Women entering public life have to face much harder, longer road than policy wonks may imagine

panchayat womenBy Moin Qazi*

Men and women should own the world as a mutual possession.
― Pearl S. Buck

The Punjab Assembly has cleared the  way for 50 percent reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) and municipal bodies. Several other states have already  taken to this progressive trajectory and have 50 percent reservations for women in panchayats.

Even though India’s women enjoyed constitutional equality with men, religious custom, traditional thinking, illiteracy and economic reality thwarted their   freedom for long.  During the last two decades the gender landscape has been slowly greening and women are now on the cusp of a powerful empowerment revolution.

The issue of gender discrimination is usually exploited by political parties to appeal to their core vote, much like a travelling circus drums up an audience. After the media switches its attention away, the political circus will pitch its tent somewhere else. Gender was not a priority with the government which was content with tokenism, such as installing a woman president. But the early Nineties saw some   well-meaning policies that, unlike those that barely scratched the surface, hoped to deliver a sledgehammer blow to deeply entrenched patriarchy.

In 1993, an amendment to India’s constitution formally established the Panchayat Raj (Village Government), a three-tiered structure of local governance at the village, block and district levels. It also mandated  that the gram panchayat-village council- at  bottom tier of new   decentralized governance system- would have one third council seats reserved for women .It revitalized an age-old system of rural local government   whose name is drawn from the Sanskrit for ”council of five wise men.”

It is   a silent revolution, the greatest social experiment of our time and one of the greatest innovations in grassroots democracy.  These rural women, who are ordinarily portrayed as being weak, secluded, and victims of tradition, are shattering   the stereotypes. Earlier the contention was that politically inexperienced and otherwise disadvantaged women would simply be overruled or manipulated by their spouses or other powerful local interests. Critics argued that   male politicians would promote female relatives to do their bidding, and that it could advance wealthy, upper-caste women at the expense of poorer lower castes.

This is not the case if one sees the heartening developments on the ground. Political power has enabled several women to successfully overcome deep-seated cultural resistance to catalyze changes in their leadership roles as heads of village governance. They are now setting aright Indian demographics and social indices.

These women leaders  are now heralding the dawn and the roosters are waking up to the new socioeconomic and political revolution that is emerging in the countryside. Women throughout India are ensuring that roads are repaired, electricity is brought to their villages, schools are built, toilets are installed, water sources are made safe, medical services are available, local savings groups are formed, and the list goes on and on. When put in charge, women in India have shown they are better than men at providing public good, which have greater priority for the community.

More than three million women have become politically active, with over one million of them being elected to public office every five years. They are no longer puppets, rubber stamps, or proxies for their husbands. The rise of Indian women as heads of gram panchayats   is a spectacular achievement given that India has one of the worst records with respect to the way it treats the female sex.

One of the   changes is a decrease in sex selection. In the 2001 Indian census, men outnumbered women by seven percentage points. A study by Priti Kalsi, a researcher with the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that increasing women’s political leadership may limit    preferential selection for boys because leadership elevates the status and desirability of girls. Kalsi’s research found that after women’s political representation was increased through quotas, there was a substantial decrease in child mortality among girls and a significant increase in the likelihood that one of the first three children born to a mother will be a girl — suggesting a decrease in sex-selective abortions and female foeticide.

A study co-authored by Esther Duflo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rohini Pande at Harvard University and Petia Topalova at the International Monetary Fund has found that the quotas did something else as well: they dramatically changed the beliefs of young girls – and their parents – about what they could and should do with their lives.

But women do face severe constraints. To enter public life, they have to cross many barriers and the many constraints and challenges that are inherent in them.

First, the barrier of home and family, with the economic and socio cultural barriers and demands that exist.

The second barrier is access to knowledge and information. The education of girls has not been a priority for decades, and though this is changing, girls are still deprived. Moreover, literacy is not enough to enable a woman to access all the skills and knowledge required to govern.

Third, the new age of information technology has penetrated villages. Gram panchayats have become more technologically savvy thanks to the state governments’ attempt to computerize all data and communications of the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI) to introduce the concept of e-governance. Here again, the lack of access to education and training makes the prevalence of technology a barrier to women.

But still, women are using whatever their levers of authority provide to bring about change in their societies. The World Bank’s World Development Report on gender equality and development shows progress in some areas, while in others gaps between men and women stubbornly persist. In India, the World Bank team discovered that measures like the introduction of quotas for women in the Panchayati Raj, or village level government, led to better access to clean water and sanitation, crimes against women being reported more often, and a jump in prosecution for those crimes.

The heroic stories of tenacious women scripting tales of success are great signs of a brighter tomorrow. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a step. Women’s empowerment is a journey, not a fixed point that yields to simple policies.

For a fuller and more decisive and meaningful role in village governance, women have still a long way to go. For this to happen, women need to actively compete in the present political game in the rural arena. It’s going to be a much harder, longer road than policy wonks may imagine. But if they have the will, they can succeed. They know from their past lessons that they have the tools and they increasingly need to summon their political will to support reforms that can engender greater empowerment for women.

What is finally needed is not just changing the rules of the game, but changing the game itself.

*Author of “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, has spent more than three decades in the development sector

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