| Women representatives of village panchayats take part in an umbrella march in Patna. Telegraph picture |
In seven years of Nitish raj, a silent revolution is coursing through Bihar’s grassroots.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar introduced 50 per cent reservation for women in the state’s panchayat and municipal bodies in 2006. Now, more than half of the panchayat members — 1.32 lakh of the 2.64 lakh representatives — are women.
In the last Assembly elections, women beat the men to the polling booths in nine of the 38 districts. Experts believe women came out in large numbers to vote for Nitish because of better law and order in the state.
Empowerment of the women in the rural areas — both the elected representatives and those who came out to vote — is a work in progress.
Suman Singh, who runs a voluntary organisation for the empowerment of rural women in north Bihar, admitted that husbands of the newly elected representatives in panchayat bodies are calling the shots, but those in their second or third terms are slowly getting their voice and becoming empowered.
She added: “The tragedy is that most in the current lot of elected women members in the panchayati raj system are illiterate. The new generation of members would come after going through a very poor education system.”
Laying stress on the need for economic empowerment of women, Chitralekha, a social activist and schoolteacher in Mokama, said: “Awareness on health issues and rights and schemes for women is limited to members of panchayati raj institutions.”
Although experts claim empowerment of women has not yielded its desired results because of lack of education, there is still quite a lot to write of the women.
The government has distributed at least 7 lakh uniforms to schoolgirls and cycles to over 5.83 lakh of them; half the contractual teachers appointed in the seven years of the Nitish regime are women. The changes in the rural areas have also not gone unnoticed.
Suman said: “Girls in the rural areas have started to come out of their homes. One can see groups of girls cycling to school and there is an element of confidence among women and girls.”
Thirty-five-year-old Sagufa Begum, a member of Purnea zilla parishad, has noticed a subtle change in the attitude of people towards girls. The way Sagufa looks at it, women in Bihar have a lot to thank Nitish about.
“Discrimination against sending girls to school is vanishing. Parents are not being hesitant these days in sending their daughters to school,” she said.
Chitralekha said: “The change is not visible, but it is happening. I have witnessed during the last seven years that women have stared speaking. Although, when it comes to carrying out surveys, I still find women asking me to talk with their husbands, fathers or brothers.”
Women empowerment is clearly in its nascent stage but it has surely started.