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Changing the rules: Woman sarpanch leads the way

Mar 15, 2010

Enraged by the men’s opposition to women invading the village chaupal, 42-year-old Sunita Devi in the hinterlands of a north Indian state, Haryana broke stiff rules to become the village sarpanch. She is now working with other women in spreading awareness on sex determination tests and leading by example.

Garhi Hakeeqat, Haryana: What pleases Sunita Devi most about her position in Garhi Hakeeqat is not the Women’s Reservation Bill promising mandatory reservation for women in the electoral process that will promote many like her, but the proud remembrance of the day she climbed up the village chaupal.

Until three years ago, the rules were stiff. The chaupal, a raised, circular platform-like structure for public meetings was, for all practical purposes, considered a preserve of men; and every woman, even when passing by, had to cover her head.

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It was important for 42-year- old Sunita Devi to break the rule. Since April 2005, she has been the sarpanch (gram panchayat head) of Garhi Hakeeqat, one of the 321 gram panchayats in Sonipat district and a total of 6,155 in Haryana, out of which nearly half are governed by women.

In her second year as sarpanch, in 2007, Sunita Devi chanced upon a rare moment of awakening under the fierce afternoon sun. All the men in the village had gathered around the chaupal to hear a woman activist from neighbouring Harmana Majra. “Men were garlanding and welcoming her. When women of the village went to do the same, they stopped us,” she says.

The men’s opposition to women invading the chaupal prompted a rage in her. “Just as she was a woman, we are women, too. I asked myself why I was never accorded the same respect, despite being a sarpanch,” she recalls at her tin-roofed house in the village, seated on a plastic chair next to a makeshift toilet.

After that day, she never had to struggle with the question. She hailed all the women, previously denied entry, and led them to the chaupal with their veils in place. “We had voted for her and she was doing the right thing in leading us,” says Neelam Devi, a housewife from the Dalit community who voted for her and now helps her in spreading awareness on sex determination tests, a particularly serious problem in Haryana, where female foeticide is common.

“If women sarpanchs conduct meetings, undertake development initiatives and lead by example, this will bear out promises of every affirmative action policy of the government in favour of women, including the mandatory reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) and the Women’s Reservation Bill,” says Amita Singh, chairperson of the Centre for Policy and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill 2008—popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill—was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 9 March and has now reached the Lok Sabha. Once passed, the proposed legislation will reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures for women.

Source : Mint
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