Most people cheered when the government announced that it would raise the percentage of reserved seats for women in panchayats and nagar palikas from the current one third to half. Ironically, the State that has led the way in this is Bihar, one that is hardly ever held up as an example. Three years ago, Bihar enhanced the percentage of reserved seats for women to 50 per cent.
Now with the rule applying all over India, the number of elected women representatives in panchayati raj institutions alone will jump from the current 1,038,989 (2006 data) to an estimated 1,400,000. To do this, the government plans to amend article 243D of the Constitution that relates to reservation of seats for women, in the winter session of Parliament. There is some talk of the Women�s Reservation Bill for seats in Parliament also being tabled at the same time although no one is placing any bets on it.
Not the full story
Numbers, however, never tell the full story as we well know. The participation of women in panchayats has been a fascinating and flawed story. Fascinating because it has shown that even deprived, illiterate, marginalised women can become competent and concerned elected representatives. But flawed because the women have to function in a society that will not accept that they can think independently, understand matters of governance, and take responsibility outside the four walls of their homes. Thus, for every success story there are many more of women who front ambitious men.
Women have made a difference where they have been trained and educated about their rights and responsibilities. Sometimes the initiative has come from a committed official, sometime from a non-governmental group. Kerala has been a pioneer in training women in panchayats and its Kumdumbashree Initiative is rightly lauded as imaginative and effective ( http://www.kudumbashree.org/). Studies and surveys have established that without such specific input, the majority of elected women would not have been able to function effectively. The Panchayati Raj ministry also initiated with the National Commission for Women a Panchayat Mahila Shakti Abhiyan specifically to inject a level of confidence in the women. The ministry�s report on �The State of the Panchayats� (2006) states, �At present, many women in Panchayats feel isolated and powerless, particularly because of the persistence of gender prejudices and gender discrimination in the social mores of village life.�
Apart from prejudice, these women function against the background of the reality of women�s status in the country. An increase in the number of elected women does not necessarily alter this reality. Take just four indicators that are also used to judge the status of women in the Global Gender Gap Index � economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. In 2007, India�s overall ranking was a dismal 114 out of 128 countries surveyed. As if this was not depressing enough, its ranking in the specific areas is even worse. In economic participation and opportunities for women, it is 122; in educational attainment it is 116 (41 per cent of Indian women in the 15-49 age group have never been to school); in health and survival it is 126 (India�s maternal mortality rate is 301 per 100,000 live births) with only Azerbaijan and Armenia lower. Only in political empowerment does it score higher at 21, probably thanks to the million and more women elected to Panchayati Raj institutions.
Against this background, the women who enter politics through the panchayat route � mainly because there are seats reserved for them � do so in an environment where they have to struggle between their role as primary caretakers of their homes and their responsibilities as elected officials, where they can only contest if there is spousal or family support, and where once the reserved seat reverts to a general seat as a result of the system of rotation of reserved seats, they inevitably have to step down. A survey initiated by the Panchayati Raj Ministry in 2008 revealed that 89 per cent of the women interviewed did not contest a second election and that 11 per cent who did so, lost. Nearly half the women said that they felt the work was �unsuitable� and that they felt incompetent and a third said their spouses had discouraged them from contesting a second time.
These studies and data bring out two crucial points. One, that even if the number of women elected to office increases because more seats are reserved, these women do not necessarily continue their participation in politics, partly due to societal attitudes. Secondly, they have to struggle because of lower qualifications (the majority of women are less educated than their elected male counterparts), the lack of training and the system itself. The rotation of seats, for instance, appears to work against the interests of women who might have been encouraged to contest again. In fact, one of the recommendations in the survey quoted above, �Elected Women Representatives in Panchayati Raj Institutions� (available on the ministry�s website) is that this particular system needs to be rethought.
On the positive side, more women doing things that they have not done before will contribute to society�s perceptions of what women are and what they can do. Reservation certainly encourages women to enter politics. Imagine a whole generation of girls growing up seeing their mothers as Pradhans, or Mayors, giving orders, conducting meetings, speaking in public, sorting out problems, being out of the home, or having people coming to the house seeking help. In a society where the woman�s voice is most often ignored or over-ruled in the home, such imagery is quite revolutionary. It challenges entrenched ideas of what women can and cannot do.
So two cheers definitely for increased reservation for women in panchayats and nagar palikas � and perhaps, one day, in Parliament � but the third cheer will have to wait until many more things change.
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