A Small Push Goes a Long Way

How much does it cost to change the life of one poor, illiterate village woman, and through her the lives of several others in her community?

In the case of Sonabai, it was Rs 99 (1US$=Rs49). Less than what a government employee at the lowest grade would earn in a day. And this probably includes bus fare from her village to the state capital (Bangalore) and back. For three days in the city she attended a seminar on gender and governance, for women elected to the panchayats (village councils) in the four southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The seminar was organized by the Institute of Social Studies Trust, a non-governmental organization working in Bangalore and New

Like most elected women representatives (EWRs) who came into panchayat posts in the wake of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment reserving one-third of the seats for women, Sonabai too is a quintessentially rustic woman, illiterate and poor, thrust into administration because the post had to be filled by a woman. And like most other EWRs, she too floundered at first, was diffident and intimidated by male hostility and administrative jargon (quorum, audit, memorandum and minutes).

But all that changed after she attended the seminar in the metropolis, as part of a longer training program. It was her first ride in a long distance bus, and the first time she had ever traveled out of her village on her own. Invited to speak about her experiences as an EWR before a roomful of participants including city people, she stood in front of the microphone petrified and wordless, till another rural EWR participant gently urged her on with a couple of casual questions about her village. Sonabai slowly mustered courage, and within minutes her words were tumbling out faster than she could articulate them, as she realized that she was among women who shared and understood her problems and handicaps.

It was fascinating to watch the transformation, akin to watching a juggernaut that takes off, unstoppable, after an initial push, showing what women like Sonabai lack is not so much capability as confidence and reassurance. A day later, when Siddavva from Bellary district of Karnataka was overcome with shyness on being asked to speak, it was Sonabai who piped up loudly, "Avva (sister), yesterday I too felt nervous, just like you, but I got over it. You can too, just tell us about your work, go on!"

And for good measure, at the closing session Sonabai also promised that she would, from now on, "insist that all the women of her village should not only attend every gram sabha meeting but also speak up boldly". The cost of making women's voices heard in community decision-making? Rs 99.

Muniratnamma. Venkatalakshmi. Mercy. Janakamma. Gangamma. As each panchayat representative recalled her initial diffidence and how she went on to muster the confidence to undertake road construction, set up a veterinary hospital, or get widows' pensions sanctioned, the synergistic confidence that built up in the congregation became almost palpable. The new awareness was unmistakable in their body language, their movements, the way they gathered for a session and took centre stage instead of slinking into a corner as they did on the first day.

As Lakshmidevamma of Mugali panchayat confessed later, "I was afraid that I would stand out as an uncouth rustic, in the midst of all the educated city people." The chance to network and interact with other EWRs reassured her that there were other women, just like her, facing the same issues and problems.

Networking on a more formal basis seemed to be the next logical step, and so the EWRs have now formed federations for greater effectiveness, and for sharing information, strategies and experiences. Known as 'okkutta' (from the Kannada word 'okkattu' meaning togetherness) these panchayat women's associations in Karnataka are becoming pressure groups for joint action for gender empowerment where individual EWRs earlier found themselves unable to make a dent.

Faced with alcoholism-related domestic violence, irrespective of caste differences, the women in the Navalakal area of Raichur district in north Karnataka have successfully protested before the district commissioner and the police. They also organized a Rasta Roko (traffic blockade) with 2,000 women participating till the officials got the liquor shops closed. The women hired two tractors, carried food and camped at the commissioner's office till nightfall, to make their point, and now domestic violence has decreased significantly in recent months.

"We can -- and we will -- win, through the okkuttas," declares Aswathamma, president of the federation in Anekal taluk near Bangalore, who won the Best Gram Panchayat leader award recently.

The Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Presidents of Panchayats (which represents over 38,500 EWRs in the state, including 4,264 women presidents) has likewise sent a resolution to the state government demanding "prompt responses" to their representations, and imposed a 10-day limit for
government orders to reach villages. The Federation is also demanding a 50 per cent share of the revenue for panchayats instead of the eight per cent that they currently get.

Barely 18 months old, the Federation spearheaded by Rani, president of the Vanduvancherry panchayat, has also launched a spirited battle against an illegal sand mining operation in the district that was endangering the livelihoods of thousands of residents. In spite of political support for the offending contractor, the women finally managed to get the department of mines to take action and ban the quarrying.

The benefits to the community, in terms of environmental protection and safeguards against widespread unemployment, are considerable. And what made it all possible was not just the election of women to panchayat posts but the facilitation of their networking -- as decision-makers in the larger interests of the community. This was possible through small-fund sponsorships to cover costs that the indigent women cannot pay from their own earnings as daily-wage workers.

Says Ponni Kailasam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Federation, "We are only claiming our rights. We may be poor, unlettered, village women, but we now have over 200 women panchayat presidents networking under the Federation, and that makes us a force that the authorities cannot ignore, even if they ignore EWRs individually. We are now going to mount a campaign against corruption, and demand a greater say in our development plans."

Barely three or four years ago, the EWRs were derisively being written about as ineffective "rubber stamp" functionaries or "proxy" candidates for men. Now, through activities like the okkuttas and the Federation of EWRs, they are confident that they can do a good job and contribute to good governance.   


More by :  Sakuntala Narsimhan

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