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When women govern

Oct 07, 2008

They are action oriented and committed to development of their little hamlets. At a recent gathering in the Indian capital, The Hunger Project brought together thirty women panchayat leaders from different states of the country. OneWorld South Asia spoke to a few of them about their successes and challenges.

Zahira Bano created history when she contested district level elections for the Ladakh Hill Development Council. Being the first woman to do so in a region heavily influenced by religion and tradition, she defied pressures and threats from the conservative clerics.

Zahira Bano

Zahira lost the election but her courage against all odds has become a symbol of inspiration for many others seeking change.

Several such women have shown phenomenal leadership ability amidst all hurdles. They have struggled to bring water, health, education to their communities and construct roads in their villages.

It was indeed a rare occasion when 30 women panchayat leaders from 14 states of India gathered recently in the Indian Capital for the award ceremony of Sarojini Naidu Prize 2008 held on October 2.

Initiated by The Hunger Project in 2001, the prize recognises journalists for their reporting on the success and achievements of elected women leaders at the grassroots.

P Chidambaram, India’s Finance Minister, felicitated the winners short listed from 1,300 entries by a distinguished jury panel comprising noted personalities from media, government and academia.

Women Panchayat leaders.JPG

Renowned actor and film director Revathy graced the occasion as the guest of honour.

The Hunger Project works in 14 states in India to strengthen the leadership of elected women leaders in village panchayats so as to enable them to end hunger and poverty in their villages.

A grassroots revolution

Various social conditions have hindered and undermined the roles of women, denying them voices and opportunity to participate in public life.

A revolution, however, was unleashed by the historic 73rd Constitutional Amendment in 1993 that mandated 33.3% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).

This became a defining moment of action as more than one million women from diverse backgrounds became elected representatives to village panchayats. 

Every day these women set out on an agenda to bring reform and usher progress and development in their constituencies.

Maya Bhakuni is one such agent of change. Elected from Chanauda Panchayat in Almora, Uttarakhand, she has worked extensively on issues related to forest management and conservation of water resources in her village.

Maya Bhakuni

“I talk to men and women about importance of natural resources for sustainability and try to stop them from cutting trees unnecessarily,” she says. 

“Initially I faced a lot of opposition especially from men but after much persuasion many have stopped bringing raw wood from the forests,” she adds.

Bhakuni though laments the fact that despite seats reserved for women in PRIs, women participation in local governance is lagging way behind. “They should start taking charge and stop depending on men,” she asserts.

There are numerous tales of such commendable feats achieved by elected women leaders across India who play a crucial role in local governance.

Challenging the status quo

In the remotest corners of the country, thousands of women leaders have started questioning corruption, inefficiency and lack of basic necessities in their villages.

Sangita Naik

“We walk miles to meet the officials, why can’t they come to our villages and lend an ear to people’s miseries,” says Sangita Naik, president from Borda Panchayat in Kalahandi, Orissa. 

Belonging to a scheduled caste, Naik openly challenged the prevalent status quo by supporting two women from her villages in performing last rites of their deceased kin.

Expressing anguish over administrative apathy, she says, “Grants are not enough to meet the development needs of our village. There are no concrete roads and even the benefits of Indira Awas Yojna (housing scheme) have not reached all.”

Voicing a similar tone, 30-year old, Monlik Shongthin from Arunachal Pradesh says: “The north-east region still remains cut off from rest of the country. It is gradually that people are realising the power of panchayats.”

A single woman and the sole bread winner of the family, she has been elected for the second time as a ward member from Songkhuhady Panchayat in Changlang district.

She points out several problem areas. “Absenteeism is rampant as teachers fail to turn up because of the arduous terrain. NREGA too has not been not implemented so far and not enough relief funds come from the administration to a region hit by frequent landslides,” she notes. 

Monlik Shongthin

Having realised limitations of being illiterate, Shongthin has prioritised education in her constituency.

Zahira too believes that education plays a crucial role in awakening and progress and reserving seats for girls in higher institutions is a vital step in this direction.

Towards a responsive system

“Women have proven themselves as better leaders and bring into focus basic issues affecting their daily lives. We work towards bringing out their inherent talents and transform them into good leaders of their respective areas,” says Litali Das from The Hunger Project.

The Hunger Project focuses on five essential elements: strengthening women’s leadership through women’s leadership workshops; mobilising gram sabhas; facilitating federations of elected women; promoting clean electoral processes during Panchayat elections; and influencing public opinion through media partnerships. 

Lata Panwar

Assisted by the Project, Lata Panwar, a first time ward member from Nahri Panchayat in Sloan, Himachal Pradesh went door to door and told the expectant mothers about importance of girl child and population control.

“Men do oppose as to why we are interfering in their domestic affairs but we manage to convince them,” she proudly declares.

Panwar has taken steps to create awareness on HIV and negative implications of declining sex-ratio. “We hold health camps on Sunday to ensure maximum participation of the people in such drives,” she adds.

Tulsi Devi too has a similar achievement to her credit. As president of Jargiya Panchayat in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, she led a successful campaign against the opening of liquor shops.

Tulsi Devi

A first timer, she won the elections defeating the muscle and money power brazenly used by her opponents.

Building a new future

Throughout India, women representatives in the local bodies are passionately working to make basic amenities like clean drinking water, health and education facilities accessible for their communities.

“Water is integral to women’s lives. We go in villages and farms and talk to rural women as they manage the households. We have got 10 tube wells installed and a thousand families have been befitted,” says Renu Bedia elected from Selenghat Panchayat in Jorhat, Assam.

Effective devolution in terms of funds, functions and functionaries is yet to take place but the painstaking efforts by these women leaders have sown the seeds of transformation in their ‘little republics’.

Strengthening women's role in grassroots governance can go a long way in upholding the true spirit of democracy.

“Women have been given equal rights like men, then why do they bear any form of discrimination?,” says Naik.

Zahira contends, “Maulvis do not allow us to come to the fore and participate in the political process as they consider it blasphemy. But nowhere the religion debars women. Take the case of Iran, Iraq where women have entered parliament”.

She realised the urgency to break silence. “I was determined to change the scene. Despite losing, I think I managed to pave the way for other young men and women to spearhead the process”.

The Panchayati Raj system in India holds the promise of realising those fundamental frights that people are entitled to. These elected women representatives have made significant strides in reducing poverty and deprivation.

But for women’s leadership to have a significant impact on local governance, there is a need to foster collective action through better policies, advocacy, and support of the citizenry.

No doubt these women are slowly but surely changing the development agenda to fulfill the basic needs of their communities.

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