Despite ranking a lowly 24 among Indian states with regard to the sex ratio, Gujarat has crossed a new milestone in matters of gender equality.
The state has ended male domination in its rural political leadership, with 56% of the newly elected presidents in over 200 taluka panchayats turning out to be women. The number of women heading district panchayats is now almost on a par with their male counterparts.
This has come in the backdrop of the state government deciding to reserve 50% seats in local bodies for women. The women representation quota was increased from 33% last year through an amendment in the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws Act-2009.
Of the 230 taluka panchayats that went to the polls in November, as many as 128 have received women presidents – 13 more than the 50% mark of 115. Similarly, women now helm 15 of the state’s 31 district panchayats.
Shilaben Ninama, who was appointed president of the Mahisagar district panchayat by the Congress, is nothing short of elated. “I’m happy that the party has shown confidence in me, even though this post wasn’t reserved for a woman,” she says.
The Congress, which swept rural Gujarat after a gap of two decades, is championing the women’s cause. Of the 138 talukas won by the Congress, as many as 88 – about 64% –received female presidents. “Women empowerment is one of our main objectives, which is why the party has selected women to lead even in unreserved panchayats,” says Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
The situation, however, is different on the other side of the political spectrum. Males continue to dominate at the rural level in the BJP, a party that ironically gave the state its first woman chief minister – Anandiben Patel. Though it was the BJP that brought in the amendment to increase the female quota to 50%, just 35 of the 82 panchayats it won (about 43%) are helmed by women.
But BJP vice-president IK Jadeja agrees that the state is witnessing history in the making. “This is probably the first time we have more women panchayat presidents than men,” he says.