POLITICS OF CHANGE: WOMEN IN LOCAL GOVERNANCE



A special series supported by FES







Women's participation in the panchayats and other local governing bodies is imperative for their inclusion in policy formulation and programme planning. In April 1993, the Government of India had passed the Constitutional (73rd Amendment) Act mandating that there should be at 33 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). In 2009, the Union Cabinet approved 50 per cent reservation for women in PRIs. Today, there are nearly 1.5 million women in these bodies. How has the increased participation of women in local governance enabled them to make a difference to their community? Have they been able to break the cultural norms that were holding them back? Does the presence of women in governance lead to better implementation of laws and social schemes? What are the challenges they face? In this series, we look for answers to some of these questions as we highlight the experiences of women in governance.

INDIA:
Disability Be Damned, Pushpa Is Set To Work For Her Village
By Kulsum Mustafa

She is highly-educated, extremely independent and her outlook is progressive. In short, she is your average city girl with a liberal upbringing from a well-heeled family, right? Wrong. Pushpa Singh belongs to a small, nondescript village in Sharaswasti, a backward district of Uttar Pradesh, is one of six siblings and has been physically disabled since birth. Of course, she has broken all stereotypes and overcome tough challenges to be elected as a member of the Block Development Council in her area. Needless to say, her being voted into power in otherwise patriarchal hinterland, where caste politics dominates, spells good news not just for the local women but will significantly impact the image of physically disabled people and expand their political participation.

* “We voted for her and not the contestant from our caste simply because she is a fighter who has fought against all odds and we are confident she will fight for us too.”


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INDIA:
In Bihar, Elected Grassroots Women Follow Feminist Strategies
By Saadia Azim

“The personal is political” is one of those phrases that feminists tend to bounce around a lot but several grassroots women elected representatives in Bihar have made it their business to bring the so-called “personal problems” of women and girls, particularly issues related to their sexual and reproductive rights, into the “political arena”. One of them is Manju Devi, 45, the elected ward member of Madhuban Panchayat in Sitamarhi district’s Dumra block. High on her agenda is the wellbeing of adolescent girls, as Manju is convinced that teaching them good hygiene practices, including the use and disposal of sanitary napkins, as well as boosting their nutritional status, by providing balanced midday meals in schools and timely distributing iron and folic acid supplements, are the first steps towards securing maternal and child health in her area. Like her, there are other panchayat women, who have overcome political, cultural and social barriers for the sake of safeguarding women’s right to health – by reviving their local health centre, kick-starting their Village Health Sanitation Nutrition Committee and even motivating the frontline health workers to stay committed to the cause.

* “I felt like a powerful leader the day I was able to compel the Block Education Officer to have a one-to-one meeting with me to discuss the distribution of free sanitary napkins in government schools. I know how girls are forced to drop-out when they begin menstruating; at least this is one way it can be prevented.”


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INDIA:
Preparing To Be A Grassroots Leader
By Rakhi Ghosh

Whereas there is no denying the fact that women leaders instinctively know and understand the issues of their community, be it the lack of healthcare, food security, schools or sanitation, those who do get elected to the panchayat as panches or sarpanches for the first time are not really equipped to instantly provide good governance. After all, there can be no denying the very real hurdles they have to contend with – be it the lack of education or lack of confidence due to a poor understanding of the Panchayati Raj system, or even the lack of awareness about how to go about the planning process and rolling out welfare schemes. So, what is it that facilitates them in performing their role in the local self governing bodies to the optimum, overcoming the barriers of literacy, ignorance and, most importantly, regressive patriarchy, which at times forces them to play second fiddle to the men? According to grassroots leaders like Ranjita Sethi, who is a much-respected sarpanch despite being from a lower caste, or Rajani Hans, a deputy sarpanch who defied her male counterpart to make her village open defecation free, the capacity building training they receive after being elected is a real game changer for them. Of course, while they admit that the initial training is certainly beneficial it’s not enough to completely prepare them for the job at hand. Most women learn by trial and error, which they feel is a costly lesson.

* “When it is difficult for an educated person to understand the Panchayati Raj system, know about the nitty-gritty’s of implementing government schemes how can a semi-literate person from remote village learn everything in a few sessions. Moreover, it would be of great help if both PRIs and government officials attend the training together.”


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INDIA:
Women Set Their Development Agenda
By Ajitha Menon

Caste equations in Kerala have always been a powerful socio-economic and political force. Over the years, the schedule castes (SCs) and other backward castes (OBCs), reeling from suppression and oppression at different levels, have organised themselves into cohesive bodies to enforce their rights and seize their entitlements. Today, the feisty women members of grassroots groups like the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS) or the OBC Ezahva organisation and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) in the state have not only managed to overcome exploitation but they are now successfully setting the community development agenda for their local self government bodies. Apart from having found a unified, confident voice and platform to air their views on equality and rights, they are holding regular meetings with officials at the panchayat and district levels to push economic empowerment and secure people’s access to government schemes.

* These organisations have set up an almost parallel democratic structure from the panchayat to the block and district levels and the Vanitha Federations, powered by strong women, are active and important participants in this para governance model.


