Empowering women-ledpanchayats to perform better

Chhavi Rajawat is the first woman Sarpanch in India with an MBA degree

The increase in proportion of Elected Women Representatives in Panchayats in India has been very promising. “The Strengthening of Panchayats in India: Comparing Devolution across States, Empirical Assessment, 2012–13,” a report by Indian Institute of Public Administration and Ministry of Panchayati Raj, we find that there were 1,365,134 EWRs in the country (46.7% approximately). The data clearly indicates that States that are progressive like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh have poor representation of EWRs just meeting the 33% requisite. Goa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Haryana, Assam West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Karnataka are the States which have proportion of EWRs less than that of the national average of 46.7%, while Jammu and Kashmir have none.

The highest proportion of EWRs has been found in Jharkhand (58.6%). Other States which have a proportion of EWRs higher than the national average of 46.7% include Uttarakhand, followed by Chhattisgarh, Kerala Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Manipur.

Unfortunately, over a period of time it is also found that although women are now elected in Panchayats and may head the institutions as sarpanch, in most cases there role is limited to signing papers. During a study undertaken in the first week of February this year in Hissar district of Haryana (on a different subject), we had the chance of interacting with a number of Panchayati Raj Institution members (PRIs). Interestingly, while some of the PRIs introduced themselves as sarpanch, others introduced themselves as sarpanch representatives. On inquiring what a sarpanch representative means, we were told the same usual story that the representative’s wife was actually the sarpanch. She signed all papers and very important papers at that and her role finished there. All decisions were taken by her husband (representative); after all how can women take major decisions we were told. This was not an extraordinary response. It was something we expected since in other States and in UTs too Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) of Panchayats, we experienced, were mere rubber stamps. In most places their husbands ruled, took all decisions and thus their husbands were addressed as sarpanch paties or pradhan paties.

women-representativeThis brings us to the subject as to whether only representation of women is important to empower women or there are other enabling factors that need to be worked on to create an environment where EWRs can take their own decision and march forward for implementation of development programmes at the panchayat and village level.

Barriers to limited and effective performance of Women led Panchayats exist because of limitations of the EWR in managing and implementing development projects and being able to have their voice heard. Our experience of working/interacting with various EWRs, their representatives in women led Panchayats indicate some limitations which include:

  • Limited access to education and low literacy levels of the EWRs
  • Socio-cultural norms with strict and prescribed gender roles which limit access, activity, mobility, performance of women and do not allow them to either make decisions, leave alone implement programmes
  • Male ego which prevents women from performing their official duties at both official places and home
  • Limited access to technical know-how , information and knowledge of how to address development needs and implement programmes
  • Trainings are often given at block, district or State level and EWRs are unable to attend the programmes because of distance, limitations on mobility and conservative social environment. Often, if a EWR travels for a training programme, sheis escorted by either her husband or brother. Sometimes they attend the training on behalf of her
  • Even if the training has been attended by the EWR she is unable to execute because her representative (husband/brother) will execute the programme and not her. She will only sign
  • EWRs prefer shorter training programmes so that there is no disruption in the role that they play at home as a wife, mother, daughter/ daughter in-law, sister etc.
  • Safety and security while undergoing training in a far off place is another concern
  • So also the need to be trained in local language
  • Another limitation for standing in elections would be the two child norm

In reality, it is not just the increase in women representation in Panchayats that would empower EWRs, but it is the capacities to influence, implement and lead and take decisions which are the important elements of not just self-empowerment of a EWR but also to bring about development and implement need based projects and to ensure that she has the position and power to move ahead. Increased representation does address the issue of marginalization of women but this is just the first step.

We do have people like Chhavi Rajawat who gave up her lucrative corporate career to be effective and influential Sarpanch of the PRI system in a panchayat of Rajasthan. However, what sets her apart is her education and her willingness to stand by her people and for the development of her people. In spite of all the bureaucratic hurdles she managed to stand bold and beautiful and ensure that programs on health, education, water etc. are implemented with funding from friends and corporates. She manages to set an example of how effective EWRs can be in bringing change and development. However, every EWR is not a Chhavi Rajawat who’s done an MBA and has influential friends or access to corporates.

The Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India along with the State Panchayat Departments, National Institute of Rural Development and State Institutes of Rural Development have been taking various steps for increasing proportion of women participating in Panchayat elections and being selected as PRI members thus addressing the issues of marginalization along with planned capacity building and training programmes for EWRs.

Indeed, there is pressing need for well-trained EWRs who can handle their roles and responsibilities independently, take decisions and participate in day to day functioning of the panchayats. Participation of women in training programmes needs to be enhanced so that they understand their roles and responsibilities better, understand their power to take forward development initiatives, implement projects or programs better, and to make existing capacity building programs more effective.

To achieve better performance of women led panchayats some of the key steps that may be undertaken include:

  • Focussing on gender sensitization of the community from where the EWR is elected or is likely to be elected, for the greatest barriers are from home and society in which she lives and often EWRs themselves are survivors of violence in their own homes
  • Secondly, it is important to ensure that she goes beyond the capacity of just signing her name. By ensuring that she has access to knowledge, information, technical know-how, roles and responsibilities, schemes and programs available to her, and the powers she has as a public servant will help in empowering her and making her participative
  • Thirdly, EWRs may be considered for being trained with basic managerial skills which would include modules such as leadership, team building, decision making, planning, executing, accounting, personality development and communication
  • Training Need Assessment is a key activity which needs to be taken up so that the capacity building and training is need based
  • Issues relating to mobility and safety need to be resolved
  • It would be wonderful if more young, educated women like Chhavi Rajawat decide to lead Panchayats and bring change

Sonali Patnaik | The writer is Director, Arupa Mission Research Foundation, Gurgaon