Women empowerment in rural India is a silent revolution marking a sea change in the lives of women at the grass root level, says Minister of Panchayati Raj Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar. In his opening remarks at the ‘International Conference on Decentralisation, Local Power and Women’s Rights’ at Mexico city today, Shri Aiyar said that over a million of the 3.2 elected representatives to the local self-government in India are women. Another 200,000 women representatives are in urban local bodies. Following is the text of the Minister’s speech:
“We have secured a large measure of women’s representation in our local bodies primarily through the instrument of reservations – but not entirely so. For, whereas the reserved share of seats for women in our institutions of local self-government is 33%, the number of women actually elected is closer to 40% - for many women contest and win against male candidates from constituencies that are not reserved for women.
Indeed, in the State of Karnataka it has been found that whereas the share of tribal women in seats reserved for tribals is 33%, in actual fact close to double that figure – some 65% - of the seats have been won by tribal women. The share for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes is 54%. Thus, it would appear that the hitherto most discriminated against section of the most discriminated against segments of Indian society have been the biggest gainers from the system of reservations. The fear of elite capture of these institutions has been effectively belied.
I am also happy to report that one State – Sikkim – has raised the share of reserved seats for women to 40%, and in five other States, the State legislatures have in the course of the last year raised the share of women in our local bodies to an assured fifty per cent, which, considering that half of humanity comprises women, seems only fair. Yet, even in the two States that have since been to the polls, the share of women actually elected has been several percentage points above the reserved share – 55% in Bihar and 53% in Uttarakahand.
We have close on 250,000 institutions of Constitutionally-sanctioned and Constitutionally-sanctified local self-government, to which we have elected 3.2 million representatives, a number nearly equal to the population of New Zealand or Norway or many Central American republics. Of these, no less than a million are women in rural local self-government and another 200,000 in urban local bodies. There are more elected women in India alone than in the rest of the world put together. It is an achievement without precedent in history or parallel in the world.
This large number of women from very traditional backgrounds emerge from the cloisters of their kitchens and closed family courtyards to knock on anonymous doors, walk the streets and argue from public platforms when they contest the elections. This initiation into public life empowers both the women who win and the women who lose – and even those women who watch their sisters contest and chose their representative from among the contestants.
Moreover, reservations for women in the Indian system of local self- government extend not only to seats in the local bodies but also to the office of president or chairperson. Thus, one-third of all such positions are reserved for women and give them high executive responsibility and experience. There are several instances of women getting elected to chair the local body even where the chair is not gender-reserved.
The criticism is sometimes made – and not always without foundation – that women candidates for reserved positions are proxies for their male relatives and that after the elections, the elected woman representative is rendered a rubber-stamp with the dominant male relative – husband, father or brother – exercising effective power from behind – and often from even in front of – the stage.
There is no denying this, but to put matters in perspective we recently undertook a survey through one of our leading pollsters of some 20,000 elected representatives to ascertain the true picture of the performance of women in our local bodies. It emerges from the survey that the proportion of elected women representatives (EWRs) from families with political antecedents in the village is really no greater than for males; the responses show a majority of women representatives are not proxies of their male relatives or patrons. As many as 58 percent of the women representatives are now taking their own decisions to contest elections. 60% of the women respondents said they faced no gender discrimination in their work. 60-64% said their interaction with local officials had significantly increased since their election. And as many as 94% said they found no restrictions on their raising issues and making their comments in meetings of the local bodies and the Parliament of the People, that is, the Gram Sabhas. And, most heartening of all, a majority of the EWRs reported an enhancement in their personal effectiveness and image after being elected, both in the workplace and in the home.
It follows that gender-specific programmes of training, skill-development and capacity-building are necessary to more effectively equip women to play their due part in local self-government. This is where civil society and the intellectual community come into their own. They need to take upon themselves the burden of face-to-face training in small groups. The State, on the other hand, needs to harness the best of modern technology to reach such training and capacity-building electronically to women in every village and habitation of our vast country.
As part of our National e-Governance Policy, we have incorporated a segment on telecommunication and broadband cyber and satellite connectivity to all our villages so that through recourse to techniques of distance learning we are able to reach our training programmes to the million and more elected women in our villages and towns. We also find that the Self-Help Group Movement is a necessary and, indeed, vital supplement to the political empowerment of women through our local bodies as the Movement economically empowers women both as individuals and as groups. The combination of economic empowerment through the Self-Help Groups and political and social empowerment through the institutions of local self-government is changing the face of rural India.
The single most important factor which empowers women in our local bodies is the degree to which the local bodies themselves are empowered: the more these bodies are empowered, the more are the representatives in these bodies empowered; and, of course, the more the representatives are empowered, the more are the women elected representatives empowered.
While reservations and elections have indeed promoted the political and social empowerment of women in local self-governance, there is still a long way to go to secure the administrative and economic empowerment of women through the local bodies. Hence our emphasis on the three Fs and the three Es – our mantra for decentralization through devolution: the effective devolution to the local bodies of Functions, Finances and Functionaries to secure Empowerment which ensures access to Entitlements and leads progressively to Enrichment. We truly have translated Independence for our Nation into Freedom for our People. We now have to translate accelerated growth into inclusive growth.”