Minds Without Fear

Since my last blog post, over the last two weeks, I have met close to 150 women who are either looking to contest the upcoming Panchayat (village council) elections, or are interested in learning more about it so they can help fellow women participate in the upcoming elections (mostly the latter at this point). It’s good to learn more deeply about the challenges they face and the fears they have, that stops them or has stopped them from participating all these years, and how they are finding ways to address them?

Some of the biggest fears and challenges that the women face happen to be the following –

हम ग़रीब है, हमारे पास पैसे नही है (We are poor, we don’t have money)

The first hurdle that they face is undoubtedly and understandably their poverty. However, as the conversation progresses, they themselves admit that while earlier they were dependent on local moneylenders and got bullied/fleeced by them, today they are able to stand on their feet due to the safety net provided by their Self Help Groups (SHG) and their federations, and so, they don’t have to be rich in order to participate in local governance! If the SHG members and their families are unified, they will make the village majority! So no need to buy votes, no need to distribute alcohol and sarees, and no need for large amounts of money!

हम पढ़े लिखे नही है (We are illiterate)

In a country where we cannot assure literacy for all, how can this be a criterion for contesting elections? The Rajasthan Government recently fixed minimum educational qualifications for Panchayat candidates (read here). Thankfully, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), this is not an official criterion for contesting elections, but most women believe they cannot be good elected representatives because they cannot read and write. This is indicative of their under-confidence, possibly due to the way they are otherwise treated at home and in society, constantly being told they aren’t good enough, and don’t know anything about public affairs. Yet, these very ‘illiterate’ women can explain complex banking procedures, haggle with bank managers, tell you about best health practices, list out the roles and responsibilities of the ASHA, ANM and AWW, mobilize to demand their rights from the BDO, DM and other officials, and explain complex organizational structures and processes of their Self Help Groups and federations! Many of them have more knowledge and awareness than most literate people in their village.

हमें पंचायत के बारे में जानकारी नही है (We have limited knowledge about Panchayats)

Most women don’t know much about the powers, functions and processes of Panchayati Raj institutions. Well, how would they, when most of the structures and institutions are defunct? The fact is that most people, including male elected representatives, know very little, however, what they have, that most women don’t, is confidence. Women are under-confident and afraid of making mistakes, since they are used to being abused at home for the smallest of mistakes (rice was over/under cooked, salt was less in the Dal)! Through their SHGs, they have gained confidence to run their groups (micro-organizations in themselves). They have also accessed a lot of information about banking, livelihood, health, and their rights and entitlements. So they aren’t as unaware as they are made out to be! It’s just a matter of confidence and courage to take the leap.

इस बार महिला सीट आएगी तो हम लड़ेंगे (We will contest if the seat is reserved for women)

It is astonishing to learn that most village folk (men and women) think there are ‘महिला’ seats and ‘पुरुष’ seats (reservations for women AND men)! Majority of women and men don’t know that women can contest on unreserved seats as well, and that there is NO ‘reservation’ for men! Women are scared of contesting on unreserved seats due the larger number of candidates (many of whom are upper caste/class), fearing that they would lose. However, if their village level federation is strong and united, their vote count would easily start from 500!

दबंग और बड़े लोग लड़ते है (Powerful/wealthy people contest elections)

Unity is strength and if 100 women and 500 villagers are unified and stand strong at all times, there is nothing to be scared of, is there?

All the above fears and concerns are very valid, especially in the patriarchal, feudal context of UP. The hope is that through these discussions, some of these fears will be replaced by hope and optimism.

A friend of mine (a political practitioner himself) recently told me how his biggest achievement and take-away in the last 7 years is that he has lost the fear of politicians! Earlier, he was afraid of politicians, as behind almost every injustice, violence and corruption in his village, there was the hand of a politician! However, he has (now) learned how they function and how to deal with them. His late-night reflection made me realize that (maybe) through our programme, that’s exactly what we need to strive for – to help women release themselves of their fear- of politics, of politicians, and of power.

As the ever-so-wise Albus Dumbledore said – “It is a curious thing, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who never sought it. Those who have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

It’s a rarity in today’s time to find political contestants (primarily) motivated to work for village development and empowerment of the most downtrodden, and not merely attracted to power or the position. Here, the women we work with belong to the most backward households, and our entire programme started with conversations around the needs and problems of their respective villages; and the biggest motivation behind their interest to increase their participation as voters, campaigners and candidates this year, is to access their rights and entitlements, work for the poor, and ensure holistic development of their village! This makes them potentially great representatives; perhaps marking the beginning of a change in the way politics is practiced. Since these candidates will be nominated by their respective village level federations, they will also act as a check – ensuring that once elected, the representatives stick to their promises!

Sometimes I wonder whether my ideas, beliefs and optimism may be entrenched in idealism, perhaps at the cost of the women (since I am leading this programme)? But then I also remind myself that I have been known to be a cynic (though I like to call it being down-to-earth or practical) most of my adult life, and if I believe we are doing the right thing and that this can work, it is with reason, having seen the strength, resolve and potential of the women. Also, we are not ‘making’ the women do anything, or even directing them a certain way for our interest. We are simply helping them observe and understand what’s happening around them, and leaving them to make the choice about what they would like to do about it.

At the same time, I’m trying to prepare myself (though I don’t quite know how) for possible instances of violence, before or during elections (given that this is UP!). An increase in women’s participation in politics and governance essentially means changing the age-old power structures in society. It means having a fairly large, and until now- insignificant, demographic of people suddenly gaining voice and power. What effects will this have?

Studies show that female elected representative (who exercise power themselves), are more likely to attract and inspire women to attend until now male-dominated Gram Sabha meetings, contest future elections, and invest more in services valued by women (better sanitation, drinking water, health services, education, etc.)[1]. Will the men be OK with letting go off some of their power? Will they give women a chance? Will they vote for them? Only time will tell…

[1] Duflo, E. and Chattopadhyay, R. (2003) ‘The Impact of Reservation in the Panchayati Raj: Evidence from a Nationwide Randomized Experiment’ and Duflo, E. and Chattopadhyay, R. (2001) ‘Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a India-wide Randomized Policy Experiment’

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