Akshi Chawla is the founder of #WomenLead, a platform dedicated to tracking women’s political representation from around the world.
Akshi started #Womenlead in May 2020 to cover the staggering gender gap in politics in a regular and sustained manner. In #Womenlead, Akshi tracks the situation around women’s political representation in different countries with a perfect blend of journalism and storytelling.
When she sent out the first edition of her weekly newsletter a year ago, she had many doubts and concerns – would it be able to sustain beyond a few weeks? Would there be enough news and stories to cover each week? Would anybody ever read or subscribe #WomenLead?
But to her surprise, after more than 50 weekly editions and a few special editions, #Womenlead has not only managed to sustain, it has also impressed readers across the world! Its subscribers are growing by leaps and bounds. In just a year, this newsletter has been mentioned or featured in publications including the BBC, Ms Magazine, the India Development Review, The Indian Express and iKnow Politics, along with shout-outs in many other newsletters.
We found Akshi’s initiative very inspiring and exemplary from many perspectives and are thrilled to showcase her in the Equality Changemaker series.
Akshi, could you please talk about your journey of creating #WomenLead?
I’ve always felt very strongly about gender issues. I think ever since I started working, it was a lens that I wanted to use in whatever I did. #WomenLead is essentially a newsletter where I track the work, experiences and journeys of women in politics around the world. I launched the newsletter in May last year. But I have been interested in doing work around women’s political representation for a few years.
While I had been interested in covering politics from a gender lens for a while, the immediate “trigger” of sorts came in 2019, after Lok Sabha elections (the lower house of the Parliament). 78 women made it to the Parliament of India – the highest in India’s history. This was roughly 14 per cent of the share of the members of the House. This was seen as something to celebrate (which of course it was), but in 2019, that number should have troubled us and angered us.
After that, I started paying very close attention to how the media was covering the intersection of gender and politics, and I felt that not only is there a stark gap in our politics, the media coverage of it does not match up to how skewed the situation was. And I strongly felt that I wanted to do something – however small it may be – to address that gap.
At that time, I was in a full-time job that wasn’t directly related to women’s political representation. I decided to start a Twitter page to track these 78 women and amplify their work. But the more I started reading the news, doing research, the more I realized that this was not enough. I started thinking about doing something more impactful. I quit my job in March 2020 and decided to work in a freelance capacity so that I could build something more credible on women’s political representation. I really liked the idea of doing it in a newsletter format. I thought that would be sustainable for me and would also help me reach the right kind of people.
That’s how I started #WomenLead. I didn’t share the first few issues with anybody! I thought ‘let me see how much information I can gather to publish it every week. Let me first test this myself.’
When I did it successfully the next week and the week after that, I realized that I had so much information to cover from across the local, national and international level that it was difficult to accommodate everything. There was much more to talk about than I initially estimated. I’ve been very lucky that many supporting readers who just passed it on and it’s been thriving.
My weekdays go into working on freelance projects, and I work on the newsletter largely on weekends. I don’t have enough resources at the moment to promote it much, but I try whatever I can (including learning new skills and tools wherever possible). But despite my limited capacity, the kind of support I have received from my community of readers is just incredible. #WomenLead has been growing simply because someone who read found it worth sharing with friends or gave it a shout out on some public platform.
While there are several publications that focus on gender, so far, I haven’t found any other media platform dedicated to covering the intersection of gender and politics, and which is not limited to a specific country/geography. But this is a gap that is near-universal, and not specific to any country or continent. Hence, I try to include updates from as many corners of the world as I can. My readers are spread over the world and come from a mix of professional backgrounds. And I assume that most of them care for gender equality.
In the last year, in addition to the newsletter, I have been working on several projects, often in collaboration with journalists or academics. Gender is the primary lens that cuts across almost all the work I do. So it’s a broad brush but you will see that gender is the arc that connects most of my work.
In India, gender-based discrimination is very prominent in every aspect of life. What was your motivation behind focusing on the gender gap in political representation?
Yes, it is very unfortunate that there is a huge gender gap in whichever field you look at. Politics is not the only field where women are missing.
But politics is essentially about the struggle for power and control. In any patriarchal society, men like to assert control over resources and opportunities, but they are far more guarded about those areas where power is at stake. Politics, therefore, has the potential to shake the ground for patriarchy. I think that’s the primary reason why this field is so hostile.
Surprisingly very few people are talking about it. One reason could be that organizations may feel reluctant to get into it for the fear of being seen as partisan, but this is not a party-specific issue at all.
Let’s take the issue of the gender gap in education: while gender gaps persist, and some persist very stubbornly, at the level of popular and policy discourse, there is at least a broad consensus and a push to close the gap. And there has been progress as well. But when it comes to politics, we are not even having enough conversations. We have barely even started.
And most of the conversations/push for change has been focussed only at the local level (Panchayat Level), where one-third of seats and leadership positions are reserved for women. Many states even have 50 per cent of seats reserved at the local level. The local level is very important in politics, but we also need parity at the level of assemblies and the Parliament, and also at the executive level. But the moment the stakes of power increase, we see very little progress.
The other place where we see a similar type of resistance is in the labour force participation in India. It has one of the worst gender gaps globally, again, because that means access to money and financial resources which can lead to more power and freedom.
If we dream of an equal world, which I hope we can see in our lifetimes, we have to shift those power relationships when it comes to access to political representation, economics, property rights, personal freedom, everything.
Where do you see #Womenlead in the near future?
I do intend to expand this work and build it into a platform that covers the intersection of gender and politics more comprehensively. In addition to the weekly newsletter, I also feature interviews with experts from time to time. I am also hoping to add more data-backed work to the platform. I am currently a Tableau-EM2030 Fellow, where I am working on that. But specifics aside, my larger vision is that it can become a space that helps sensitise readers about the gendered nature of our politics, and for them to be able to grasp what it really means for a woman to be navigating a space that is predominantly occupied by men. If it can play such a role even for a handful of people, I will consider it to have been a worthwhile endeavour.