Rising Women Power

Panchayati Raj System is giving women a platform to make their collective voice heard and boosts their participation in the process of economic development at the grassroots level

Rising Women Power

Panchayati Raj System is giving women a platform to make their collective voice heard and boosts their participation in the process of economic development at the grassroots level. Mohd Mustaquim interacts with a number of women panchayat representatives across the country to do a reality check on women empowerment in the country
Nancy Reagan, wife of Former US President Ronald Reagan had once said, “A woman is like a tea bag: you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Today, the same has been reverberated as women in Indian villages are leading their way in the policy decisions, implementation and delivery of Central Government funds meant for upliftment of panchayats in the country. Indian women, particularly in the villages, have had to struggle cultural doctrines and prohibitions passed on over generations that have hitherto hindered their empowerment and progress, and denied them opportunities in education, employment—and politics. However, increasingly, everyone has realised that keeping this nearly 50 per cent of the population powerless and unproductive was a deterrent to economic growth. From this perspective, the Panchayati Raj has played a significant role in raising the level of women’s empowerment.

With the amendment in the Panchayat Raj Act to provide 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs), the women in Indian villages are breaking the glass ceiling. As per the amendments, reservation of seats and offices of Gram Panchayats, Mandal Parishads and Zilla Parishads, half of the seats in these institutions would henceforth be earmarked for women. Previously, women had a one-third quota in these institutions.

Many states have in the past decade shown remarkable improvement in social development indices compared with the previous decade. The infant mortality rate has decreased, and institutional delivery and literacy rates have improved. These improvements are seen as indicators of a higher level of awareness among women.

Prior to this Amendment Bill of 2009, Bihar was the first state which provided 50 per cent reservations for women in the PRIs in 2005. This was followed by Uttarakhand, with a whopping 55 per cent, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala and Maharashtra. After this constitutional amendment, now all states are bound to give 50 per cent reservations for women in the PRIs.

After these constitutional provisions and state legislations, the status of women has started changing, in some states it has proved a game changer and has improved the status of women, in some states it is in the transformation stage, while in some the success rate is negligible.

The Panchayati Raj System came into force across the country in 1993, and the 20 years that have passed since then have reinforced the power of women in rural India. The 73rd amendment of Indian Constitution has transformed the dynamics of rural development and provided women with opportunities to demonstrate their leadership qualities and abilities, and widen their representation at the political grassroots level. It has given women a platform to make their collective voice heard and boosted their participation in the process of economic development at the grassroots level.

According to the report of the Committee on Empowerment of Women (2010) submitted to the 15th Lok Sabha, with every successive panchayat election, women have been able to enlarge their representation beyond the minimum 33 per cent prescribed by the Constitution. With the participation of women rising under the Panchayati Raj System and decision-making process at the grassroots administration, its significance is increasing.

Dr. Shilpa Choudhary, member, Zilla Parishad, Paroo, Muzaffarpur district in Bihar, says, “As a woman I do not have to face any problem to get my works done in the area. Even male members of the society also support me. But those who are corrupt and seek commissions in development funds are opposed to my work as I don’t want to let them take stake in public funds. I face such problems in the block level, as well as local leadership.”

Choudhary has worked as a women scientist in New Delhi for three years with Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. She was specialised in renewable energy and preferred to serve people of her own area through Panchayati Raj.

Status of women has changed in her Zila Panchayat, but things are still in the transition period. As women are getting representations in the local bodies, they do not fear any one. They are demanding for more of their rights. “In middles class families, if any crime happens against women, the male members of the families hide the issue within the house. While in lower class families it gets public. Moreover, the women reply to the male members equally,” asserts Choudhary.

She considers her Zila Panchayat comparatively developed than others. According to her, in all seven Gram Panchayats in her area, all of them have schools and one even has an intermediate college. Focusing on education, she wants a degree college in her Zilla Panchayat. “Although the electrification work is in the process, but there is a scarcity in generating power in the state, so I want the state government to establish solar grid in the area.”

In order to improve the life of women, she wants the government to facilitate fisheries, vegetable farming and cottage industries and women be given employment so that they can be self-reliant.

Abha Devi, Panchayat Pramukh of Alampur Gonpura, Phulwari Sharif, Patna in Bihar sees an improvement in the status of women in her gram panchayat after implementing 50 per cent reservation in the local bodies. She says, “Earlier women had to be suppressed and confined within the houses and had to follow male members of their family. Now, they are getting empowered and not a single lady is confined in the houses. They are coming forward and openly participating in the social issues. They are asking for their rights.”

She has opened a panchayat office and women of her gram panchayat come to the office with their problems on their own and seek solutions. Now, the girls are educating themselves and running forward on the growth path.

