NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than a year after the gruesome gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus, India's election kicked off on Monday in a country more alert than ever to issues affecting women and girls.
The Delhi gang rape prompted thousands of Indians to take to the streets in protest - a watershed moment which forced many to face up to the widespread violence and discrimination faced by women and girls in this patriarchal nation.
From corporations to the media to political parties, Indians have sought to engage more on women's rights since the protests of December 2012 - focusing on issues such as women's safety, economic and political empowerment and access to health and education.
But as the first electors cast their ballots in the world's biggest election, what are the three main political parties - the ruling Congress Party, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (widely tipped to form the next government) and the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - promising the country's female voters, who make up 48.5 percent of the 815 million electorate?
1. POLITICAL EMPOWERMENT
All three parties say in their manifestoes they are committed to passing the Women's Reservation Bill in parliament. The bill allows for one third of seats in national and state assemblies to be reserved for women.
Currently, women hold only 11 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and Rajya Sabha (Upper House) of parliament combined, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union - half the global average of 21.4 percent.
Previous attempts to pass the bill in the lower house have been blocked by some male legislators.
2. VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
The three parties recognise that violence against women is a major problem facing India - a country where a rape is reported every 21 minutes.
Crimes such as molestation, trafficking, acid attacks, dowry murders, child marriage, female foeticide and domestic violence are also widespread.
All three parties say they will strictly implement laws related to women, and make police stations more women-friendly by increasing the number of female staff.
The BJP says it will also introduce self defence as a part of the school curriculum and use information technology to improve women's safety.
The AAP says it will establish a national response protocol to deal with crimes against women which will ensure that decisions on recruitment and promotion of police and prosecutors will include their performance in relation to gender.
3. RELIEF AND REHABILITATION OF VICTIMS
Human rights lawyers say India's criminal justice system fails thousands of victims due to a judicial process that is archaic, under-resourced, gender-insensitive and painfully slow.
All three parties said they planned to create more fast-track courts to deal with a rising number of cases of crimes against women. The BJP said it would also seek to increase the number of women in the judiciary.
The BJP says it will dispense a fund, which was established but not used by the Congress-led government, for the rehabilitation of rape victims. It also says it would create an acid attack victim welfare fund to cover medical costs related to reconstructive surgeries of victims.
Both the AAP and the Congress Party have pledged to set up 24-hour crisis centres to provide medical, legal and psychological support to rape and domestic violence victims.
4. ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT
Millions of women in India do not earn equal pay to men for their work, say activists, adding that less than a third do not even have a bank account which is essential to access loans.
The BJP has pledged to set up an All Women Mobile Bank and provide special business skills training for women.
It also says it will establish a dedicated W-SME (women small and medium enterprises) cluster in every district, and, like the Congress party, pledges to ensure loans at low interest rates.
Both the Congress and the BJP say they will work to remove gender disparities for women when it comes to land and property rights.
The AAP promises to ensure "secure, dignified remunerative employment" for women, adding that it will work towards securing equal pay.
Both the Congress and AAP have promised to expand the existing network of hostels for working women and female students across the country.
5. ACCESS TO BASIC SERVICES
The BJP says it will review the working conditions and increase the salaries of female government health workers who are renowned for being overworked and underpaid.
It says it will also establish a special adult literacy initiative for women with a focus on marginalised communities such as low caste groups and will "transform the quality of life of rural women by providing electricity, tapped water, cleaner fuel and toilets in every home."
The Congress says it will earmark 30 percent of all funds to local authorities for women and children. It says it will also distribute free sanitary napkins for adolescents.
6. GENDER BIAS
India has unequal child sex ratios that rights campaigners describe as alarming. Due mainly to selective abortions of female foetuses, the number of girls under six years old has fallen for the past 50 years. The 2011 census recorded 919 girls to every 1,000 boys, compared to 976 in 1961.
Both the Congress and the AAP say they will launch national campaigns to tackle this practice and also strengthen legislation and punishments for female foeticide.
The BJP has promised to launch a national campaign called "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" (Save your daughter, educate your daughter) aimed at bringing more girls into education and raising their status in society.
The AAP says it will implement public education programmes to end the culture of gender-based discrimination and violence. This will include SMS, radio, and TV campaigns, lesson plans for schools, and modules for training teachers, doctors and lawyers.
Trending On Reuters
Diplomats have quietly launched a new push to induct India into a club of nuclear trading nations, but rather than increasing stability in South Asia, the move could escalate strains with rival Pakistan. Full Article