Women empowerment initiative gives impetus to local governance


By: Nesaru Tchaas

Dharamsala (Apr 9): Last December, panchayat elections were held in Himachal Pradesh, promising a major change in the composition of these local political bodies. In an unprecedented decision, the Indian government announced reservation of 50% of the seats in panchayats for women. However, the initiative may only exist “on paper” and would have no real bearing on the political reality of Himachal without help from grassroots organizations.

The problems are manifold right from social position of women to lack of systemic mechanisms in aiding grassroots governance. Jagori Grameen, a women’s empowerment organization with bases in Rakkar, Shahpur and Chumba in Kangra district, beginning several months before the December panchayat elections, attacked a central problem occurring within the Panchayati Raj system – the true upholding of democracy. And last month, on March 10, when 500 people gathered at an event to honour women who had worked with the organization and subsequently won a position in panchayat elections, the change was very much visible.

One woman, who ran for panchayat elections, but did not ultimately win, states, “When I go to panchayat, I feel there is not enough representation of everyone in the villages… there is too much discrimination against marginalized communities”. The current uprhadan of Ruledh village explains, “There are many representatives who don’t contribute to the Panchayat”.

Jagori Grameen saw the potential of this moment, a moment in which the government opened space for women to assert their own political perspectives and agendas into the local life and governance of these communities. Rakkar village’s newly elected female pradhan says, “People believed that I should not win the election… they cannot see how a woman can go over a man… I did a lot of good work and mostly in the favor of people.” Yet how, one might ask, can people and more, particularly women, insist on a more true and gender-balanced representation of the community without themselves being politically informed and motivated to create change? This was the issue Jagori set out to address when it created such campaigns as the Pre-Election Voters Awareness Campaign (PVAC) and further explored in its running of the annual 16-day-campaign to end violence against women, in which it framed political discrimination against women as a form of violence.

Over the months, leading up to the panchayat elections, Jagori worked on a grassroots level to make women and youth, who previously had little knowledge of their own village’s political underpinnings, aware of the fact that such a progressive reservation act was being implemented. Jagori’s program coordinator, Anoop Kumar, explains, “This was a chance to motivate good women and women from marginalized communities to participate in election.”

By not only distributing information about the upcoming panchayat elections, but by running workshops aimed at inspiring a qualitative shift in the consciousness of potentially interested candidates, Jagori helped a new generation of feminist-minded activists have the confidence to step onto their local political stage. Traveling from village to village, the feminist organization’s field workers held meetings with twenty-eight youth groups and fifty-five women collectives, in the Kangra and Chamba districts, on issues ranging from how the Panchayati Raj system functions, to the importance of transparency and accountability in local governance, to interrogating questions of why women and youth do not participate in panchayats.

During the organization’s “Sixteen-Day Campaign to End Violence against Women” taking place from the 25th November to 10th of December of last year, women contesting election were invited for a forum. When the results were announced later in December of last year, 60 of those 200 women attending Jagori’s event had won a position in the panchayats.

The result of the organization’s work was a wide-scale impact on many people’s relationship to their own village governance, most palpable at the culminating Women’s Day event held last month on March 10th, to which around 500 women came. There they gathered to honor the courage – both political and social- of women, men and youth who stood for elections in the name of fair and gender-sensitive representation. This was a time to think ahead in regards to how those women elected can now promote policies that are representative of the views of women and the marginalized. As much as it served to give recognition to valiant women, the event also served to inspire: one participant said, “I feel great after watching the programme”.

Neelima, a woman from Maiti village, who is a member of Jagori’s women’s collective there and was elected panch in December, says that she “wants to develop her village, wants to do good work, and wants the welfare of the people”. She has attended the past two Women’s Day events, and belongs to one of the organization’s 55 women collectives in Kangra and Chamba districts.

When asked about her personal inspiration for running in the panchayat, she responded by saying, “attending workshops with Jagori- that’s what made me confident”. Thus it becomes apparent that lack of female participation in the Panchayat Raj system is not simply lack of information, but lack of feeling socially equipped to take on the challenge of a society resisting the rising strength of women.

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