Critical role in building capacities of women as change makers to improve rural governance

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By Moin Qazi*

During the last two decades the gender landscape in rural India has been slowly greening and women are now on the cusp of a powerful social and political revolution. The harbinger of this change is a unique policy experiment in village-level governance that has brought transformative results for the weakest of the weak and the poorest of the poor: the village women.

In 1993, India introduced the Panchayati Raj (Village Government) Act, mandating a three-tiered structure of local governance at the village, block and district levels with reservation of one-third of all posts in gram panchayats–village councils at the bottom tier of India’s   decentralized governance system–for women. The vision was that these female-headed councils would bring greater transparency and better governance in their villages. It revitalized an age-old system of rural local government whose name “panchayat” is drawn from the Sanskrit for “council of five wise men”.

These councils take decisions on every important subject in the rural political life. Councils have been the preserve of men because they chose which public goods to invest in—from drinking water facilities to roads—and where to put them. They now have women members and leaders who are upending the feudal system that kept their female ancestors trapped in servitude. In the process they are learning some important political lessons and redefining the way councils are run.

This new law was a step towards the fruition of Gandhi’s dream of village self-republics which would have local governance and gender justice. Gandhi believed that, if implemented correctly, the Panchayati Raj system would alleviate the alienation of the common people and also preclude the external intervention of higher-level civic officials, who might not be familiar with or fully share the concerns of local people.

This affirmative action intervention which is aimed at chipping away centuries of powerlessness of the rural society, and women in particular, it is a watershed revolution. In a country that has a bad scorecard in matters of gender, India has set a stellar example by becoming a crucible for one of democracy’s most innovative experiments in gender justice through local governance, fulfilling the aspirations of Gandhiji. Thanks to quotas reserving spots for female representatives, several women have been making their way up India’s governance ladder.

The conservative framework of rural India got an opportunity to break out of its shell of stagnation. Whereas in Western democracies it took long struggling years for a suffragette movement to win adult franchise for women, it was a shorter journey in India.

The introduction of the Panchayati Raj, and the strong space for women which it provides, has dramatically increased the political representation of women at the local government level and spurred one of the greatest successes globally for women’s empowerment and grass-roots democracy. The hope was that such a quota system, beyond its immediate impact on gender balance among leaders, will have long-term effects on women’s status in society by changing perceptions of their leadership capabilities and shaping beliefs about what they can achieve.

The transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress. Even though India’s women enjoyed constitutional equality with men, deeply entrenched stereotypical norms, illiteracy and social and economic subjugation thwarted their freedom for long. They hadn’t had much by way of social agency or political power whereby they could formulate strategy choices and control resources and decisions about important life outcomes. They were hindered from playing an active role in the development of their family and community. Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated, and discriminated against, Indian women always had odds badly stacked against them.  Social and cultural norms had relegated them to the domestic space and severely restricted their engagement in public affairs, an area which remained largely dominated by men.

There were several initial reservations as to whether women would be able to handle their role. The contention was that politically inexperienced and otherwise disadvantaged women would simply be overruled or manipulated by their spouses or other powerful local interests. This is not the case. Women are slowly overcoming deep-seated cultural resistance and are trying to achieve developmental goals which were either unachievable or much harder to achieve.

The immediate impact was not very revolutionary, although a million women instantly entered electoral politics through the reservations. There was a time when women were just titular heads, with their husbands, dubbed sarpanchpatis who wore the crown and run the show.  Most of those elected were proxies for their husbands or fathers. They either sat mute beside the male family member who made the decisions at meetings, or did not even attend. Many of these leaders started as ‘showpiece’ elected women representatives (EWR), but over time, they developed into proactive people’s voices who were keen to strive for development based on their own unique understanding of local issues and problems.

Through years of exposure and several new official policies later, most elected women now don’t seem to be tokens. Women, especially those from the Dalit or “untouchable” community, are slowly able to use the affirmative action quotas to attain power that would once have been unthinkable they tend to be better educated and more knowledgeable than the average woman in their districts. When these seats are coupled with new skills from public speaking to budget management, they are better prepared to negotiate within the political space that has opened for them.

There is a perceptible opening in the political space for women: not the earthquake anticipated by activists, but a thousand tiny changes, each of which was inconceivable in the era before the quotas. It is truly remarkable that they are now setting aright Indian demographics and social indices. The reservations have created irrevocable change: everyone has seen a woman run things, now, and there can be no questions about whether that is possible.

