“The struggle of fulfilling my official duties is a tussle between us women and the male ego.”
After conducting a recent interview with a female Sarpanch, it became quite clear that the issue of participation and representation of women runs deeper than one can imagine. The complexity of this features various factors which play a key role in dampening the participation of women. The focus of our enquiries lies in answering, why are women unable to grow into their positions of authority and power in the local governance system?
The Indian political scenario is such that children become aware of politics from a young age through the politicians that are covered by the media. As children, we do not know or understand the inner workings of the State, yet we start recognizing those who run the show.
When I was a child, there were very few instances, if ever, when a female leader made the headlines or was a part of the prime-time news. It was clear to my juvenile self that there is an acute lack of depth in the lineup of female political leaders in my country.
Although India can be credited with having its first female Prime Minister before countries like the UK, France and U.S.A., a more nuanced view reveals that actual women representation has been low across all tiers of politics. For instance, the proportion of female parliamentarians has improved from an initial 5% (1st Lok Sabha) to 14.94% (17th Lok Sabha), this number still pales in comparison to countries like Bangladesh, South Africa, and the UK. An underlying effect of this gender gap is the barrier that it erects in the minds of young girls.
As far as politics is concerned it has become a career that is dominated by men and has lacked the participation as well as representation of women. My interest in this particular issue grew when I started working with SETU Abhiyan, an NGO that works in the domain of local governance in Kutch, Gujarat. My organization works very closely with Panchayats and women in all forms like; training, capacity building, formation of Mahila Juth (groups), etc. The work done in the organization in the past provided me with a context of information, resources, and the ability to see the inner workings of Panchayati Raj up close.
How Can We Make The Best Use Of Affirmative Action?
When talking about local governance or the rural communities, the role played by the 73rd Amendment Act is necessary to examine. The Act mandated 1/3rd reservation for women out of all seats, as a way to increase women participation.
In many states like Gujarat, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh, this reservation for women has increased to 50% and the aim is to bring women to the forefront in the executive role. In theory, this reservation and the policy sounds just, as one cannot fault it due to its nature and objective.
Out of the approximate 3.1 million elected representatives in Panchayati Raj Institutions, women elected representatives are 1.3 million, approximately 45% of the total number.
The provision of reservation for women is a great starting step but how is their active participation ensured?
There is a need for proper implementation of provisions, keeping in mind the intersectionality that exists in women’s lives. The numbers pertaining to reservation may look good but the ground reality is far less optimistic. Encouraging women, acknowledging their needs, their position and role in society should be reassessed.
From my personal experience, I can share that many women are restricted in the choices they are able to make because of the prevailing societal attitudes. We are mostly discouraged from making bold moves or taking risks and working in local governance made me think deeper about women’s representation and participation in a sector that is male-dominated.
By giving reservation of seats to women we took one step forward but by undermining and excluding the elected women, especially those who work actively for their people and Panchayats, we take a few steps back.
Barriers And Challenges Faced By Women In Panchayati Raj Institutions
The concern that arises here though is whether the essence of the increased participation and the objective of the 73rd Amendment Act is being ensured. What we need to take a deeper look at, is what problems are faced by women who are a part of the Panchayats and what hinders their role from being an active one.
Patriarchy: In many situations women are not allowed to contest elections and even if they are, they serve a proxy role for the male members of the family. Women are also more subject to face dismissal of ideas and issues by male colleagues and authorities, thereby undermining their position. Domestic responsibilities also end up overshadowing the capabilities of a woman and how they can utilize their time.
Lack of knowledge and skills: In most instances when women get elected, they are getting elected for the first time. This causes an issue as they lack the knowledge for managing the affairs of Panchayats. The absence of financial and digital literacy add to the problems and the training programmes conducted by government agencies are unable to fulfil this necessity as required.
Opposition faced by Community/Caste: A colleague said this to me, “In rural communities, women have a lot of considerations. They have their own family and house but above that and more importantly is their community and each one has its own restrictions.” If women want to participate, then they are met with resistance from their community’s norms, customs and traditions. Belonging to oppressed castes makes it extremely tough for many women in rural communities to work actively in local politics.
Lack of women at higher levels: Not having women present at higher administrative levels can hinder the functioning of elected members. Women feel hesitant to bring up issues or regulate discussions openly in office when doing so with male members. Having more women in higher positions creates a level of comfort as women can understand each other better.
These words from an interview with a female Sarpanch have stayed with me, “The current change in our society is lagging and is a very slow process. I hope that the future generations are the ones that speed things up when they come into power because the existing disparity between men and women will leave our nation far behind the rest”.