani is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. Lakshmi Iyer is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Prachi Mishra and Petia Topalova are economists at the International Monetary Fund.