Every morning 10-year-old Nipa Haldar crosses a canal in a small boat and trudges along a mud road for 20 minutes to reach school, pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse. She has not missed classes once in three years.
Nipa is just one of hundreds of young children in Kanaipur village in West Bengal to have benefited from a law that promotes the involvement of women in local politics.
In 2004, a newly-elected village council, or panchayat, in Kanaipur included for the first time a representative number of women. That resulted in a mini social revolution. In addition to women’s new clout in village affairs, the move also sprouted a number of self-help groups. Together, they have improved the provision of health care and education for women and children, according to a study by Unicef of 165 villages in West Bengal.
“The number of visits by health workers in these villages was significantly higher and the desire to do good work by women leaders had a ripple effect on everyone else,” said Priyanka Khanna, a Unicef spokeswoman in Kolkata.
That may not be radical— micro-credit pioneers have been saying for years that one of the best ways to chip away at rural poverty is to give women control of project purse strings—but in India it marks a milestone.
With 70% of a billion-plus population living in a patchwork of poor villages and small towns in India, these grassroots changes have a significant impact.
In 1993, India amended its Constitution to accommodate the concept of panchayati raj—effectively village self-governance—and make laws out of its previously non-binding rules. Among the changes was the reservation of one-third of seats on every village council for women.
“Women come out of the shell once they see that someone from the same gender is fighting for them and that impacts the entire household and the village,” says sociologist Prasanta Roy.
The Unicef survey revealed that in areas where women had taken up their allocated places on councils, investment in clean drinking water had doubled compared to those still run solely by men. Roads were twice as likely to be in a good condition.
A similar Unicef study in Rajasthan found that a child living in a village where the council was headed by a woman had a better chance of being vaccinated against common diseases. And there was only 13% lesser girls than boys sitting behind school desks, a significant improvement in the conservative desert region.
Less likely to study fully or follow a career, many women in India’s rural and small-town heartlands still have to ask permission from a father or husband to step out of the home. Boys get an education and grow up to take most of the decisions; women do as they are told—largely work and raise the kids.
But in Kanaipur, Soma Dey, the village’s first female council chief, was busy examining dozens of new solar-energy panels that will provide electricity to 400 people.
“At least 90% of the village is covered with conventional electricity, but in remote places we have installed solar energy,” said a beaming Soma, wearing an orange shawl to beat the cold wind blowing across the Hooghly river.
Eight years ago, the village did not have a single school and access to medicines was a luxury beyond the reach of most people.Today, it has 15 schools and several health care centres stacked with medicines—all funded by the state government.
Since the 2004 election, Soma and her 12 women colleagues on the 30-member council have successfully wooed the state government for money and roped in experts to improve lives.“I found women shy to talk about their health problems and domestic violence, but now they come everyday,” Soma says.
Affordable loans are now available in a country where debt lurks in most rural homes.“We used to live on coconut water, and farm marshy lands eight years ago, but now I have a new boat to go fishing in,” said 70-year-old Nirmal Gharani.
Nipa clings to her 95-year-old grandmother Phulphuli, who settled here after leaving Bangladesh 10 years ago. “It’s an oasis here, I’m not going back,” the old woman says.