More than 10 years ago, on December 23, 1992, when Parliament amended the Constitution (the 73rd and 74th Amendments) making the panchayats and municipalities "institutions of self-government" - reserving not less than one-third seats for women in these bodies - it was hailed as the beginning of a silent revolution.
The two constitutional amendments became laws on April 24 and June 1, 1993 respectively. In 1994, all Indian states passed the Conformity Act reshaping their Panchayati Raj system according to the new amendments. Today, thanks to these amendments, out of 3,200,000 members elected every five years to the panchayats and municipalities, more than 1,000,000 are women. Women head one-third of all the local bodies. Quite naturally, April 24 is celebrated as women's political empowerment day in India.
Stories of empowerment can be found in many states. Geeta Rathore (44) belongs to Jamonia Talab gram panchayat, Sehore district, Madhya Pradesh. She was elected sarpanch in 1995 from a reserved seat; but in 2000, the village people rewarded her for her admirable work by electing her again - this time to a non-reserved seat. From a humble housewife, Geeta has grown into a leader displaying political farsightedness - she has harnessed the collective energy of her panchayat to renovate water tanks, build a school building, construct village roads, fight against domestic violence and atrocities against women, create environmental awareness, encourage afforestation and water management in her village.
But in the same state, there was Sukhiya Bai - the tribal sarpanch of Gubrail panchayat in Betul district. A year ago, she died in a hospital in Bhopal with 80 per cent burns. Sukhiya tried to struggle against the corrupt officials who demanded a cut for releasing money for development work. Simultaneously, she was under pressure from the villagers who demanded the money due to them for their labour. She had even borrowed Rs 4,000 from a relative to pay the panchayat secretary who had been demanding a bribe for releasing the money for a well that had been constructed by the villagers. Unable to bear the constant tension, she set fire to herself.
In Tamilnadu, Leelavathi contested the Madurai municipal elections in 1996, promising to bring water to the ward. She was elected as councillor and within six months water came to the area. This threatened the mafia of the water tanker owners, who had a flourishing business in the area. Within days of her victory to get water in the area, Leelavathi was murdered by those who lost their water business.
After the decadal journey, although leaders like Geeta Rathore have emerged, the big concern is the way this silent revolution is being threatened by the same forces it set out to defeat - patriarchal violence, inequality and discrimination. Why did the journeys of Sukhiya and Leelavathi have to have a violent end? They contested the elections according to the Constitution of India, occupied the constitutional positions and attempted to discharge their duties as per the law of the land.
Something is changing
Cutting Across Party Line
With this, we have shown to the world that Indian women are not politically passive or uninterested in public life. Today, many women who fight the elections are from poor economic and backward social backgrounds; breaking social, cultural and economic barriers.
The notion that women's political connections matter and only the kith and kin of known leaders or those connected to them will enter the local bodies has been proved wrong in the recent past. The common refrain that it is the menfolk in the families who control the women elected members may be partly true; but studies show that the situation is rapidly changing. Some state governments have already taken measures to ensure that sarpanch patis (husbands of women office bearers) don't interfere with their wives' duties.
The number of women getting elected from general constituencies (defeating men) is also increasing. For instance, in Karnataka, 43 per cent women are now getting elected to local governments. Taking advantage of the new ethos, innovative and creative experiments in local governance involving women, like gender budgeting and self-help groups, are taking place in several states.
However, there are structural and systemic problems that women face. For instance, if women panchayat presidents do not yield to pressures from powerful landowners or contractor lobbies, no-confidence motions are moved and they are removed from office.
In some cases, the women panchayat members have had to face violence, intimidation and harassment for questioning male dominance and asserting their rights as elected representatives. Although society has by and large accepted the concept of women in the panchayats, women sarpanches in socially conservative areas face obstacles every day in their work.
Further, several states have passed legislations whereby those having more than two children cannot hold office and if a child is born when they hold office, their membership in the panchayats or municipalities ceases to exist. This is a discriminatory law, only applicable to panchayats, and women in the villages are at the receiving end.
In certain areas, male officials do not hold elected women members/presidents in high esteem because of their low social status. Women are thus doubly disadvantaged: carrying the burden of household chores and demands from the community as well as the office they hold.
Ten years is a short journey. Even if the representatives have not worked wonders, they have made small but significant beginnings. And even for these small beginnings, they have had to pay a huge price. We cannot and must not allow the sacrifices and dreams of the Sukhiyas and Leelavathis to fade away, although the insensitive would like to have it that way.
This is the biggest challenge facing India today: can she turn the present phase of women becoming victims of oppressive structures into one of gender equity and create a public life with dignity for all? It is encouraging that enlightened citizens, NGOs and media are taking the initiative to meet this challenge with some measure of success. If the trend continues, India will soon have Geeta Rathores occupying 50 per cent of public offices and positions of power.