United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

UNIFEM South Asia Office

India’s women panchayat leaders face many challenges

UNIFEM SARO Regional Programme Director Anne Stenhammer with panchayat representatives from India’s states where UNIFEM has initiated a project on women’s political empowerment

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NEW DELHI, April 24: As she received the award for being an outstanding panchayat leader from Ms. Gursharan Kaur, a social activist and the wife of India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, Radha Devi symbolised the state of women’s political empowerment in India. She also represented its challenges. Radha Devi was one of the three women who were awarded last week for being an “outstanding panchayat leader”, the other two being Shobha Sinha from Bihar and Sanjo Kol from Uttar Pradesh. As the story of each woman was read out, the audience were overwhelmed as much by their success as by the obstacles in their path. The awardees were in New Delhi as part of the annual celebration of women’s political empowerment agenda at the invitation of the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS). India’s Constitution was amended in 1993 to grant at least 33 per cent reservation to women at the level of local government, the panchayats. However, the reserved seats are rotated every five years, and once these get de-reserved and are declared as “general”, women leaders find it very hard to get re-elected. Some of them are even threatened by men who fear their hegemony coming to an end. 

Panelists at the dais during the Women’s Empowerment Day celebrations (from left to right) UNIFEM SARO Regional programme Director Anne Stenhammer; Ms. Gursharan Kaur; Rajasthan Minister for Panchayati Raj, Bharat Singh, and Mohini Giri from the Guild of Service

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UNIFEM arranged for the participation of 100 women from the districts where it is implementing its governance project aimed at empowering women and men elected representatives so that they advance women’s human rights agenda. 

Consider the challenges women panchayat leaders face. When Radha Devi decided to contest for the position of sarpanch (head) of her panchyat more than 10 years ago, her village Mithi Beri, meaning “sweet berry” was infamous in the area for bitter feuds and rivalries and criminal cases that resulted out of these. A reformist at heart, Radha Devi met with opposition from the men who did not want to see her as the sarpanch. Yet, she won hands down. Her rivals could not come to terms with her victory, but she had her plan chalked out. The health care system in the village was not working efficiently, as was the anganwadi centre created to look after women and children. “The village was a den of vice and no one wanted to get their daughters to get married to boys from Mithi Beri,” she says. 

In the years that followed, a transformation began to sweep Mithi Beri. Radha Devi got the systems to become more responsive. Hygienic, modern toilets and a new road were constructed and she worked to get village residents their pension and other dues.  Mithi Beri’s “bad reputation” was forgotten. The village residents were happy but her rivals were not. When she tried to contest in the next election on the “general” seat, her men rivals threatened her and even connived with local government officials to strike her name off the electoral rolls so that she would be ineligible to contest. She approached higher authorities, had her name included and won with overwhelming support. She won in the next elections too and is now completing her third term. 

The other two awardees, Shobha Sinha and Sanjo Kol, too, faced hurdles on the way. Sinha was dismissed from her position as the Adhyakasha (Chairperson) of Gaya’s Zilla Parishad, the highest panchayat position in the district, while Kol’s name was struck off the electoral rolls in her village as men connived against her. Kol said her rivals were “busy conspiring even now” and had managed to get her son-in-law arrested on “false charges” when they learnt about her award. 

In an address before the 500-strong group of women panchayat leaders from across India, UNIFEM South Asia Regional Office Regional Programme Director, Anne Stenhammer, said UNIFEM will work with women and men panchayat leaders to strengthen their capacities so that they are “more equipped to implement the national government’s commitment to women’s human rights.”  

Focussing on this year’s theme – ending violence against women, she said, “As you go back more enlightened about violence, use the power vested in your office in favour of what is just. Violence is a grave injustice against women and, unfortunately, it is on the rise.” Among the many challenges she drew their attention to, the most important was to get the large number of women panchayat leaders (more than three million) act together. “The greatest challenge is to become one voice for the benefit of women and society,” she said.