India has more elected women representatives than all other countries put together. According to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj’s mid-term appraisal of the ‘State of the Panchayats 2006-07’, “No less than 10 lakh women are in our panchayati raj (local self-government) institutions, comprising 37 per cent of all those elected and rising to as high as 54 per cent in Bihar, which has 50 per cent reservation for women.”
The Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act (1992), which gave constitutional status to panchayati raj institutions, reserved 33 per cent of the seats in panchayats for women.
Speaking at a screening of short films on women in New Delhi, Minister for Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar emphasised, “There are more women elected representatives in India than the rest of the world. Eat your heart out.”
Veena Devi is mukhiya (head) of the Loharpura panchayat in Bihar’s Nawada district. Married at 12 and widowed at 16, she is serving her second term. “Today, gram sabha (village self-government) meetings are dominated by women. Earlier, not a single woman showed up. I want another woman to take my place in the next election,” said Veena Devi, who won both times from a general seat.
Hunger Project, an organisation committed to ending starvation across the world, has called this transfer of power the “greatest social experiment of our time”.
Since 2000, the Hunger Project has trained over 65,000 women panchayat leaders in legal, financial and administrative aspects of running a local government. It is is working in 14 states.
“Rural women have many more challenges. They are not exposed to bureaucratic systems, haven’t operated bank accounts. At workshops, they learn about their constitutional rights, social citizenship, how to prepare plans and budgets for the village,” said Maalan Narayan, national media advisor to Hunger Project.
Women representatives being used as rubber-stamps by sarpanch patis (husbands of panchayat heads) and male counterparts is a serious drawback. “There is a deep resistance to the movement. Even then, women are becoming empowered because they are gaining exposure. This is creating an entry point for them which is possible only through reservation,” said Poojita Chowdhury, a filmmaker who recently made a film on women sarpanches in Sangrur district in Punjab.
The ministry is releasing a study, based on an ACNielsen survey, of the status of women in panchayat raj institutions on April 24, which is observed as Panchayati Raj Divas.