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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Women panchayat leaders find their voice
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Women panchayat leaders find their voice

Two decades after reservation was introduced, women panchayat leaders are beginning to drive change on the ground

Aparajita Gogoi (in red sari) with elected women representatives from panchayats in Bihar, at a conference organized by the Centre for Catalyzing Change in New Delhi. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
Aparajita Gogoi (in red sari) with elected women representatives from panchayats in Bihar, at a conference organized by the Centre for Catalyzing Change in New Delhi. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“Fathers and brothers don’t think the girls can travel to school on their own where I come from, forget about making important decisions for the community," says Prabha Devi, a ward member of the Lagma panchayat in Sitamarhi, Bihar.

Prabha contested the panchayat election in 2011—five years after Bihar increased women’s reservation in panchayats from 33% to 50%—because she liked the odds, and because her husband asked her to. “I used to be shy," she says. “I didn’t have the confidence in 2006 that I could win."

That year, Bihar became the first state to reserve 50% panchayat seats for women, and was followed by 15 others, including Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Tripura and Maharashtra. Now the panchayati raj ministry is hoping for two more changes: One, extending the 50% reservation to all states; and two, extending the period for which a seat is reserved for women in a constituency to 10 years. This is because ground reports have shown that it takes two-three years for a first-time woman representative to fully take charge.

While no country-wide studies have been done to measure the impact of reservations on women’s participation in governance, anecdotal evidence suggests a lot has changed since the turn of the century.

Manoj Rai, director, Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), which has worked with the Union panchayati raj ministry in the past, says: “There’s a woman presiding over the gram sabha in many villages today because that is the law. Some people may call it a cosmetic change, but the impact of that is huge." There has, for one, been a marked improvement in social development parameters such as education and health where panchayats are led by women, Rai says.

S.M. Vijayanand, secretary in the ministry, gives the example of Kerala: “Sixty per cent of the elected women representatives are also leaders of self-help groups. They have been meeting people, keeping accounts. These women are competent, autonomous people."

Despite the advances, however, challenges remain. On National Panchayati Raj Day on 24 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked that the idea of “sarpanch pati", or the husband of a women sarpanch calling the shots, be quashed for good.

Take the example of Savitri Devi, mukhiya, Manar panchayat, Aurangabad. Her husband’s involvement in panchayat work during her first stint as mukhiya from 2006-11 included weighing in on which village projects should get priority. Savitri was re-elected to the post in 2011 and now handles around 20 lakh worth of projects annually on her own, she says.

*****

Prabha’s husband only stopped accompanying her to panchayat events in March 2012, a year after she was elected.

Prabha and Savitri had both signed up for three-day residential training with the Centre for Catalyzing Change (CCC), one of the non-governmental organizations focused on women’s empowerment. And CCC put its foot down: The training was for elected women representatives, not their husbands and sons. “It was a challenge initially to tell the men that they would not be allowed to stay," says Aparajita Gogoi, executive director of the CCC.

CCC’s training has three modules: a foundation in the structure of the panchayat as well as information about its meetings and committees; a primer on gender inequality—its causes and effects; and an understanding of the basics of healthcare, with a focus on reproductive health and family planning.

For Savitri, the big takeaway was the conversation around gender inequality. She had some knowledge of how the panchayat is organized, because of her first stint and also since her father had been a mukhiya in his own village. At her father’s home, her role had been limited to plying the endless stream of visitors with tea and snacks. If some of the ideas rubbed off on her, she didn’t let on. The increase in reservation was a trigger for her family to let her step out of the house, into public life. “My husband talked to my father-in-law, and convinced him that I wouldn’t neglect the household and children’s studies if I was elected," she says.

Savitri now bristles at any suggestion that women may be inferior to men in any way, or that they can’t handle money or politics on their own. “Why can’t a girl light a funeral pyre? Tell me that," she challenges.

As mukhiya, Savitri says her greatest achievement is filling out labour cards for more than 200 people. “I found out that people had been working in the panchayats under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), but weren’t registered as labourers. They are not insured in case of an accident if they are not registered. I had to go around 13 wards, raising awareness, convincing people to come forward," she says. The campaign, Savitri says, was so successful that the forms were pouring in even after the cut-off date. “I just bundled the late forms with other papers and submitted them to the vidhayak (MLA). What was I to do? Definitely not turn those people away!"

Governments and non-profits have been trying to drive the change. From 2003-08, the panchayati raj ministry and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ran a capacity-building initiative in 10 districts across 10 states. They identified problems like patriarchal mindsets and low literacy levels and exposure to politics among women as road-blocks, and worked with local non-governmental organizations to address these.

In a report released in December 2009, the UNDP acknowledged that the problem was huge: Even with 33% reservation for women in panchayats across the country since 1992, one million women had been elected—most of them had had little to no exposure to politics and came from households where women were seldom consulted in matters of importance.

CCC’s Pahel programme, started in 2007 with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation that provides grants to non-profits, tackles some of the same issues. Gogoi says that so far, 1,200 women have been trained across six blocks.

But over the past eight years, the CCC has seen enough success stories to put together a booklet—Pahel: Women Leading Change. It’s a compendium of how women like Prabha have gotten handpumps installed, roads built, petitioned block development officers (BDOs) for regular gram sabhas or village meetings with elected representatives, filled out forms for old-age pensions, checked rolls of MGNREGA workers and fought for better healthcare and education facilities.

Madhuparna Das Joshi, senior adviser, gender and governance, CCC, says, “On the health front, there is a positive collaboration with health workers that has led to better service delivery, including use of untied funds to solve problems such as purchase of equipment, ensuring privacy in health check-ups."

One example mentioned in the booklet is of Meera Devi of the Loma panchayat in Gaighat, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, who asked the mukhiya to use untied funds— 10,000, which isn’t earmarked for a project but may be used to provide urgently needed services—to buy beds and blood pressure machines for the local healthcare unit. The centre had no beds.

*****

It’s hard to imagine that Prabha was once shy. At a “dissemination meeting" organized by CCC in New Delhi on 25 August, she was dressed in a purple sari with the pallu pinned to one shoulder (not covering her head), hair parted and plaited neatly. Speaking to an audience comprising largely non-profit organization employees and journalists, she talked about her “adhikar" (right) and the work she had done in Lagma, such as a debate (“sawaal-jawaab") she had with the mukhiya about installing 16 handpumps in the ward—better water infrastructure, childcare services and health facilities are areas that women policymakers have been found to care about more deeply than male representatives.

When Prabha first took office, she was unsure of what she was expected to do as a ward member. After four years in office, she speaks like a pro, giving reasons why she should be elected for a second term when the Bihar panchayat elections are held next year. Her campaign pitch includes getting money disbursed for a 1.2 lakh sewage project that had been cleared by the authorities. “When I went to the BDO to ask about the money, he broke into a cold sweat. We found the money just lying in bundles in a cupboard," she says.

Every day, around 9am Prabha moves around the ward. “If I find a child of school-going age outside, I tell him to run along and go to school. If I visit the anganwadi and find that the ration for lactating mothers and pregnant women is not being distributed, I ask questions," she says.

On these rounds of their wards, the women representatives, including Prabha, have found strength in numbers. Often, they travel together, watch for infractions—big and small—together. What they lack in terms of a leadership pipeline—a pantheon of women leaders to look up to—they make up for in the company, and counsel, of other women.

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Published: 19 Sep 2015, 01:01 AM IST
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