Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh: Jyoti Devi, in her thirties, is one of 471,541,888 women voters in the country. Standing outside her house in a village on the outskirts of Agra city, she is amused to hear that people are suddenly interested in her political view. “Since this election, people want to talk to us women rather than men,” she says. The men of her house--her husband and her father-in-law--join the conversation. “You must talk to women, their vote matters, but we can give you real information,” her father-in-law interrupts, a timely reminder that this is one of the most patriarchal regions of the country.

The village has benefited from its proximity to the popular tourist city. Most families here rely on the hotel sector for their income. All the houses have a fresh coat of paint. Deeper in the village, agricultural land is being carved up, giving way to newly constructed buildings, new homes and establishments for the families, which reflect their changing economic status. Jyoti Devi’s family, which used to run a kirana--or groceries and other essentials--store, has just opened a hair-cutting salon, started with the help of a loan she took as a member of a women’s self-help group.

She is well aware of her newfound bargaining power as a voter. She rattles off her list of demands in exchange for her vote. “We are happy with our village’s roads but need to fix the drainage system to keep mosquitoes away.” She brings up the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) under which every household is entitled to an additional 5 kg of food grains. The programme is hugely popular in these parts: Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is the biggest beneficiary of PMGKAY with over six million metric tons of food grains distributed in the state in 2023. She is happy that the government is thinking of poor families, but she is not above a grouse: Can the government consider distributing less bajra (millets) and more wheat, she wonders.

Political analysts and media have talked much about the emergence of women voters in India. The gender gap in voter turnout, which remained significant until 2004, has been steadily closing. In 2009, women’s turnout was 55.8%, lagging by more than four percentage points to the male turnout rate of 60.36%. In response to this trend, the Election Commission of India identified the gender gap in electoral participation as a major challenge and devised innovative ways to enrol more female voters, such as by engaging with voters at the grassroots by roping in female mascots, organising women’s rallies, and running country-wide campaigns. At the same time, political parties started to realise women's potential as voters, adjusting their politics to women’s needs.

The next election in 2014 saw a surge in women voters and a narrowing of the gender gap to less than two percentage points. By the 2019 election, for the first time, the gender gap had closed and the female voter turnout at 67.18% overtook the male voter turnout at 67.02%. In this election to the 18th Lok Sabha too, women voted in large numbers. Overall, 312 million women voted, of 642 million voters, Rajiv Kumar, the Chief Election Commissioner said at a press conference. The gender gap in voting has all but closed, with both the male and female voter turnout at about 66%.

Jyoti Devi from Miyapur village, Agra

It is a long distance to traverse in a country where 2.8 million women could not vote in the first General Election in 1951-52 as they refused to disclose their names in the electoral rolls and identified themselves by relationships with male family members, as “A’s mother” and “B’s wife”.

At the village of Mahua Kheda, new and old ways of life could be seen together. Next to shops selling cement, to keep pace with all the new construction in the village, sat a group of young women making cow dung cakes. At a kirana shop nearby, three elderly women were passing the time. One of them, Afsana Bi, a widow in her sixties, was a new convert to voting. After losing her husband, she is dependent on the old-age pension scheme for sustenance (Rs 800 every month). "If we want the government to work for us, we must also vote,” she said.

Many countries report a gender gap in voter turnout. Worldwide, men have a higher propensity for voting than women. In India, the increase in women’s voting has taken place even as men’s share in voting has remained unchanged or seen a decline. Even more puzzling that this has happened despite the political, social and economic barriers women face in their daily lives.

Why are female voters voting in increased numbers compared to male voters? Do women vote differently from men? Can women be considered a homogenous vote bank or are they as divided along caste and community lines as men? IndiaSpend reached out to experts, analysed data and travelled to villages in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri in western Uttar Pradesh which voted in the third phase of the Lok Sabha polls, to better understand the female voter.

More women vote even as few form government

The rise in the share of women voters represents a compelling shift; it is in opposition to the marginalisation of women from all levels of politics and economy in the country. The representative share of women in politics has barely grown: Only 13% of the total members of the 18th Lok Sabha are women, down from 15% in 2019, as IndiaSpend reported on June 5. (This is an increase from 5% in the first Lok Sabha.) The number is lower in state legislative assemblies, where women constitute 9% of the total members.

This is different for local governments--Panchayati Raj Institutions and urban local bodies or municipalities--where adoption of gender quotas in the early 1990s reserved one-third of electoral seats for women. The participation of women rose to 44.4% (proportion of elected seats held by women), making India one of the countries with the highest participation of women in local governments. The adoption of the Women’s Reservation Bill this year, under which one-third of seats will be reserved for women in national and state legislative assemblies, seeks to address the wide gap in women’s political participation.

At the same time, women’s economic participation and empowerment in India remains low, compared to other developing countries, with the current female workforce participation at 37%, an improvement from the historically low figure of 23% recorded in 2017. Women’s labour is used as insurance during periods of low income, meaning that they drop out of the labour force once they tide over this period, according to this 2021 paper, as IndiaSpend reported in April 2024.

