Empowering women, the village council way
For Anita Rani Singh, a farm worker and village council chief, these are busy days.
High temperatures have ripened her wheat crop early, just as campaigning heats up for India's parliamentary elections being held in stages from April 20 to May 10.
"These elections have come in the middle of the harvest season, which makes it difficult for us women to leave the fields, but I am telling the women they have to vote," said Singh, dexterously scything handfuls of wheat stalks as she spoke.
In the afternoon when farming chores are done, Singh takes up her role as the head of the village council, deciding whether Majra Khurd's scarce funds are best spent on another room for the primary school or a new public health center.
She also has another task - making women aware of their voting rights in this dusty village in the northern grain growing state of Haryana, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of New Delhi. Singh is one of more than 1.2 million women, many barely literate, who have been catapulted into seats on village councils across India since a 1994 landmark law ordered a third of seats on councils - previously a male preserve - reserved for women.
"The '94 law changed the lives of women. Women have tasted the power that goes with political office and they want more," said Sunita Sehrawat, a former village council chief, in Sukhrauli, a village 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of New Delhi. India has had only a few powerful women leaders and - as in other South Asian countries - they often got into office by being the daughter or wife of a powerful man.
India's only woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was the daughter of the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Elected in 1966, she shattered many barriers in male-dominated Indian society in her nearly 16 years of rule, but she did little to empower Indian women.
Just 22 women were elected in 1952 to the first Lok Sabha, the powerful lower house of Parliament, which had 489 members. In the 1999 vote, the number inched up to 49 women out of 543 elected Lok Sabha members.
Five of India's 29 states are governed by women, and the leader of the opposition Congress Party is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
"I am not happy at all with the poor representation of women," Gandhi said in releasing her party's election manifesto last month. Both Congress and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party have pledged to support a long-pending bill that would reserve a third of the seats in Parliament and state legislatures for women.
But both parties have fewer women candidates this year, and each time the bill is introduced, male lawmakers block it. "All political parties are talking of winning elections and finding strong candidates to contest. In the bargain, women have become the victims," said Margaret Alva, a former Parliament member, and a Congress Party candidate this year.
In southern Karnataka state, "out of 28 parliamentary seats, I am the lone woman candidate sponsored by the Congress Party. Yet there are so many educated, capable women who could provide leadership," said Alva.
B. Venkaiah Naidu, president of the prime minister's party, said, "We would like to nominate more women candidates, but there are not too many who are active and can be considered."
"Funds are a real constraint for women politicians," said Brinda Karat, president of the All India Democratic Women's Association. "People tend to think it's better to support a man. They view women as the weaker candidate."
However, candidate Alva said she is optimistic more women will get into politics.
"The village council reform has empowered women of all sections of Indian society. There will be a strong push from below for women candidates in state and Parliament elections," said Alva. "Women form 50 percent of the electorate. How long can you keep them out of political power?"
Most India women are weighed down by illiteracy, poverty and low social status. For the millions working in fields, factories and sweatshops for minimum wages, political choices are often still made by their husbands or male community leaders.
Television - which reaches the poorest villages and slums - has played a part in changing that tradition.
Sheila Rani, a house cleaner who lives in Sangam Vihar, a New Delhi slum, said she always voted the way her husband did, but this year will be different because "now I watch it all on television - what the BJP is doing, what the Congress is saying." "Look how prices have risen. There's no water in the taps in summer. Every day we have power shortages. No matter what my husband says, this time I'll vote for whoever promises water and electricity," said Rani,
watching her four barefoot children playing in the narrow street outside her tin-roofed hut.
"Things have changed," she said. "Earlier when candidates came campaigning they would only talk to the men in the house. Suddenly they've realized we women also have a vote."