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INDIA:
Kerala’s Nursery For Future Women Politicians
By Ajitha Menon

What does a woman need to make her mark in electoral politics in India? Be born into a political family, be close to one, or have the blessings of a powerful male politician?. It’s a yes to all of these – whether it is at the grassroots, where it’s easier for a woman whose family member(s) has served on the panchayat to get elected or in the urban setting where climbing the political ladder is impossible without the right connections. However, Bindu Shivadasan, 40, has defied the norms to become the President of the Mattathur Gram Panchayat in Thrissur district of Kerala. When this once simple homemaker decided to contest the polls she neither had the support of the political big-wigs of the area nor the benefit of years of political grooming. What she did have at her disposal was a network of women just like her, considerable experience in micro-credit and micro-entrepreneurship, a deep understanding of the community issues and a friend in almost every home in the panchayat. After all, as a long time Kudumbasree member Bindu had already managed to secure financial freedom for herself and other women in the area and she was ready to go to the next level – exert her powers to provide good governance. In Kerala, the hugely successful Kudumbasree poverty alleviation programme has facilitated thousands of women in entering mainstream politics to make a “real difference to peoples’ lives”.

* “The ‘Kudumbashree’ programme is a medium for discovering women’s power and their group strength and using it effectively at the household, community, social and political levels.”


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INDIA:
Men For Women At The Panchayat
By Suchismita Pai

It was extreme anxiety that drove Sampata Shivaji Babar and Kalavati Sambhaji Babar to Baburao Sadashiv Bhajnavle. In Manegaon village of Maharashtra’s Solapur district, women were not just expected to keep quiet they were also expected to be invisible. On the domestic front they had to take on the responsibility of the household without any complaints and in the village they had to move around barefoot with their face hidden behind their sari. But desperate times call for desperate measures. With failing agriculture and food running low it all came down to their local elected body to ensure that each family got its share of subsidised government ration, yet, no one seemed to care. So Sampata and Kalavati decided to speak to Baburao on how to raise the issue of entitlements under the Food Security Act in the gram sabha. Why approach Baburao? Well, ever since a unique intervention underway in Manegaon has been motivating men to support women at home and in the panchayat, he has emerged as a vociferous advocate of equal rights. Not only did Baburao encourage the duo to take up the matter seriously he assisted them in doing the groundwork to hold their first ever Mahila Sabha, which paved the way to resolving their food security problems for good. Encouraged by this success, within a couple of months the number of women attending the gram sabha burgeoned to 60 and today the numbers are nearly equal.

* “The issues women bring to the panchayat now are very basic, like building toilets in homes or ensuring water is available closer to their homes so that they do not have to spend a majority of their day fetching it. However, it is for the benefit of the entire village.”


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INDIA:
Women Move The Panchayat To Fight Domestic Violence
By Manipadma Jena

Her first two pregnancies ended the same way – early into her term, Jyosana Das, 24, would ask her husband to get her some medicine as her legs ached doing the heavy household chores. Within four days of taking the tablets she would miscarry. Then, by the time she was expecting her third, something much worse happened. Her husband sold her to someone in Hyderabad although with great difficulty she did manage to escape and return home. Helpless and alone, she finally got support from a few feisty women of her Patana village in Odisha’s coastal district of Jagatsinghpur. These women called a special panchayat meeting and have mobilised others to get justice for Das. There has been a lot of resistance from her father-in-law and today even her husband is absconding but the women’s group of Patana has been by her side every step of the way. Across different villages in coastal Odisha groups of women have taken it upon themselves to deal with the menace of domestic violence and alcoholism by joining hands with their panchayat leaders. Even though the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, extends support to women, for those living in rural areas the intervention of the panchayat, sought by the women’s groups, makes all the difference.

* “Dwipan Das is a politically connected man and only the backing of panchayat members can bring him to book. That is why we decided to call a special meeting to deal with Jyosana’s case and have been closely keeping an eye on her.”


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INDIA:
Women Tribal Leaders Herald Politics of Change
By Ninglun Hanghal

In her long innings, first as a student leader then a social activist and, finally, an elected leader, Madhumati Debbarma has seen many ups and downs as well as triumphs. She has enjoyed every phase of her public life although she does admit that getting herself elected to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council was no cakewalk. Ask her counterpart in the Manipur (Hill Area) Autonomous District Council, Hatthing Doungel on how her political career has shaped up and she, too, will relay mixed feelings. The reality of women’s grassroots leadership in the northeastern states of Manipur and Tripura, which have parallel governance structures – the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) administer the tribal areas while the panchayats govern the non tribal regions – is rough and, at the same time, promising. However, for women leaders like Debbarma, Doungel and others like them, who aspire to wield power on the hitherto male dominated ADCs, the going is even tougher. They don’t have 33 per cent reservation and often find themselves up against patriarchal mindsets and yet as Debbarma puts it “no effort is too great for an opportunity to work for people and influence policy positively”.

