In India, the participation of women in general, in politics and public life has been abysmally low. There is an existing gap between men and women in political activities that goes beyond voting. In the domestic areas of leadership and managerial skills, women are silently recognized. However, they are not given their due space in the public areas. Although other marginalized communities such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes got reservations in the Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies, no reservation for women was given in the Constitution of India initially, which constricted their political empowerment.
The Women’s Reservation Bill that sought to reserve 1/3rd seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies continues to languish and is yet to become a reality. Globally, India ranks 148th out of 193 countries based on the percentage of elected women representatives. However, if we look at their representation in local government bodies, the situation may seem different.
Due to the 73rd Amendment, in Panchayati Raj Institutions, the Elected Women Representatives (EWR) are approximately 45% but this number comes with its own set of challenges and issues embedded in the rural framework of the country. As times increasingly change, so do the responsibilities of the Panchayat body.
The Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP), an annual framework prepared by the Panchayat body is a plan that includes key objectives like achieving local economic development and safeguarding social justice. The conceptualization of GPDP coincides with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), global goals which aim to be fulfilled by impactful work in varied sectors.
Why should the EWRs be left behind as they become Sarpanches when there are such crucial responsibilities vested in them?
One should bear in mind that equality in representation is not enough to ensure socio-political equity among genders, as the relatively disadvantaged position of women, must be taken into account. While increasing the induction of women representatives into PRIs should have meant an improvement in the lives of rural women, it has not happened in the desired manner. It is impacted by various factors such as caste, illiteracy and gender, among many others as explained in this article.
What Can Be Done?
There are many groups of women who on account of tradition, culture, ethnic, social, religious or economic background are more vulnerable to being excluded, as compared to other women. These groups need to be specially focused on.
It is imperative that an integrated policy and strategy be formulated that should address economic, social, and political empowerment simultaneously and holistically along with the existing programmes and schemes of PRIs.
Therefore, much more needs to be done to empower women in local self-governments so that they can play a more proactive role in decision making and by their very presence encourage more and more women to come forth and demand their rights. Given the various barriers and exclusions that EWRs need to work their way through, one-time inputs, provisions of basic information and mere campaigns are not enough.
6 Things That Can Be Done To Empower Women In Local Self-Governments
Capacity Building and Training
This can be fulfilled through knowledge and education, keeping in mind women’s lack of exposure, training in diverse areas pertaining to women- such as basic roles and responsibilities, laws and rights for women, workings of their office etc. It is also very necessary to monitor these training in terms of quality and content because, given the sheer number of representatives and the multiple issues faced by women, there is a need to repeat and reinforce this training at regular intervals.
Focus on Social Justice Committees
A substantial number of scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) women have been elected to the Panchayat. Therefore, provisions of the Social Justice Committee at different levels of Panchayats will have a reasonable positive effect on the empowerment of SC and ST elected representatives.
To create a positive environment for women leaders and Panchayat members to deal with socio-political problems and function at their optimum capacity, one of the major problems women face is the non-acceptability of women as elected representatives by male Panchayat members. Most importantly, men and women both should be involved in gender sensitisation exercises, which will help create a better understanding among the community on how both the genders can contribute towards a better future for their village.
Reservation of Two Terms
There could also be a provision to provide for rotation of reserved seats in Panchayats for a minimum of two terms instead of one at present. If any seat reserved for women becomes vacant, it should be filled by a woman candidate only.
Amendment of No-Confidence Motions
The provisions of no- confidence rules should be changed so that no abuse of higher caste leaders against scheduled caste leaders becomes a routine practice. This motion is made use of more in regards to women, as they always fear being removed from power at the smallest of things.
“Half the time, I am unable to carry out my duties and need to fight for the smallest of things. Instantly, I am threatened with the No-confidence motion which used to scare me earlier but it’s nearing the end of my term, I don’t pay much attention to it and continue with my work while I have the time.”– Jyoti Ben, a Sarpanch in the Kutch region
Whether it is called a Mahila Mandal, Self Help Group, Juth or Samiti. These efforts of women revolve around creating community space for the development of solidarity and problem-solving. These efforts need to be promoted and encouraged in PRIs. We have to ensure that the real emphasis is on how these activities can help the community to grow, develop, and transform.
“Women can understand each other better, if there is a woman in the seat then she is likely to bring others into the fold”, said an EWR from a village in Kutch.
What’s The Way Forward?
To sum up, reservation for women in PRIs provided by 73rd CAA and an increase in the quota by different States have brought a huge number of women into governance in India. Women’s political empowerment is supposedly high based on the percentage of EWRs in PRIs. This number in reality is not as empowering as it sounds because in many instances the elected woman is not the one handling the official duties.
Dependency upon many factors like patriarchy, caste and community, illiteracy and lack of women at higher administrative levels are some that affect how many women are genuinely active. The monitoring of the reservation is not something that is done very stringently by the government, it should be ensured that the elected representative is the one who participates in meetings of all kinds. Capacity building and training should be conducted more frequently for women, as well as gender sensitization workshops to bring the men and women in the offices on the same page.
It has taken us thousands of years to try and address this inequality but seeing the enthusiasm of women to be a part of governance and take charge makes one more hopeful for what is to come.
“Due to the SC/ST seat, I became a Sarpanch. Despite being illiterate I got a chance to go out, learn and do development work. It fulfilled a part of me and made me feel proud of the fact that I can handle my home and also bring about greater changes for my village and its people. I want to be Sarpanch again so I can continue with my newfound passion.”– Meena Ben, an ex-Sarpanch from Kutch