New Delhi,5 May :The participation of Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) has resulted in both developmental and empowerment outcomes. It has often been observed that women prioritise those developmental needs that seem to be more pressing from their perspective. As opposed to the infrastructural development favoured by men, women have initiated work on plans to bring piped water into the village or to build a middle-school or high school in the village so that their daughters can study there. Women are also seen to be more involved in monitoring the presence of teachers and medical staff in the school or health center, and inspecting nutrition centers under the Integrated Child Development Scheme. They have taken the lead in making efforts for smokeless stoves, crèches, community halls, and have taken the initiative in family and matrimonial matters, counseling abusive and/or alcoholic husbands. Sometimes, women-headed Panchayats have even experienced a dramatic increase in their revenues, sponsoring the auction of village ponds, community forests and village markets for the larger welfare of the community.
Above all, it has been observed that women accord great importance to education. The experience of being unable to read agenda papers for minutes, or even to follow the proceedings of Panchatat meetings, has contributed to this awareness of the importance of education, especially for girls. This is why we find many elected women representatives placing high on their agenda the goal of getting a middle-or high-school for girls for the village. As an example: a Sarpanch in Dahod District in Gujarat said that she had proposed setting up a primary school in the village, but was told there was no necessity for it because there were only three children whose parents wanted it. She set about mobilizing support for the school which was established and came to be attended by 300 children. Attendance was at least partly achieved through stiff penalties for non-compliance: a fine of Rs.600 and 6 months in prison for the parents of those children who do not attend. It is notable that until she came to the Panchayat, this woman had not stepped out of the boundaries of her home, or even been a member of any other organization.
While the developmental gains of women’s participation in the Panchayats are impressive, the empowerment gains are also considerable. EWRs often report on the open discrimination against them in Panchayats; the domination of meetings by male colleagues, the refusal to pay attention to the opinions and suggestions of women members; and the generally dismissive attitude of (male) officials. Nevertheless, small gains are visible, such as the gradual change in the social custom that women sit separately (with each other) and do not speak in the presence of men. Earlier, the question of ‘who will make the chapattis”? and ‘who will look after the children? Now, not just other women in the household, but sometimes also the men, willingly share household responsibilities. There is a sense that election brings to the family as a whole an enhanced sense of status, expressed in more social respect and invitations to weddings of higher-caste families. Similarly, while there are innumerable examples of scheduled caste women representatives being disallowed from chairing Panchayat meetings, there are also cases where the woman sarpanch has asserted her right to do so, despite being told to make the tea or go home. This increased consciousness of their rights, as well as the ability to perform their functions more effectively than before, is often the result of capacity-building efforts by non-governmental organizations. The pioneering efforts of Mahila Samakhya in Karnataka, for instance, took the form of mobilizing poor, lower caste rural women into sanghas or collectives, preparing them for political participation, training them after the election and generally creating a climate of responsiveness and accountability. Women were particularly encouraged to attend and helped to participate in, the meetings of the Gram Sabha.
Other NGOs have helped form associations of women representatives, in the form, for instance, of a State-wide federation of such associations. This facilitates the efficient organization of training programmes, but more importantly it enables peer-learning when women spend several days together, sharing their experiences-of working in the Panchayats as well as of dealings with government officials – with each other.
Results from a nationwide survey of women’s participation in Panchayats suggest that a majority of the EWRs report an enhancement in their personal effectiveness and image after being elected.