With no other option for participating in public life in India, voting is one of the few things that does not threaten the patriarchal order and may explain why women vote in large numbers, according to Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, a collective which advocates for women’s political representation. “As voting does not bruise the male ego they do not obstruct it, and it gives women agency to exercise,” she says. Evidence on the ground bears this out. Jyoti Devi may express her political opinions, but she, like many other women in rural India, does not have a mobile phone; only male members of her family own a phone.

A few factors have intersected to lead to the rise of women voters, apart from sustained work by the Election Commission in mobilising them. An overall increase in female literacy levels--the female literacy rate shifted from 39.4% in 1991 to 64.63% in the last Census of 2011--along with the widespread reach of media in the decades in between, has turned voting into a voluntary act of self-empowerment for women, several studies point out.

Migration is another contributing factor for higher female voter turnout. In states with higher male migration to urban areas like Bihar and Jharkhand, women voters outnumber men, including in this election. Most migrants struggle to vote as they have to forgo work and daily wages to travel to their home states to cast votes, as IndiaSpend recently reported. This is a trend which has also been observed in reverse. In Mumbai, which is one of the biggest draws for migrants in the country, the proportion of male voters was much higher than female voters in this election.

Members of self-help groups (SHGs), which are collectives of women across India--are more politically engaged than non-members, research indicates. There are over 100 million women members under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, the largest network of women SHGs in the world. Research shows women in SHGs are more likely to vote, choose who they will vote for, and attend Gram Sabha meetings. They also interact more with other women and wield influence on them to vote.

In the village of Hingot Kheria in Agra district, women who were members of SHGs were more empowered, mobile and likely to participate politically compared to women who were not. Anita, a mother of five, who lives in a Dalit basti in the village, said that she leaves her home to work on a potato farm, to go to monthly meetings of her self-help group and to go to the bank for SHG-related work. She wanted to exercise her right to vote even though with her care and work burden, she had very little time on most days. The region is at the heart of Dalit politics in the state and the Lok Sabha constituency seat of Agra is reserved for the Scheduled Castes.

Welfare politics customised for women

One of the reasons for the skewed representation of women in state and national legislatures is because of the inherent male-dominated structures of political parties, which exclude women on all fronts, from seat allotments to devolving power in the party. But the same political parties have discovered women as beneficiaries of welfare who can be persuaded to vote for them, as we explain below. This holds for other countries as well, where the “patriarchal welfare state” views women primarily as recipients of welfare. There is another reason why women are the targets of welfare by governments and political parties: Women are poorer than men, do not own assets, earn less than men or are not in the workforce at all.

In India, one of the earliest examples of targeting women through welfare is in 1982, when M.G. Ramachandran, as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, introduced the noon meal scheme (which went on to become the popular mid-day meal programme) which benefited both mothers and children, and reportedly swayed women to vote. Tamil Nadu, along with eastern states like West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, were ahead in demonstrating that women can be a powerful voting bloc.

Under J. Jayalalitha, women were offered 50% subsidy for buying mopeds and scooters, grinders and mixers, women-oriented healthcare schemes, bicycles for girl students, and gold coins for brides, and they, in turn, rewarded her by voting in large numbers.

In Bihar, women voters have responded to livelihood interventions, support for women entrepreneurs, reservations for women in government jobs, bicycles for girl students. Political analysts have repeatedly acknowledged women as the “silent force” in elections. At the national level, schemes for cooking gas, piped water, free grains and housing have successfully mobilised women to vote.

“Historically women voters respond to delivery rather than promises. Women’s vote has to be earned,” says Krishnaswamy.

More recently, with the rise in bank accounts and technology, governments have shifted towards conditional cash transfers to women that cover maternal and child health, education, nutrition, livelihoods, and pension. In a bid to outdo each other, or what has been called competitive welfarism, several states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal have rolled out unconditional cash transfers to women.

“The outreach by political parties to women is welfare-based and not based on their identity as women,” says Ruchi Gupta, a commentator on Indian politics and Executive Director at the Future of India Foundation. “In that sense, though women respond to welfare measures, voting has not necessarily deepened their political engagement or identity.”

The role of caste and community

Do women, who are largely perceived as beneficiaries by political parties, represent a homogenous vote or are they as divided along caste, creed and community lines as men?

In the villages of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, it was not easy to determine if women had the autonomy to vote without the influence of their families. Family members tended to be present for every interaction and the family expressed their voting choices collectively based on their caste identities. “I will vote for the party that my grandfather asks me to vote for,” said 22-year-old Hema, who has a postgraduate degree but was tongue-tied in the presence of her family. Her family, which belongs to the Yadav caste, was vociferous in its support for the Samajwadi Party. In the village next to hers, which was dominated by Brahmins, Shikha, who was of similar age and education, expressed that she would vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party as her family wanted her to. In both cases, the young women were not allowed to interact without gatekeeping from the family.

Women’s interest and participation in politics are severely restrained by the absence of a fair share in decision-making at home, a survey by Lokniti shows.

Across states, there is some variation, as studies show women in northern and eastern India tend to rely more on their spouse’s opinion in their voting decisions, while women in south India report making the decisions themselves.

Ultimately in the voting booth, some women might overcome family pressure and exercise agency to vote independently. In the years to come, political parties have their task cut out in guessing what women voters want beyond the delivery of welfare.

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.