Chandrama Karji is the sarpanch of a panchayat in Odisha’s Gajapati district. She may be illiterate but she knows she has rights. Earlier this year, she steadfastly refused permission to open a liquor shop in her area, despite all kinds of persuasion and intimidation. “Four times the excise department officials came, the brewers came, even the police came," says Karji. “The brewers offered 1 lakh. The policeman said the government gives you rice and grains at 1 or 2 a kilogram, how do you think they will keep that up if you don’t let them earn some money through the alcohol shop? But I did not budge."

Questions like these and many others are an everyday challenge for more than a million women in local governments all over the country. With the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution, one-third of all panchayat seats are now reserved for women—and in some states the reservation is now 50%. This is enabling women to participate in governance at the local level. But do all these women have the wherewithal to understand and handle politics and policy?

The Hunger Project, India, trains some of these women to understand governance and their rights. Part of the global, non-profit organization called The Hunger Project working to end world hunger, the association, which has been active in India since 1984, also works across eight states to train elected women representatives at the panchayat level. They believe that women can be key change agents, especially those elected to office in panchayats.

A group of 35 elected women representatives visited Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) in late September as part of an advance training programme organized by The Hunger Project. They came from seven different states—from Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand—and each had won an election in her village or ward, making her a member of the panchayat. Each had also attended a series of training workshops—on communication, government schemes, budgets and the law—conducted at the district level in their local languages before heading to Delhi to exchange notes and share their problems and achievements with each other.

And they just could not stop talking—of the men who wouldn’t give them space to sit in the panchayat meetings, of the beedi (locally-made unfiltered cigarettes) factories where the young children in their village had to work and from where the children caught tuberculosis, of the threats of violence, of the lack of water, of their fights with block development officers, and of their complaints to district collectors. So much so that the folks at The Hunger Project eventually had to intervene to put an end to these conversations.

“It’s these women who tackle the real problems of the village. It’s these women who are the future of India. So we at The Hunger Project have decided to concentrate on training these elected women representatives, so as to empower them and The Hunger Project conducts training programmes and develops training materials for them," says Rita Sarin, country director, India, and global vice-president of The Hunger Project.

At the IIC, everything was a stereotype of what an Indian NGO usually is, right from the sartorial elegance of Sarin’s beautiful off-white sari to the premises of the workshop. Everything, except the visitors themselves. They were a little subdued to begin with but once they began to speak, they were irrepressible. Talking about her experiences as a member of the panchayat, Indira Singh of Satna, Madhya Pradesh, burst out: “Every month the poor people would wait outside the ration shop and get nothing. We took the PDS (public distribution system) register from the shopkeeper (to make a photocopy) and said ‘arrest us if you can. We are the elected representatives of the people and we will complain to the district collector about your corruption’." She said her training with The Hunger Project gave her the confidence to do this.

“The women know now that to take up any issue of corruption they need to gather proof, whether it is a photocopy of the PDS register or any other such document," says trainer Natabar Padhi of the Institute for Women’s Development in Odisha, a partner organization of The Hunger Project which develops these training modules. Padhi himself advises women members and women sarpanches regularly on their legal rights and responsibilities on such issues.

“We train the women in expressing themselves, in issues involving their constituencies, and in technical issues like governance, budgeting and different government schemes. Even after the workshop is over, we stay in touch with them. They have the mobile numbers of the trainers and can call them any time," explains trainer Ganga Gupta of The Hunger Project India, who conducts three-to five-day residential training workshops in districts. She wishes, though, that such training could happen more often and be more widespread. “The government programmes are different; they are often at inconvenient times, and since men and women are clubbed together, women don’t have the confidence to speak up and participate. At the end of the day, reserving seats for women is not enough. We need to train them and educate them all the time," says Gupta.

But the women at the IIC were an optimistic lot. “Once I had to wear a ghunghat (veil) and couldn’t even speak within my family. Today, I have put aside my ghunghat and can come to Delhi and speak about our village problems," said Sunita Rajawat from Tonk, Rajasthan.

10,000 can help them to

• Organize training workshops for elected women representatives.

Recent donors

• UN Women

• UNDP

• The government of Norway

To contact The Hunger Project, visit www.thp.org, @HungerProject, www.facebook.com/thehungerproject

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