* “As a Manipur ADC member I not only want to work on development projects related to infrastructure creation or micro credit but also prepare favourable grounds for greater peace and security. It has a huge bearing on the lives of women and children.”


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INDIA:
Priyanka And Firoza Show What Governance Is All About
By Aditi Bhaduri

Later she would hear how lovely the weather had been, how brightly the sun had shone and how the temperature had been just right that day. But when she had entered her husband's village as a young bride in 2007, all she saw was a sea of faces. All she could think of was her new life that lay ahead: the relatives she had to make her own, the man who was now her husband, the children that would come soon... Not even in her wildest dreams had Priyanka Devi of Katkamdag panchayat in Jharkhand imagined that she would become a much-loved and respected village leader. Everything changed when her state decided to hold panchayat polls for the first time in 2010. The men who stood for elections were just not right for the job. After all, “what sort of change could men, who were often found drunk, got into brawls, gambled away their wife's jewellery, bring to our village?” Then she came to know of the 73rd Amendment that reserved seats for women and decided to jump into the fray. Today, Sarpanch Priyanka has wiped out alcoholism, secured healthcare and ensured financial stability by implementing state schemes, and, in the process, she has also earned immense fame and social standing. While the reservation policy has received marked criticism, grassroots leaders like Priyanka Devi, Firoza Bibi and others are working hard to prove all the negative perceptions wrong.

* “The advent of the new Panchayati Raj with women's mandatory participation sought to transform the governance paradigm in India. Truly, all areas of social life have been impacted – human development, women's empowerment, gender budgeting, inclusion of the excluded.”


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INDIA:
What Makes A Capable Grassroots Leader?
By Rakesh Kumar

Norati Devi has always stood up for change and justice. It was she who fought for equal wages for women labourers in Rajasthan in the 1980s and, over the years, has been at the forefront of social activism. Despite never having undergone formal schooling, Norati has always emerged on top, be it discharging her duties as the Sarpanch of Harmara village in Ajmer district or addressing international audiences to share her experiences. Meet another grassroots leader, Amatulla Mehar, 21, of Chacha in Jaisalmer, a crusader against child marriage. When she had passed Class Ten she was the only girl to do so in her village and today it's her mission to ensure that children are not denied their right to education. Impressed with Norati and Amatulla's work? Would it be possible to distinguish between who would make a more competent leader? This year, when the two decided to contest village elections, only one was deemed 'capable'. Norati was rejected because she did not have a Class Ten certificate, as stipulated by a state ordinance - Rajasthan is the first state in India to set educational qualifications for local elected representatives. Whereas the education v/s experience debate is not new, this controversial directive has created quite a stir.

* “The reality is that the education levels in rural areas are extremely low, especially among women. Obviously, people will resort to using false documents.”


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INDIA:
Women Corporators Bring Fresh Development Ideas To Their City
By Saadia Azim

Sudharshana Mukherjee is used to a busy life. As a television journalist she planned her day around the news cycle and often had to burn the midnight oil to meet deadlines. Today, she is no longer a reporter but her schedule is all set to get crazy hectic, with back-to-back meetings and detailed discussions with city officials, union members and, of course, ordinary citizens. Mukherjee is a newly-elected counsellor of the all-powerful Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) that is responsible for running and maintaining the civic infrastructure in the historic state capital of West Bengal. She is among the 70 women that have been voted into the 144-member KMC – the highest number of female candidates ever elected to the municipality - to take decisions that will impact the future of the 4.6 million that live in the bustling city today. Like Mukherjee, several first-timers, a mix of businesswomen, professionals and home-makers, are raring to take charge. On their agenda: making the city safer for women and children by focusing on improving transportation and street lighting, ensuring better sanitation and water supply and upgradation of roads in residential areas, among other.

* ‘I made up my mind to give up my lucrative job to work for the city and the people. …Political participation is not just about contesting elections but making a difference with ideas.’


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INDIA:
Counting On Girl Power For Good Governance
By Anuradha Shukla

Every Sunday, Hiral, Radha, Nisha, Viral and eight other close friends meet at Hiral's home, a weekly ritual that none of them ever miss. Armed with notepads and a concrete agenda for discussion the 12 youngsters sit together behind closed doors for nearly two hours and no one is allowed to disturb them during this time. No, these girls are not part of any sorority or secret society and neither do they hold this ‘get together’ to exchange gossip about their favourite film stars. They are, in fact, members of the all-women Gram Panchayat of Sisva village in Gujarat's Anand district and this is an official meeting where they take stock of the happenings in the 7,000-strong hamlet they have been managing with utmost efficiency since 2011 and meticulously chart out a roadmap for local development. Nominated for the job under the state's Samras scheme, which allows villages to choose their own panchayat through mutual consent and not election, the girls, all of whom are unmarried and aged between 22 and 26 years, have proven themselves as capable administrators having solved Sisva's critical drinking water problem, besides getting toilets built in each home, creating critical health infrastructure and ensuring overall sanitation.

* "We are normal girls, who have big dreams and who love to have fun with our friends. But, at the same time, we are acutely aware of our responsibilities as panchayat members. We understand that good governance is essential to making our village prosperous."


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