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Rural Indian women stand to be counted

Jan 20, 2010

A few gutsy and spirited female chiefs in the hinterlands of western India are initiating transformation and advancement in their communities in a myriad ways.

Ranmala, India: The villages of Ranmala, Nandagane, Shirgaon and Mengdewadi, in Pune, Sangli and Satara districts, western India, have one thing in common.

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They are all headed by female sarpanches (village chiefs), and what a difference it has made.

Changuna Raoji Sinalkar, 43 and single, was unanimously elected head of Ranmala when the post of sarpanch here fell vacant after it was declared a seat reserved for women. On Aug. 27, the Indian government upped the reservation of seats for women in panchayats (village councils) from 33 to 50%.

Villagers in Ranmala said it made no difference to anyone that Changuna was a Dalit (previously untouchables, and outside the rigid caste system) and crippled by polio in her childhood, which meant that no one was willing to marry her. They went by her track record of working in the government-run kindergarten called 'anganwadi'.

Confident of meeting the challenge, Changuna accepted the responsibility, and turned her attention to putting in place basic amenities like toilets.

In rural India, people usually defecate in the open fields. For women, this has meant waking up before the village to avoid being seen. Often, they go in groups for personal safety as well as protection from wild animals.

"It was tough going at odd hours in the fields to relieve ourselves. The need was there for long but nobody not even the village male folk ever thought of doing something for us," Changuna said. Ranmala is in Maharashtra state, roughly 200 kms from Mumbai.

Changuna set out to implement government programmes to ensure total sanitation. Through persuasion, she managed to convince the villagers to construct toilets. In just three years, every house in the village has a toilet; their women owners so proud that most of them have their names and addresses written on the doors and walls of the toilet along with a slogan!

The village of Nandagane, Satara District, has overcome years and years of water scarcity through the efforts of its woman sarpanch, Sunita Rajaram Dalvi, 33, at a cost of roughly 30,000 dollars.

Sunita was chosen as part of a seven-member village committee to look into the water crisis before she became the sarpanch. Under the 'Jal Swarajya Prakalp', a government aided project, she worked closely with officials from the district and water supply department and undertook projects including conservation, laying of water pipelines and desilting water bodies that was implemented by the villagers who worked for free.

Sunita mentioned, "For 18 years after my marriage, I used to carry water on my head from wherever it was available and trudge uphill daily. This was the story of all the village women. We could never rest even for a day, as water was needed for cooking, washing, bathing etc. The menfolk never helped but sometimes the children lent a hand."

Under her care, the village has uninterrupted water supply. "We now have running water through the day," she said happily.

Forty five-year-old Anjanabai Amrutsagar was elected sarpanch of Shirgaon (Sangli district) after the seat, like Ranmala, was reserved for women - a decision that forced the ouster of the male sarpanch who had remained unchallenged for 40 years.

There was little acceptability for her in the village. The women barely came out in support, while the men made no bones of their dislike for the female sarpanch.

Anjanabai mentioned, "I was at a loss as to where to begin. I had no support from anyone barring my family members …"

The ice thawed when she began organising the women to play Lezhim, a traditional male sport, "best suited for women in their 40s," according to Anjanabai. The 12 women in the group would practice in the fields late evenings, after their household chores - unthinkable for women to do so.

Very soon many more women joined in, defying the menfolk who would jeer and abuse. They came around only after Shirgaon's women won the first prize in the district Lezhim competition. Early this year, they performed for the Indian President, Pratibha Patil, when she visited Maharashtra, also her home state.

With her support base expanding, Anjanibai moved to mobilising the women on a cleanliness drive in the village. She stopped villagers from defecating in the open fields.

She started women's collectives with the assistance of MAVIM, a government agency, to run tiny businesses like poultry and sheep farming.

In April, Anjanibai who received the state's 'Ideal Woman Sarpanch' award in 2007 and 2008, represented her state at a two-day conference in Bihar for elected women representatives, travelling by air - the first sarpanch in Maharashtra to get this opportunity. On her return, excited villagers greeted her with the Lezhim!

For Lata Dattatreya Mengade, 35, sarpanch of Mengdewadi, Pune district, her efforts in helping villagers change their perceptions about the girl child has been her greatest contribution. Female infanticide and foeticide are rampant in many parts of India; the male-female ratio is seriously skewed.

"I have always known the birth of a girl is viewed as a drain on precious resources. Since the government has been making efforts to contain the social evil, I took up that cause," she said in an interview.

In less than three years the seemingly impossible has happened. The birth of a girl is followed by a small celebration organised by the sarpanch and other village women.

Changuna, Sunita, Anjanibai and Lata have all been trained in good governance by the non governmental organisation, Mahila Rajsatta Andolan (campaign for women's governance).

Civil society and government have joined together with some very plucky women to change some of India's villages.

Source : IPS
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