The three-tier Panchayat Elections in Uttar Pradesh that took place recently (October-December 2015) saw over 2000 women from Self Help Groups who attended our leadership trainings contest elections! Further, I am overjoyed to share that over 800 women won, majority of whom were first-time contestants, belonging to Scheduled Caste and Other Backwards Classes, with no prior political experience! I am also relieved that no major incidents of violence took place, despite numerous threats, mud-slinging and other pressures they had to face during the course of campaigning.
What made these women determined to fight against all odds and contest the Panchayat elections?
Perhaps a little bit of information, a little bit of encouragement, a little bit of courage, a little bit of support from friends and family, and a whole lot of dissatisfaction with the current status quo of Panchayats and village governance! They weren’t just driven by the need for women’s leadership or increased participation, interest in politics, or personal ambition, but largely by their need to access the most basic of services- access to government schemes like MNREGA, PDS, Indira Aavas, Mid-day Meal; access to water, proper health services, toilets; and ability to participate in Gram Sabha meetings and decision-making processes that determine who is considered to be ‘Below Poverty Line’ and which families deserve to access schemes first and foremost (ideally the poorest of the poor- as determined by all members of the village).
Women part of Self Help Groups can particularly be great catalysts for change, primarily because they are already organized into a collective, turning them into a formidable pressure group, with the discipline to conduct participatory, weekly meetings; abide by a set of rules, and respect one another. Additionally, most of the women who contested elections were selected unanimously by their group members, resulting in collective ownership of the campaign, as well as the unity of the group members in backing a single candidate.
Most of the women’s campaigns entailed door-to-door visits, highlighting why people should vote for them, and what they will do differently from the current Pradhan (primarily- conduct regular Gram Sabha meetings, inform all members of the village including women and lower caste members, consult every member while making decisions, ensure government schemes reach the poorest of the poor first, etc.). The majority of these women spent anything between INR 5000- 15000 to fund their campaigns, far less than most contestants (most of whom spend in lakhs and crores in UP), primarily financed through donations of small denominations collected from their own group members.
While promises have been made, elections have been won, the real challenge starts now for the ~1000 elected women! How much decision-making power will lie in their hands? How much of a say will they have? Will they be able to effectively negotiate with their male counterparts and government officials? Will they continue to be an integral part of their Self Help Group and regularly attend meetings? Will they listen to and address the needs of their fellow group members as promised? Will the discipline and honesty exhibited within their Self Help Groups transcend into the political domain? How effectively will they face the pressures and discrimination that may come their way?
The women who lost the elections will also have an important role to play in the next 5 years. They may be future elected representatives, but currently, they are the opposition, the ones who can closely watch every step of the elected leaders, and try to hold them to account. This is where the Self Help Group as an organization becomes a powerful collective, as it need not be one woman risking her life to raise her voice, but hundreds of women collectively holding elected representatives to account! Will they be able to do this?
One can only hold one’s breath and be patient, to see how the next 5 years pan out! Having said that, while it’s good to be optimistic about the future, it’s also important to keep one’s feet on the ground and recognize how difficult sustaining the participation and leadership of women can be. So here’s to the completion of one phase of this experiment, and the beginning of the next (more challenging) phase!
But before that, let’s just take a moment to commend and celebrate these 2000+ women and their courage to take the leap!