Panchayati Raj and Women Empowerment in India – A Brief Study *T.Y.Nirmala Devi
“When the Panchayati Raj is established, public will do what violence can never do”
Swami Vivekananda had said” That nation which doesn’t respect women will never become great now and nor will ever in future and in pursuit of making India a great nation, let us work towards giving women their much-deserved status”
Women constitute half part of the society, but they are a way of political, social, economic and health opportunities. Women with disabilities have been largely neglected. Also due to many societal rules and regulations, they never are a part of the decision making process. Though at present women enjoy equal status with men as per the constitution and legal provisions but still, they have a long way to go. It is true and proved that “a country prosper if its women prosper”. So women’s empowerment is vital towards the development of the society. ‘Empowerment’ means ‘to authorize’. In the context of the people, they have to be authorized to have control over their own lives. Empowerment is an only effective answer to oppression, exploitation, injustice and other melodies of society. In short, Women empowerment means to give women the opportunity to fulfill their creative capabilities and desires and take decisions independently. It has social, political, economic, cultural dimensions. The concept of empowerment started with the civil rights movement in the USA, in 1960. The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)’ was held in Cairo, in 1994 and further in 1995 the ‘Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW)’ was organized in Beijing. Both conferences recognized the significance of women empowerment and reaffirmed that reproductive health is an indispensable part of women’s empowerment. The Government of India also implemented this agenda. As a result, the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCW) made efforts to make women strong, aware, and alert about their rights, health and social development.
Panchayati Raj is not a new phenomenon in the country. Its illustration in history goes back to more than a 1000 years. It has its roots in Ancient Indian Institutions when the villages were little republics governed by their Panchayats. During this period, it was not that women could not join politics, but the fact was that they did not take interest in it due to a patriarchal set up. The British through their ruthless method of revenue collection and the introduction of zamindari land tenure system almost destroyed these ancient republics and as well the involvement of women in politics. The British were of the view that “Vote of Women” would be premature in the Indian Society and continued to enforce purdah and prohibition against women’s education. After Independence, despite having a constitution, which embodies 1ofty, ideals like equity and equality, social justice could not be achieved so far. Even when India had a woman Prime Minister for quite a number of years, the situation of women at large did not change for the better. Women’s participation in politics remained quite insignificant in India even after 59 years of self-rule. Panchyati Raj Institutions have always been considered as a means to good governance and 73rd Constitutional Amendment was effected in the hope that it would lead to better governance and provide political space to the disadvantage section of the society like schedule caste, schedule tribes and women.
In India sixth five-year plan (1980-85) introduced Women’s Empowerment programmes with an emphasis on ‘awareness raising’ and ‘mobilization’. There has been a major shift in the policy from the concept of “welfare of women” in the 1970s to “development of women” in the 1980s and now from 1990s “empowerment of women”. The Government of India has declared the year 2001 as a year for the Empowerment of Women, but the struggle to reach this stage has been long and arduous. Indian democracy is 72 years old now. The success of democracy depends upon the people participation, both men and women. The concern for women’s political equality in India first emerged as a political issue during the national movement in which women were active participants.
After 1932, Indian women have participated in the active politics. Women have held the posts of president and prime minister in India, as well as chief ministers of various states. In the year 1993, the Government of India took a revolutionary step by making Panchayati Raj Institutions a part of the Constitution. In this regard, Panchayat raj institutions which give 33% reservation to women coupled with decentralized decision making have had mixed implications.
Reservations to Women in Panchayati Raj Institutions
After the 73 rd Amendment and the state legislations following it, the elections had guaranteed representation of women at all the three tiers of PRIs through the provision of one-third reservation .Equally guaranteed was the reservation of women from SC and ST, as the Amendment required that at least one of the women had to be from SC or ST. Unlike in the case of SC and ST reservation, where the number of reserved constituencies were in accordance with the proportion of population, in case of women, it was simply and uniformly 33.3 per cent 381 . Consequently, wherever elections to PRIs were held after April 1993, wards or constituencies were reserved for women. Even while this was generally accepted, the delimitation and reservation of the constituencies ran into trouble.
PRIs can be the first step for political empowerment of women as the confidence and understanding of polity can allow them to participate in elections to state legislatures and Parliament paving the way from ‘Panchayat to Parliament’. It is the only beginning of a journey towards empowerment. The journey of women leadership in local governance is not so long. Women are still in the learning phase. It is true that only women can effectively voice their pent-up feelings, requirement and perspective in development processes. Thus preparation of women is important to voice needs and ideas of this fraction of society in development. Women in India have made much progress in the past century; they are occupying the highest offices and position. At least we are ahead of America in that respect where to date there has been no women president. But there still a need for a proper solution to the many problems. The reservations at the local level and Women’s participation in Panchayati Raj institutions are not enough for the Women Empowerment. We have a long way to go, but we will get there someday. Swami Vivekananda had said” That nation which doesn’t respect women will never become great now and nor will ever in future and in pursuit of making India a great nation, let us work towards giving women their much-deserved status.
Women in Panchayati Raj in India
The Act provides for the reservation of not less than one-third of the total number of seats for women (including the number of seats reserved for the SCs and STs). Further not less than one-third of the total number of offices of chairpersons in the Panchayats at each level shall be reserved for women. This would be rotated among different Panchayats at each level.
