Women’s empowerment through Panchayati Raj

By The CDHR Team

(From our Bulletin Archives: originally published in June 2009)

LogoSuppression of women’s political rights is only another manifestation of the patriarchal mindset which seeks to smother women from birth till death and contends that a woman’s identity always derives from a man be it her father or husband.

A Panchayat, in the traditional sense, is a body of 5 elders of the village who help resolve conflict amongst the villagers. Yet, women & lower castes were not allowed membership of this body. In pre-independence India, legal provisions made it difficult for women to participate actively in politics. For instance, the Bombay Village Panchayat Act, 1920 stipulated that no female could become an elected member.

The Constitution of Independent India only spoke of local self-governing bodies in Part IV, the Directive Principles of State Policy, and did not make any provisions for specific reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).

In the light of these historical circumstances, one can quite categorically say that the 73rd Amendment Act, 1992, mandating reservation in at least 1/3rd of the seats of all Panchayat Councils and 1/3rd of the Pradhan (head of the Panchayat) positions for women, was a landmark for women’s political empowerment. This was followed by the 74th Amendment Act, 1992, which established similar reservations in Nagar Palikas & Municipalities. In addition, Bihar became the 1st state to reserve 50% of seats for women with Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan & Himachal Pradesh following suit. Today, 54% of elected representatives of PRIs in Bihar are women.

Numerically, today India can actually boast that there are more elected women representatives (EWRs) in India that the rest of the world put together. According to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj’s mid-term appraisal of the ‘State of the Panchayats 2006-07’, there are about 10 lakh women are in our PRIs constituting about 37 % of all those elected. Also, there are about 80,000 female Pradhans.

District Panchayats 537 11,825 41
Intermediate Panchayats 6,097 1,10,070 43
Village Panchayats 2,34,676 20,73,715 40

Source: M/o Panchayati Raj,(2005))

In a study by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies 1999, it was revealed that 95% of women surveyed believed that they would not have been elected had it not been for the reservation.

A nation-wide study on EWRs in Panchayati raj done by AC Nielson ORG-MARG for the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj in 2008 has revealed some interesting trends making a strong case for reservation. Amongst the 1,039,058 EWRs, 4/5ths were elected from reserved seats. Reservation was an important motivator facilitating first-time entry into politics for nearly 83% of EWRs. Also, reservation was critical for the disadvantaged groups as of the total EWRs 26% were Scheduled Castes & 13% were Scheduled Tribes.

Ensuing progress towards political empowerment of women is also evident from this study as a sizeable proportion of women surveyed perceived enhancement in their self-esteem, confidence, decision-making ability and respect within the family after winning an election.

For Mamta, a 27-year-old Dalit woman pradhan from a village in Fulwari sharif, Bihar, the provision proved to be a boon. As a woman who came from a Dalit community it was a struggle against both caste and male domination, yet she managed to win both votes and hearts amongst her people and today works for their betterment.

Despite these achievements, constraints to women’s political empowerment remain large and widespread.

The cases of politically motivated violence against women have seen an increase. They are beaten, raped, or even murdered. They are also subjected to torture such as being made to witness the murder of their children.

Women belonging to disadvantaged sections face double oppression. A tribal female sarpanch was stripped while unfurling the national flag on 15th August 1998 in Rajasthan. In another case, a tribal women pradhan was stripped in a Gram Sabha meeting in Madhya Pradesh as she was not consulting the leader of the dominant caste before taking decisions. Also, it is commonplace to find a woman dalit sarpanch sitting on the floor during a panchayat meeting while the upper caste men sit on chairs.

This gross violation on human rights & absolute humiliation is a product of the mindset of cultural stereotyping which is unable to accept a woman exercising power in a ‘male domain’, especially those belonging to disadvantaged communities.

Acceptability of women as elected representatives is also an issue. Male members try to create hurdles in the smooth functioning of the Panchayat taking advantage of the woman’s illiteracy or ignorance. Also, officials with whom the EWRs must work can act as impediments in their work. For instance, Gayatri Devi, a panchayat samiti member from Panchanpur village, Sirdala block in Nawada district (Bihar), who belongs to the Musahar community, alleged that the bank officials in her block humiliated her when she approached them for a loan. A way of ironing out this problem is to encourage EWRs to use the Right to Information Act in order to hold government officials accountable for delays in developmental work.

Another infamous subject is that of sarpanch patis, where the husband of the woman sarpanch manages the affairs of the Panchayat and she is only a proxy candidate. However, there is reason to be optimistic on this count as the AC Nielson ORG-MARG study points out that this is a practice which is diminishing and women are depending lesser on their sarpanch patis for decision making. A good way of reforming this practice is to make training compulsory for all elected representatives (whether male or female) of PRIs in order to help them discharge their duties more effectively.

There are two contentious practices which, however, can be resolved easily through requisite legislation.

Firstly, the AC Nielson ORG-MARG study showed that about 87% of EWRs had contested only once and only 14% had been re-elected. It was found on further analysis that one of the foremost reasons for this was because of the practice of rotational reservation of seats. Granting EWRs at least 10 years of continued opportunity by extending the rotation term of reserved seats can give them help them negotiate their political space in a better manner.

Secondly, some states now have laws mandating a two-child norm for members of the Panchayat. This legislation is discriminatory against women as women are generally unable to make their own fertility choices. This sort of a law will certainly discourage women from entering the political fray & must be repealed.

Dissemination of information regarding their rights as well as duties is essential for EWRs and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) should be encouraged to come forward in partnership with the government in order to fill this void. In addition, EWRs across different states should be encouraged to form associations in order to strengthen women’s political empowerment.

In conclusion, we must note that participation and representation is clearly different from empowerment. An elected woman representative needs the requisite social space in order to effect the changes that she desires. Reservation for women in Panchayati raj bodies has acted as a catalyst in the process of women’s political empowerment. In order to further hasten this social change, the Women’s Reservation Bill must become a law without being diluted. Also, the onus is on political parties who must voluntarily integrate more women in the political process whether as candidates or as voters.

We must remember that empowerment as a process is slow but self-perpetuating. Providing women with opportunities and support systems (such as reservations & other affirmative action) has the potential to put into motion a sustainable process for a change in gendered power relations allowing them to slowly but steadily break the shackles of existing boundaries.


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