The experience in electoral office has also created a pipeline of diverse people who have gained representational experience and are able to better represent the needs of people. These women have slowly learned to climb the greasy pole of politics and are actively exploring all the options available to them as citizens of a democracy. Some of the ways in which women are changing governance are evident in the issues they choose to tackle: water, alcohol abuse, education, health and domestic violence.

At the functional level, politics aims at maintaining law and order in society, resolving conflicts, achieving justice and providing good living conditions for all. Against this background, is there a nobler activity and profession than politics?  However we all know how murky politics has become over time. But these women are using this opportunity to make politics benign.

To enter public life, these women have to cross many barriers that are inherent in such roadblocks.

First is the home and family, with the economic and sociocultural barriers and demands that exist.

The second 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 computerise all data and communications of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) in a move towards the concept of e-governance. Here again, the lack of access to education and training makes the prevalence of technology a barrier to women.

Yet women are soldiering on and using whatever their levers of authority provide, to bring about change in their societies. They have demonstrated that being a woman need not and should not be among the greatest challenges of life.

By increasing exposure to non-traditional leaders, the reservation system has changed the voter’s attitudes in regards to the ability of disadvantaged groups to lead. Beyond its immediate impact on gender balance among leaders, it is now having long-term effects on the status and roles of women in the conservative Indian society by changing perceptions of their leadership capabilities and shaping beliefs about what they can achieve.

While several voluntary organizations and government agencies have been playing a critical role in building capacities of women to improve rural governance, there is scope for incorporating best practices gleamed through insights from some of the more successful villages. In these villages, organizations have   been able to build women’s perspectives in the context of development and decentralized planning, enabling women to get a sense of enhanced agency so that they can claim influential space in the political, economic, and cultural systems.

Women have become problem solvers and changemakers who are mentoring and successfully transferring learning, strategies and replication of innovation to other contexts and across high-impact sectors. They are able to influence and change in government policy from inside the system, creating a micro-macro” balance. This has made leaders and institutions accountable, thereby promoting equity and inclusion, and making the government sensitive and transparent.

In some of the progressive and so called “smart” villages, women groups have been equipped with technological skills training that have enabled them to design, build, operate, and maintain water and sanitation systems. Once they gain experience, women handle service contracts for building storage tanks, toilets, storm water drains and drainage lines. Thus several new livelihood avenues are becoming available to local women. Rural women are the human face of poverty and development.They toil on their farms but lack access to land titles and are, therefore, not recognised as farmers. This, in turn, denies them access to finance, state entitlements, training technology and markets.The role of women as farm managers has traditionally been obscured by the image of men as primary decision makers on farms.

In several dry areas, women are reviving the traditional knowledge and skills of local ecology based farming. Multiple crops are grown to cope with the caprices of climate and boost, soil fertility, nutritional security, farm biodiversity and income viability.  Women use local seeds and sustainable inputs such as bio-pesticides, hydroponics, organic fertilizers and low-cost water conservation techniques like drip irrigation, sprinklers, recharging of bore wells, farm ponds and tree plantation to boost scarce groundwater and improve soil health.

Several gram panchayats are building a cadre of “seed guardians” and “seed mothers”. Empowering women farmers to manage their own seed enterprises is enabling them to become decision-makers in the community. They are thus conserving the indigenous seed heritage and protecting its food sovereignty Seeds are at the heart of agriculture, but they are also a significant cost for farmers. Organic seeds are hard to come by in a market flooded with genetically modified and hybrid seeds. . Conserving organic seeds that are suited to the soil and as a climate adaptation measure is a priority for small farmers.

Women are   driving the economic agenda in several remote parts of the country .With the support of civil society organizations, they have become the most trusted allies for protecting our planet .the migration of south to   cities for better pastures has crate a social crisis and a leadership vacuum., it is women who now remain the custodians and gatekeepers of village society and culture.

Women panchayat leaders are focusing on ensuring the delivery of safe drinking water to all students and building separate bathrooms for girls. This has directly reduced the number of female drop-outs after puberty. Though these may sound like simple palliatives they are actually powerful developments in rural education.

India’s experience demonstrates that putting women in leadership positions can catalyse the change process. Although the first generation of women leaders had to cope with entrenched mores and traditions that left them locked into purely domestic roles, their successors have convinced the Indian masses of a woman’s ability and potential to lead.

For a country that has a poor record of its overall commitment to women’s rights, India has certainly set a stellar example of reserved quotas for women in local governance. It is an example of how a country can indeed successfully empower women, politically, economically, and socially. As Chilean author and women’s advocate Isabel Allende once said, “If a woman is empowered, her children and her family will be better off. If families prosper, the village prospers, and eventually so does the whole country.”

*Development expert

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