After twelve months of studying for my Master’s in ‘Governance and Development’ in the UK, and ten months working with a political organization in Delhi thereafter, I returned to the heart of Uttar Pradesh (UP) seven months ago to work with a women’s empowerment organization I had previously worked with. I came back to ‘experiment’ whether a dedicated effort to encourage women associated with Self Help Groups to participate in politics and local governance can result in greater and more effective participation of women.
I call it an ‘experiment’ as the women we work with come from deeply patriarchal, and economically and socially backward communities, where women still practice purdah, upper caste members discriminate against and dominate lower caste members, women barely step out of their houses, and many women don’t even remember their names as they have barely been addressed by the same by anyone (they are usually referred to as someone’s daughter, wife, mother or grandmother)!
What we have sought out to do has the potential to fundamentally disrupt the power dynamics and hierarchical nature of a regular village in UP. 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 create an identity for themselves, to be treated with respect within the house and in society, and come out of poverty through their own initiative. Thousands of them have taken micro-loans, started their own livelihood initiatives (even starting businesses for their husbands and sons), accessed their rightful schemes and entitlements, and accessed information around health, sanitation, agriculture and education over the last decade, challenging and pushing the boundaries of what society thought they were capable of. Today, not only do their husbands and family members take them seriously, but even bankers and government workers know them by their names and wish them on the streets! Who would have thought this could happen in a state like UP?!
Despite these changes (small and big!), most of these women have still not been able to participate in mainstream politics and local governance. Few of them have attended ‘khuli baithaks’ or Gram Sabha (public/village) meetings (either they didn’t know about such a meeting, weren’t called for it, or weren’t allowed to go for it), let alone raise problems or have their voices heard about issues that concern them. Most women aren’t even allowed to vote as per their choice- they are told whom to vote for by their husbands or family members. Numerous issues like lack of information, resources, family support, caste, class, gender, and social norms act as entry barriers for women to effectively participate in decision-making. Even women elected as representatives through reservations barely exercise power themselves, reducing them to mere tokens, with their husbands (called Pradhan pati in UP) or older male member of their family or village exercising power on their behalf!
As two researchers studying our programme 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 politics and governance processes as they represent a certain identity, and their voices and needs need to be heard too! Women are necessary as elected representatives to influence decision-making processes from which they are otherwise excluded. Studies also show that women are more likely to invest in services valued by women (better sanitation, drinking water, health services, education, skill training). They are also more likely to increase the number of women participating in village meetings, and inspire women in the future to contest elections through reserved as well as unreserved seats.
Amidst a context like this, we are looking to implement a leadership programme that will encourage and equip women associated with Self Help Groups to actively and effectively participate in politics and local governance. Through capacity building, leadership workshops, information dissemination about rights/entitlements and government schemes, films and case studies, and continuous encouragement and support, we hope to increase women’s participation in politics and governance, not only as voters, but also as campaigners, activists, and candidates in the upcoming Panchayat elections. We hope to increase their voice, and their stake – in their homes, in their villages, in their state. We hope these women can become the catalysts for greater devolution of power to Panchayats, for inclusive development of their villages, and for ‘democratic governance’ of the people, by the people, and for the people- in the true sense of the term.
I started this blog to document this journey- the learnings and challenges of this ‘experiment’ (and beyond), the highs and the lows, the trials and tribulations, the small joys and inspiring stories from the interiors of India, the insightful conversations with the amazing people I meet, but most importantly, to reflect upon what I see, hear and feel along the way!