In 1992 the Indian parliament passed the 73rd Amendment to the constitution for rural local bodies (panchayats.) This gave 33% reservation of seats for women in all three tiers of the Panchayati Raj. Questions remain however as to whether or not this affirmative action is sufficient to ensure the participation of women in the public sphere.
“In the Self-Help Group we have power and freedom, but in the Panchayat I still feel limited by the fact that I am a woman and that I am illiterate. However because, as a group, we represent 25 votes, I think that the Block Development Officer is finally going to have to listen to us.” Nirmila, Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh (at the back in purple)
When I was in India I was particularly inspired to meet Ramesh Wari (featured in my post “The power of the Self-Help Group.” ) Having been a member of a Self-Help Group she had been elected to the local panchayat where she was successfully lobbying for the rights of her fellow Self-Help Group members. However, while I was there I also met Nirmila, who told me that, whilst she had been elected to the panchayat, she was really struggling to make sure that her voice was heard in meetings “because I am a woman and I am illiterate.”
Nirmila’s story is not an isolated one. Since 1992 questions have arisen as to whether or not simply reserving seats for women is sufficient to overcome the rigid social and cultural barriers that women face and which disallows their participation in the public sphere. Even after coming to positions of power, dalit women often find that they are left sitting on the floor during the course of the panchayat meetings while the male upper caste members sit on the chairs. And, as illiterate first timers, they often depend on the men folk for conducting panchayat activities. As a result they become little more than puppets in the hands of male relatives.
However I think that, as Ramesh Wari’s story shows, there is hope for women like Nirmila. Ramesh Wari has been a part of the Self-Help Group in her village for two years. Meanwhile Nirmila’s Self-Help group was only formed eight months ago. Ramesh Wari’s confidence to speak out in the panchayat, fighting for the rights of the women she represents, is the result of time spent as a Self-Help Group member, discussing issues in the group and successfully lobbying government officials to fulfil their rights.
The fact that Nirmila is part of a Self Help Group therefore stands her in good stead (indeed she might not even have stood for election had she not been a member of an SHG) And now that she is a member of the panchayat she is gaining a deeper understanding of the political system. She feeds this information back to her Self-Help Group, thereby increasing their ability to challenge the social and cultural barriers to their empowerment. This developing sense of political agency is reflected in Nirmila’s assertion that “as a group, we represent 25 votes so I think that the Block Development Officer is finally going to have to listen to us.”
This increase in political agency among women is to the benefit of all. Their focus on needs based issues, like access to clean water, education and health care, means that the whole village benefits. In Amartya Sen’s words “It is not merely that more justice must be received by women, but also that social justice can be achieved only through the active agency of women. The suppression of women from participation in social, political, and economic life hurts the people as a whole, not just women. The emancipation of women is an integral part of social progress, not just a women’s issue.”