Panchayati raj institutions | Policy
In a 2011-12 study to understand whether or not panchayati raj institutions are gender responsive, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) examined strategic gender issues that are raised and discussed in these spaces, and the factors that influence these discussions. Attention to strategic gender issues challenge women’s status in society and transform power relations to enable social justice—a responsibility entrusted to the panchayat with the passage of the 73rd Amendment. In addition to other forms of discrimination, the study focused on the issue of domestic violence, one of the most pervasive and daily manifestations of gender inequity.
The field research was based in three districts, one each in the states of Rajasthan (Alwar), Karnataka (Mysore) and Odisha (Gajapati) where close to 3,000 elected men and women panchayat members were interviewed. Information on select themes was collected from sarpanch, members of panchayat samiti and zila parishad, and other stakeholders.
The study provides evidence and makes a compelling case for a much needed review of elected local governance bodies; and for related actions to engender both the attitudes and abilities of elected representatives. It is interesting that while the panchayat is often touted as a platform for innovative programmes both by civil society and the government to address social inequalities in sectors such as girls’ education and women’s health, there is still a lack of momentum to overhaul its prevailing ‘image’ beyond that of an implementer of schemes.
Concepts of citizenship and people’s participation in platforms of local governance too are limited. Findings clearly revealed that Panchayati raj institutions are not perceived by most male and female elected members as a space for bringing out gender concerns, including violence against women. Findings also suggest that apart from infrastructure and schemes, little else can be discussed in these local level platforms. This perception emerges as the single most important factor influencing panchayat members, who are constantly approached individually by women to resolve cases of domestic violence. From our study, it statistically emerged that when elected members, male or female, found these issues to be of importance they were 21 times more likely to raise it in their meetings.
The PRI is further constrained in its ability to address gender issues by highly inequitable gender attitudes of elected representatives, especially male members. The study cites close to half the men endorsing violence— ‘a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together’ is the option they chose amongst others that pointed towards a less tolerant attitude towards violence against women. Adding to that, more than 70 per cent respondents felt that violence should not be discussed outside the family. The greatest difference between male and female members was over the statement ‘a woman deserves to be beaten sometimes’. Twice as many men agreed with this statement as women. The study also reveals that female panchayat members feel that they are clueless about how to address these issues, whereas their communities do expect it of them.
For elected women members, the family and in particular the spouse’s support continues to remain a key determinant of success in the political process. It is perhaps for this reason that while a substantial proportion of women report increased self-confidence, status and decision making; they do not show a significant desire to re-contest. Women’s decision to re-contest is also not influenced by their education level or experience. What mattered most was whether the husband was supportive or not!
Our work with a number of Panchayati raj institutions points towards the fact that training models devised for building capacities of elected members need to be designed within a gender framework to address issues of gender equality and equity. Not surprising therefore that majority of the women members in the study sites sought upgradation of the training programmes. Despite opportunities being created for women, its operationalization is often left to chance. It is assumed that the presence of women in governance will automatically translate into gender responsiveness, but scant attention is accorded to extending this dialogue within communities and families where the odds of stepping out of ‘traditional’ roles are still against women.
As more and more women aspire to take their rightful place within governance bodies, it is important for all institutions (state, family and community) to respond to women’s specific needs such as bridging gaps in education, renegotiating gender roles, the gender division of labour and addressing biased attitudes. This, coupled with a discourse to engender institutional and operational frameworks to place strategic gender interests at the core of the governance processes will go a long way in exploiting the potential of the panchayat as spaces of democracy and equitable development.