By Moin Qazi*
Men and women should own the world as a mutual possession.
― Pearl S. Buck
Structural barriers and discriminatory social norms continue to constrain women’s decision-making power and political participation in rural households and communities. Women and girls in rural areas lack equal access to productive resources and assets, public services, such as education and health care, and infrastructure, including water and sanitation, while much of their labour remains invisible and unpaid, even as their workloads become increasingly heavy due to the out-migration of men. Globally, with few exceptions, every gender and development indicator for which data are available reveals that rural women fare worse than rural men and urban women, and that they disproportionately experience poverty, exclusion and the effects of climate change
As the world observed International Day of Rural Women on 15th October, India has an envious record for empowering village women in a big way . Even though India’s women enjoyed constitutional equality with men, deeply entrenched stereotypical norms, illiteracy and economic reality thwarted their freedom for long. They haven’t had much by way of social agency or political power to pay an active role in the development of their community. Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated, and discriminated against, Indian women had the odds badly stacked against them.
During the last two decades the gender landscape in rural Indiahas been slowly greening and women are now on the cusp of a powerful empowerment revolution.
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,”
A panchayat (council), with any number of members, served as a kind of an informal l village government. In modern times, however, the system functioned effectively in only a few places where it could escape domination by powerful politicians, feudal landlords or high-caste communities not inclined to foster democracy and decision-making at the grass roots
It has been called 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.
More than three million women have entered Panchayat, 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.
Panchayati raj has played a significant role in raising the level of women’s empowerment. Where women are heading the village councils, the gender gap in education goals has disappeared because girls set higher goals for themselves. Parents were also more likely to report having more ambitious education goals for their daughters, significantly narrowing the gender gap. Conversely, in villages with only men leaders, they found a huge divide in expectations for girls and boys.
Women began slowly but they are now no longer shaky contraptions .They began their work in benign areas and slowly broadened their agenda. What they wanted seemed so simple – water, fuel, fodder, – but it led them to fight larger and larger battles. Such as drought and water collection issues, alcoholism and violence against women. They learned how to force change when it wasn’t given freely. Their ire came in waves: sometimes it was aimed at the primary health care staff , sometimes the bus station masters or local officials for providing services to which they were entitled, at times the schoolteacher often at the government ration shop, and then at their own communities ‘taboos on intercaste mingling or women working outside their homes.
Today we can see visible gains of that piece of legislation. With 33 per cent reservation, out of the 3.2 million elected representatives, 1.4 million are women . Many of the women are unlettered but they use their quotidian wisdom and sharp instincts to steer development in their communities.
One of the impacts which we can see in women headed councils is a decrease in sex selection. The preference for sons over daughters is deeply ingrained in Indian life, and the most common justification comes from a purely economic standpoint: sons are expected to provide for their families, especially as they mature. 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. It found that teenage girls – and boys – in villages run by women come to believe that girls should stay in school longer, marry later, get jobs (that they choose themselves) and spend less time on domestic work – and the change was driven by the “role model effect,” of seeing a woman exercise power.
Empowerment has many dimensions–social, economic, cultural, political and personal. When every part is treasured, the good unleashed is greatest . . Men may fret that they lose when women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances. .This lesson is best embodied in the words of Nirmala, which she keeps repeating whenever I visit her: “My father always believed that it would have been far better if I were born a son. But today he realizes how lucky he is to have me as a daughter.”
For poor women, it is a journey towards the second Freedom or the real Freedom, as Mahatma Gandhi said when he talked of the unfinished agenda at the time of independence.
The quotas have certainly been useful in ensuring that women are equally represented and have the opportunity to improve the quality of governance. Women have the potential to turn around the pyramid of their societies. Enabling them to participate in an active, informed, and meaningful manner in the governance of a village is the key to making each village, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a “perfect democracy based upon individual freedom.”
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.
*Author of the bestselling book, “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decade