The Indian Constitution provided Part 4, The Directive Principles of State Policy, and Article 40 for the setting up of village panchayats. But this is non-justifiable. Political participation and grassroots democracy have been strengthened considerably by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment (1992- 1993), that have created new democratic institutions for local governance. It provides reservation for women in Panchayati Raj system set up two ways: (1) For the office of the members and (2) For that of the chairperson.
With the advent of this Act, India today has more than 500 district Panchayats, around 5,100 block panchayats and more than 2,25,000 village Panchayats, approximately 90 municipal corporations,1,500 municipal councils, and 1,800 Nagar Panchayats. And there are also 6, 81, 258 women elected to Gram Panchayats: 37, 109 women to Panchayat at the intermediate level and 3153 women Panchayat at the district level. Role of PRI institutions in women empowerment can be highlighted by many aspects. Like:
(3) Women are taking up the challenge and gearing themselves up to enter politics at the lower level in the spirit of self-governance as committed Citizens.
(4) Through the experience of the Indian Panchayat Raj Institutions, more than one million women have actively entered into the political life of India. Reservation for women in Panchayats (chairman and members) up to one-third seats.
(5) Women’s issues have come to the forefront at the local level and consequently state and national level.
(6) PRIs through women can work on the creation, development and promotion of Self Help groups, Cooperatives, MSMEs for better employment and livelihood options in rural areas.
(7) Women leaders in the Panchayati Raj are transforming local governance by sensitizing the State to issues of poverty, inequality and gender injustice.
(8) Through PRI, women are changing governance are evident in the issues they choose to tackle; water, alcohol abuse, education, health and domestic violence.
(9)Women are also taking action against child marriage and child domestic labour, whilst promoting girl-child education. Also, women have used their elected authority to address quality health care as critical issues. If there is the good side of PRI in women empowerment, there is some slackness also. It was sad but not shocking to find that even the functions and duties of Gram Sabha are not known to a large majority of respondents.
Wandana Sonalkar, in her study, ‘An Agenda for Gender Politics’ attempts to focus on the reaction of the women towards the provisions of the 73rd and 74th Amendment Act. She finds that women’s organizations have welcomed this as a potentially-empowering provision and have worked to give support to women, elected in this set-up. The entries of women into local political bodies have at times been manipulated by male dominated political parties and in some situations the elected women have been neutralized or even sexually humiliated. She further mentioned that the logic of decentralization of power does not apply to the issue of reservation for women in the national and state level elected bodies. This demand has been taken up with enthusiasm by the left political parties or the women within them and later on by the autonomous women’s organizations.
Difficulties faced by women representatives in Panchayati Raj Institutions
- Political intervention in the functioning of Panchayats.
- Women act as proxies for men.
- Husband’s intervention of elected woman in her functioning.
- Lack of political awareness among the women in rural areas.
- Negative public opinion regarding women’s leadership capacity.
- Illiteracy or low standard of education among the women in rural areas is a stumbling bloc.
- Lack of training courses especially for women representatives.
- Dominance of elected male members of the Panchayat.
- Politically motivated violence against women has seen an increase.
Suggestions for effective participation of women in Panchayati Raj System
- Political parties intervene in the election and functioning of Panchayats, creates hostile environment for the women contestants and women representatives. The government should take a strict action in such an intervention of political parties and elections should be conducted free and fair.
- In rural areas political awareness among the women is negligible. It is the duty of the state government and local administration to educate the women about the political issues and create awareness among them.
- Special training and refresher courses for women representatives should be conducted from time-to-time. It gives them confidence and creates political awareness and power.
- Government should make special provisions for the women representatives and give them more powers as compared to male counterparts and educate them about their powers. It helps them to work efficiently and effectively.
- There should be a provision to give honor and financial rewards to the women members for their exemplary works.
- The rotation term of reserved seats should be made after every at least 10years. It would help women representatives to fix their feet in the Panchayats.
- About 80 per cent of women are not aware of rural development schemes like NREGS, GRY and funds received under these schemes. Dependence on their husbands and other male members of the family, low-level of education, lack of interest, the inadequacy of training etc. appear to be the causes of women’s low level of awareness. Women reservation has led only to formal and not real empowerment of women in the Panchayats. It is seen that the participation of the women shall have to get co-operation from their family members. Participation of women in preparing budget and plan is also not to the desired extent and it is dissatisfactory. It is only due to less weight age is given to the women due to patriarchal and male-dominated social system and age-old social taboos against women in the rural area.
It is relevant to note that in different parts of the country women participated in the Panchayati Raj institutions in a higher degree after the implementation of the provisions of 73rd Amendment Act. Women belonging to middle age group, married women, educated women, and women from middle and low incoming groups have come in greater number to participate in the Gram Panchayat elections. Reservation for women in the Gram Panchayat Councils has encouraged the women to contest the Panchayat elections in a large number. Women belonging to S.C., S.T. and B.C. also participated in such elections in a greater number.
With the establishment of PRIs in our country a woman gets an opportunity to prove her worth as a good administrator, decision-maker or a good leader. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 is a milestone in this regard. It provides women a chance to come forward. This experiment is proving to be a big success particularly by providing opportunity to women to come out of their houses and participate in administrative and political field. However, in many areas of our country this system has been captured by some elite people. The government should provide extra financial, administrative or political assistance to women for the success of the provision of the Amendment. Government should encourage research and development in effective implementation of provisions of 73rd amendment.
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