Originally published on Huffpost India:
Nageshwari Devi hails from a remote village in Uttar Pradesh. Residing in a house with a thatched roof, she belongs to a Scheduled Caste community. She joined a women’s self-help group in 2013, because of which she managed to free herself and her family from the clutches of the local moneylenders who had been exploiting them for years. As someone who once couldn’t dare ask for her rights and entitlements due to her economic and social status in the village, she certainly never thought that one day she would contest the kshetra (block) panchayat elections!
Nageshwari’s village has 12 women’s self-help groups, which federate into a village organisation at the gram panchayat level. Among the more than 120 women associated with it, those who once practised ‘purdah’ (veil), weren’t allowed to step out of their house, and didn’t know their own names, soon found strength in their collective, and undertook numerous collective actions over the years to access government schemes and entitlements such as the MNREGA, PDS and renovation of streets, and even protested against land capturing by ‘dabbangs‘ of the village.
This experience, accompanied with a series of awareness trainings about the need for women’s participation in panchayats, as well as information busting some common myths related to the panchayat election process, inspired the women to nominate a candidate for the ongoing panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh from amongst themselves. The women unanimously nominated Nageshwari to contest the block panchayat elections. While her family adamantly opposed her joining the self-help (group) a few years back, having now seen the benefits of her membership over the years, they too supported her candidature and stood by her through her fight. She won by 108 votes!
Nageshwari’s campaign cost less than Rs 5000 and was financed mostly through donations from her fellow self-help group members. She is one of more than 1000 women from self-help groups who contested the kshetra (block) and zila (district) panchayat elections this year. Most of them were first-time candidates with no prior political experience. Four hundred of them won, fighting against all odds — from threats, to mud-slinging, to family pressures, to acts of violence. Anyone who is familiar with the feudal, patriarchal context of Uttar Pradesh (especially vis-à-vis panchayat elections) will know this was no easy feat! Hundreds of women are currently contesting the ongoing gram (village) panchayat elections.
In Uttar Pradesh, like in most parts of the country (and the world), women are without question under-represented as voters, political leaders and elected representatives. Few women contest on unreserved seats in the panchayat elections, while those who get elected, end up as mere proxies at the hands of their husbands, other male members of the family, or upper caste men of the village.
The most common reasons behind their lack of participation are poverty, social status (primarily caste), lack of education, lack of information and awareness, and common myths that exist with regard to reservations (most villagers still believe that “General” seats are essentially “purush” or men’s seats on which women cannot contest!), perceived expenditure, and eligibility criteria (such as required education level, income, etc.).
However, the biggest and most significant barrier is undoubtedly women’s poor self-perception and under-confidence to participate in the political sphere, partly due to the factors mentioned above, but also perhaps due to how women have been historically socialised to view themselves as inept and incapable of effective political leadership. Women, especially in rural India, are often too scared to make mistakes, to take risks, given that society is far less forgiving towards women than to men. They are further discouraged by the perceptions and (often legitimate) fears of their family and friends. Further, the challenge doesn’t just lie in contesting and/or winning elections, but also effectively exercising power once elected, and not ending up as mere proxies!
What is required
Many studies and experience have shown that reservations for women do not lead to increased participation levels in local governance and politics. What is required, thus, is a change in attitude and perceptions towards women aspiring to participate in local governance and politics, as well as capacity-building initiatives, in order to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to increase their confidence. We need to be more supportive, encouraging and forgiving towards first-time women leaders, instead of having unfair expectations and constantly drawing comparisons with their male contemporaries. Women in turn need to be more confident, and aspire to set new benchmarks for themselves, instead of trying to simply imitate their male counterparts.
One must also recognise that most rural women are well equipped to take on leadership roles, having ample experience within their homes in taking the lead, whether prominently or subtly, with the ability to recognise each member’s needs, catering to each need, and the ability to multi-task and manage resources efficiently — be it food or finances, or raising children and caring for adults. Further, if they belong to women’s self-help (groups), they are also well versed with the practice of regular meetings, participatory decision-making and documentation processes — useful experience for any elected local government representative. Most importantly, women have unique needs, experiences and ideas, and deserve to be adequately represented in decision-making processes and at all levels of government!
Numerous studies have established women’s political representation has an impact on human development outcomes, including health, education, gender ratios, and crime reporting, and also enables greater participation of women in governance. We need more women leaders, and the only way we can ensure this is to change our attitudes and actions, within our homes, as well as in society.
How do we talk about women leaders with our children, friends and family? Do we raise our girls to believe politics is a sphere they can participate in if they want to? How do our boys and men view and react to women leaders? How do we assess the performance of first-time elected women representatives? Do we acknowledge and appreciate the challenges faced by women leaders in a largely male-dominated domain? Do political parties make a conscious effort to give women opportunities to rise at all levels of the organisation? Are women supported through capacity-building initiatives? Are there enough opportunities given within political organisations for women to participate as campaign managers, political strategists and backroom supporters? How much of the current efforts are merely tokenistic in nature? Do male-dominated institutions really believe in supporting and grooming women leaders? Can state governments and political parties initiate post-election trainings to all its leaders, especially women?
The task of increasing women’s participation in local governance and politics cannot be left to the government or the law alone. Political parties, educational institutions, NGOs and every one of us, plays a role, and it’s time we acknowledge and act on this, individually as well as collectively, in whatever way that we can.
As Savitri, another candidate who won the elections puts it, “Mahilaon ki bhaagidari panchayato mein iss liye zaroori hai kyunki humaari awaaz koi nahi sunta. Humaari zarooraton ko koi aur nahi samajhta- chaahe woh shauchalay ki zaroorat ho, ya swasthya ki suvidhaon ki, ya ration aur paani ki. Iss liye mahilaon ko aagey aana zaroori hai, taaki panchayat mein who apni baat rakh sake, aur gaon ke vikaas ke liye nirnay le sake (Women’s participation in local governance is necessary as women’s voices are excluded from most decision-making processes. Male representatives don’t always understand and prioritise our needs — be it the issue of toilets, or health services, or access to food and water. That is why it’s necessary that women come forward and start participating in panchayats, so that they can express themselves and have a say in decision-making pertaining to village development).”