Geeta Mahanand, the sarpanch of Risama panchayat in Chhattisgarh's Durg, said she would have never come forward to contest the rural polls had there been no reservation for women in the Panchayati raj system.
A housewife who was thrust into politics after the seat was reserved for women, Mahanand said reservation not just empowered her to make decisions but also boosted her confidence to do more for the society.
In the three decades since reservation of seats for women in panchayati raj institutions was introduced, the country saw women dismantling gender barriers to take the lead in the political field at the grassroots level and excel in it.
In 1992, the P V Narasimha Rao government passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts mandating the reservation of one-third of seats for women in Panchayati Raj institutions. Over three decades later, the 128th Constitution amendment bill, referred to as the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, is seen as yet another significant stride towards achieving gender equity in politics.
After becoming sarpanch, Mahanand took proactive steps to improve cleanliness in her panchayat.
"We received a grant of Rs 20 lakh for our cleanliness efforts. We paid special attention to cleanliness in all institutions. We constructed toilets and employed women under the Swachh Bharat initiative, paying them from the panchayat fund. We also levied a cleanliness tax." Initially, she faced some resistance as people were sceptical about the new initiatives.
"There were initial disagreements. However, eventually they came around. We worked with children to convince elders and they now talk about the importance of proper waste disposal. We are currently in the process of getting a library constructed," Mahanand said.
Recounting her entry into politics, she said, "The villagers suggested that, since I was educated, I should contest the election. I was new to politics, and no one in my family had ever been in this field. Initially, my husband acted as an advisor." About the passage of the women's reservation bill in Parliament, Mahanand said, "It should have happened earlier. We talk about equality, but there is still no clarity on when it would be implemented." Asked about some expressing concerns that the bill, in its current form, might allow women from political families to dominate, leaving little room for those who truly need the opportunity, she said, "It might happen, but women must come forward and assert their rights." A woman sarpanch of a remote village in Rajasthan, who prefers not to disclose her identity, said, "Empowerment came to me through reservation." Thrust into the election fray, she endured domestic abuse. “My husband tried to control me, but the women in the village rallied in my support. Gradually, even my own family began to respect me, realizing that all I want to do is to improve the condition of my village." "As my children grew up, they too started supporting me. Had it not been for reservation, I might have never considered stepping out of my home and contesting elections," she added.
In Salkheda village of Madhya Pradesh's Barwani district, village council member Anita's journey has been marked by resilience and empowerment.
"In this small village, women faced many difficulties. Men didn't allow them to step out. Hand it not been for reservation, it would have been incredibly hard for a woman to contest elections. When I became a member, an NGO taught us how to convey our ideas to the people and bring about change," she said.
Anita's commitment to empowering women extended beyond her own election. "In my panchayat, I encourage women to step forward and take on more responsibilities. I firmly believe they should have a larger role to play," she said.
Seema Bhaskaran, the Lead for Gender at the grassroots organisation Transform Rural India said women's reservation in panchayat opened up the political space for women. "In states where reservation in panchayati raj has been combined with capacity building of women elected representatives, the change has been impactful," she said.
In India, the National Rural Livelihood Mission has facilitated training for elected women representatives and Self-Help Group federations in decentralised planning and citizenship within Panchayati Raj Institutions. This has greatly contributed to enhancing the political voice of women, Bhaskaran said.
"This is an inevitable concomitant for battling patriarchy intersecting with entrenched structural barriers of caste," she added.
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