After a year of postgraduate study in the United Kingdom and ten months with a political organization in Delhi thereafter, I am back in Uttar Pradesh (UP) to lead a program initiated by a nonprofit I used to work with.
I am curious to see if a dedicated leadership program for women part of Self Help Groups can lead to greater participation of women in politics and local governance.
But first some background:
The women I work with in UP come from economically and socially backward communities. The women still practice purdah, caste discrimination is widely prevalent, women rarely step out of their houses, and many of them don’t remember their names because they are seldom addressed with it.
With a history of caste and gender-based violence, corruption, and extreme poverty, women from these villages (now associated with Self Help Groups) have struggled to carve out an identity for themselves, to be treated with respect within the house and outside, and overcome poverty through their own initiative.
They have taken micro-credit (small loans), started their own livelihood initiatives, and have become more aware of their rights — pushing the boundaries of what society has set for them.
Today, they not only have a say in household matters, but they’re also recognized by bankers and government officials, and actively participate in community initiatives related to health, sanitation, agriculture, and education. Who would have thought this could happen in a state like UP?!
Women’s leadership in local governance
Despite the progress they have made over the years, most women are still not active in local governance and politics.
Few have attended ‘khuli baithaks’ or Gram Sabha (public/village) meetings — women are not invited, or not allowed to go for meetings even when invited, let alone raise issues and express their opinions.
They don’t vote as per their choice — they are told whom to vote for by their husbands or older male family members.
Numerous issues, like the lack of information, resources, family support, caste, class, gender, and social norms act as entry barriers for women’s participation in politics. Even those elected as representatives through reservations rarely exercise power themselves, reducing them to mere tokens, as their husbands (called Pradhan-pati in UP) or older male members of the family or village govern on their behalf.
As two researchers conducting an RCT study on our program observed- “The Indian constitution mandates that one-third of all village council head positions be reserved for women. However, the implementation of this quota has resulted in very slow increases in the political participation of women. In the 2010 local government elections i.e. in the fourth round of elections after this quota was introduced, only 14% of unreserved council head positions were filled by women” (analysis of data from 41 districts of UP where we work).
It is crucial that women actively participate in local governance and politics — their voices and needs need to be heard too!
Several studies also show that women leaders are more likely to invest in services valued by women (better sanitation, drinking water, health services, education, skill training). They are also likely to inspire other women to participate more actively in governance and politics when they’re at the helm.
In this context, we are implementing a leadership program to encourage and equip women associated with Self Help Groups to participate in the upcoming Panchayat elections. Through capacity-building workshops, information dissemination about government schemes and rights, and collective activism, we hope to increase their participation — not just as voters, but also as campaigners, activists, and candidates.
We hope to increase their voice and stake — in their home, village, and state. We also hope that these women can become catalysts for greater devolution of power to Panchayats, the only way to ensure inclusive development and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
I started this blog to document this journey — the learnings, challenges, highs and the lows, and inspiring conversations from the hinterlands — and to reflect on them.