The Power of India's Village Women


Societies and cultures that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, better governed, more stable, and less prone to violence. By contrast, countries that limit women’s educational and employment opportunities and their political voice get stuck in a downward spiral: They are poorer, more fragile, and have higher levels of corruption.

For a country that has a poor record of its overall commitment to women’s rights, India has set a stellar example of reserved quotas for women in local governance. It is an example of how a country can indeed successfully empower women, politically, economically, and socially. In 1993, an amendment to India’s constitution formally established the Panchayati Raj (local democracy), a three-tiered structure of local governance at the village, block, and district levels, to provide representation for small rural communities. It has been called a silent revolution, the greatest social experiment of our time, and one of the greatest innovations in grassroots democracy. It is one of the crown jewels in India’s democracy and, thanks to quotas reserving spots for female representatives, several women have been making their way up India’s governance ladder.

More than three million women have become politically active, with over one million of them being elected to public office every five years. They are no longer puppets, rubber stamps, or proxies for their husbands. The rise of Indian women as heads of gram panchayats (village councils, the bottom tier of local governance) is a spectacular achievement given that India has one of the worst records with respect to the way it treats the female sex. Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated, and discriminated against, Indian women have the odds badly stacked against them. It is truly remarkable that they are now setting aright Indian demographics and social indices.

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These elected women are now role models for the other women in their communities and are altering the development agenda to address issues critical to them. Their impact is now touching other areas, which may lead to enduring overall change. This role model effect can help close the gender gaps in other realms because higher aspirations translate into greater actual investments in girls by their parents and themselves.­

In Wanoja village in Maharashtra, Nirmala has lobbied state officials for a medical clinic. Nirmala watched helplessly as her children died of diseases she only vaguely understood — a curse that she believes might have been avoided had there been a reliable convenient and accessible health support for checkups and vaccinations. From drinking water and polio vaccine campaigns to schools and primary health centers, women are redesigning the development agenda. Women are also pushing to make administration and financial management transparent. Earlier it was the power of the wallet that determined the local electoral contests; wads of cash were used to buy votes. Women like Nirmala have changed the game.

Under Nirmala’s inspiring leadership, villagers dug long trenches to channel rain into shallow reservoirs that replenish the groundwater supply. They built small dams made of stones to stem rain run-off and to prevent precious topsoil from being washed away. Women are out of the house and working on village improvement projects such as sanitation systems and vegetable gardens. They have started small businesses. People eat more nutritious foods; they use mosquito nets and repellents to ward off mosquitoes. They know they must boil water for drinking to protect the family from water-borne diseases.

The concern for development flutters everywhere in the village. Hope has begun coursing through communities once shackled by fatalism and low expectations. No one drinks; only a handful smoke. There hasn’t been a crime here in years. The village is brisk and prosperous. Moneylenders have vanished; local officials no longer sniff for bribes. Notions of caste purity are no longer evident. Village elders no longer dart out distasteful looks at women going to town without a male chaperone. Signs of prosperity and modernity abound.

But these positive improvements are just a drop in the bucket. Across India, tens of thousands of villages lack government support and access to banks.

A lot of the positive changes are coming in the better governed villages. There are still large swathes where traditions abound. Several factors constrain the effective participation of women leaders. Some of these relate to a patriarchal culture, which neither sees women as political entities nor allows them to develop their potential. The same cultural standards also prohibit women from seeing themselves as political entities. Other related factors that constrain participation are a lack of basic familiarity with  political governance and legal skill.

To enter public life, women have to cross many barriers and the many constraints and challenges that are inherent in them.

First, the barrier of home and family, with the economic and sociocultural barriers and demands that exist.

The second barrier is access to knowledge and information. The education of girls has not been a priority for decades, and though this is changing, girls are still deprived. Moreover, literacy is not enough to enable a woman to access all the skills and knowledge required to govern.

Third, the new age of information technology has penetrated villages. Gram panchayats have become more technologically savvy thanks to the state governments’ attempt to computerize all data and communications of the the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI) to introduce the concept of e-governance. Here again, the lack of access to education and training makes the prevalence of technology a barrier to women.

The social pecking order of villages cannot be overturned easily. Several challenges remain to fuller empowerment.  Legitimately elected women representatives remain vulnerable to manipulation and harassment and are often reduced to mere proxies, while the real decision-making authority remains with their husbands or power brokers from higher castes. There are also instances where a woman belonging to a scheduled caste or tribe has been elected as head of a panchayat but is at the mercy of her upper caste landlord in the village for her livelihood. In such cases, too, the reins of power and decision-making clearly lie elsewhere.

But still, women are using whatever their levers of authority provide to bring about change in their societies. The World Bank’s World Development Report on gender equality and development shows progress in some areas, while in others gaps between men and women stubbornly persist. In India, the World Bank team discovered that measures like the introduction of quotas for women in the Panchayati Raj, or village level government, led to better access to clean water and sanitation, crimes against women being reported more often, and a jump in prosecution for those crimes.

The quotas have certainly been useful in  ensuring that women are equally represented and have the opportunity to improve the quality of governance. Women have the potential to turn around the pyramid of their societies. Enabling them to participate in an active, informed, and meaningful manner in the governance of a village is the key to making each village, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, a “perfect democracy based upon individual freedom.”

For this to happen ,women need to actively compete in the present political game in the rural arena. It’s going to be a much harder, longer road than policy wonks may imagine. But if they have the will, they can succeed. They know from their past lessons that they have the tools and they increasingly need to summon their political will to support reforms that can engender greater empowerment for women.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.

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