In the south western state of Goa, things seem to have changed in a good way. Sridhar Manjrekar, president of Zilla Panchayat, district of North Goa, says, “Goa has a different character than other parts of the country. According to NSSO’s 2001 data, 82 per cent of women in the state are literate, much higher than other states. The Goan women participate in social issues on their own and get encouragement and respect from their male counterparts as well. They are vocal, frank and ask for their rights and they feel empowered.”

She has been Zila Panchayat member for three successive terms. In her tenure, she formed self-help-groups (SHG), comprised of local women. She wants cottage industries for women so that they can get employment and do not have to depend upon males.

According to Abha Devi, in block office, she has to pay a certain commission to the officials. If not paid, it takes more than usual time to get the funds. She says, “Lot of works need to be done, but officials cry for funds, so more funds to be released so that we can meet the public expectation.”

Under Zila Panchayat, Choudhary of Muzaffarpur gets funds for Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF) and a little stake in Aangandwadi. According to her, the funds are too short to meet the expectations of public. Moreover, during releasing the funds, the officials deduct 30-40 per cent on the name of official expenses. Actually, corruption is deep rooted and the commission goes to the officials and local leaders. “If we fight for this issue, they do not sanction the projects and do not issue funds. We do not have any option except paying them commission, says Choudhary.

Santra Devi, mukhiya, gram panchayat, Maulanapur, Ghazipur district in UP, tells a different tale of prevailing corruption and backwardness. Through public distribution system, earlier people were able to get only kerosene oil to eradicate darkness in their houses in the night.

According to her she fought with the system and now people getting 10 kg of wheat per month. Still there is a big pilferage prevails in the PDS system in the area. She finds, all the funds come through gram pradhan and there is no implementation of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Only four or five days of work is allotted to the people under this Central job scheme. She does not find houses allotted under Indira Awas Yojana. People have only option to live in the huts and tents. Also she does not find any sanitation work or tube -wells for drinking water.

She says, “The poor people do not have ration cards and BPL cards. We fight with the system, but no one listens to us. We want houses under IAY for poor people.” She was successful in getting a school. The school building has been constructed but teachers are yet to be recruited.

Yet, there are some drawbacks embedded in the system have also surfaced, demanding rectification as soon as possible for translating its noble objectives into reality. Many women pradhans have admitted that they have had to depend on male members of the panchayat and family for taking decisions on behalf of their community. Many women pradhans, who haven’t progressed beyond high school, have neither empowered themselves nor been at the forefront of decision- making for the communities they lead. It has also been observed in field studies that while most women representatives are acquainted with various government schemes and know about the process of selecting beneficiaries, a large number of them lack knowledge of policy guidelines.

Anjana Prashad, member of Zilla Parishad, Muzaffarpur in Bihar, sees 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions as an opportunity for women in public space and for their empowerment. She says, “Sometime, we have to face taunts within the family that we are getting empowerment because of the reservation only.”

In her Zila Panchayat, the status of women in the society is getting changed gradually, but it is in the transformation period. In the district of Muzaffarpur, out of 33 women members, only 6-7 are capable to put their views in the council meetings. Rests of them do not talk anything. It shows the lack of confidence and awareness among them.

Asha Devi Sharma, a social worker and former Zilla Parishad Member, Jaipur in Rajasthan echoes Prasad’s views, “Sometimes, women representative are unaware of their rights, they should be given appropriate training and awareness about their works and rights so that they can work for the society.

In the lack of education and freedom, sometimes women representatives have to work as a rubber stamp only. She further adds, “Also women representatives should be given full freedom in their work and should not be influenced by officials or their male members of the family, otherwise women empowerment will not be meaningful.”

Not seeing a major change in the status of women in the society, Anjana says, “Those who were powerful earlier, are still powerful and do their work whatever they want to. If female members are working on their own, male population feel insecurity. They do not want women to get empowerment.”

Most of the rural development funds are disbursed through Panchayat Mukhyas in Bihar, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishad members do not get enough funds to meet the public expectations. Zilla Parishad members only get funds under BRGF and some parts of Aanganwadis. “We are unable to get all works done within the limited funds. Sometime we have to approach MPs, MLAs and District Development Officer for getting done our area development works, Anjana further says.

The two most desired components of women’s empowerment —education and employment—have remained overlooked in the panchayati raj framework. And, if women representatives at the grassroots are not provided in-depth understanding about the Domestic Violence Act, 2006, for instance, how will they be empowered to battle against such evils in rural society? To make the panchayati raj a true harbinger of women’s empowerment, an enormous structural reform is the need of the hour.

The Changing Face of Rural India