India has been constitutionally provided an opportunity to create a critical mass of women in politics, who are expected to produce far reaching implications in the fabric of rural areas—exercising their power to bring gender justice in their constituency.
Elected women representatives (EWRs) are triply burdened with low levels of education, lack of professional experience and low income. In addition, there is limited training, lack of female role models and mentors, and violence against women (G Palanithurai et. al, 2009, ‘Networking of elected women representatives at grassroots’, Concept). The study of the 2006 Bihar panchayat elections, undertaken by the international development organisation The Hunger Project, clearly showed the prevalence of gender based violence in the State. A case in point is Ponnikailasam, the former President of the Anaikuppam Panchayat and former president of Panchayat Leader’s Federation in Tamil Nadu, who cites instances where women felt intimidated during gram sabha meetings alongside men—the discomfort evident. Moreover, domination of party politics and interference of male family members are common in local body institutions. Minnalkodi from Adhanur Panchayat reported that the men in her family take decisions and impose them on her; she in unable to find the courage to change the situation. Things take an ugly turn in certain instances, an example being Menaka, President of Oorapakkam Panchayat, and Leelavathy, Ward Councilor, Madurai Corporation who were killed by people opposed to their work on water related issues.
Capacity building is the first step in empowering women. For instance, the Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies in Gandhigram Rural University (GRU) provided capacity building programmes for EWRs in local bodies between the years 1996 and 2001 and then again from 2001 to 2006 with the support of the Tamil Nadu government and The Hunger Project. It reached 1245 women presidents of the panchayat in 13 districts of the State. Professor Palanithurai, Gandhigram Rural Institute, cites in his reports that post capacity enhancement programmes, women leaders need a networked space where they can share their experiences and learn mutually. Capacity and capability, he believes, cannot be built overnight—it is a slow and continuous process that is perfected by allowing her to practice what she has learnt.
It is thus imperative to create a powerful support structure through a women leaders’ network, to build an alliance, conscientize leader groups towards women-centric issues and orient them to the methods of tackling problems.
The Tamil Nadu initiation
The elected representatives of local body leaders (men and women) of Virudhunagar District, Tamil Nadu formed an elected representative’s association immediately after the first local body elections in the year 1996 in accordance with the 73rd Amendment Act and the subsequent Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act. Soon after, in 1997, the Federation of Elected Women Representatives (FEWR) was set up with the participation of 200 panchayat women presidents in Tamil Nadu; FEWR was facilitated by GRU, Human Rights Foundation (HRF), NGOs such as EKTA, SNEHA and more. The FEWR is a part of the Association of Local Governance of India (ALGI, New Delhi); thus by default the president of FEWR becomes the state organiser of Tamil Nadu for ALGI.
The need for a separate association arose from recurring incidents where the women leaders were unable to articulate their needs before their male counterparts and officers implementing various governmental schemes. Capacity building exercises and regular association meetings through the Federation helped women panchayat leaders to concentrate on social issues such as retrieving common property resources and ensuring entitlements of the poor through the public distribution system. Women leaders from the Federation in Tamil Nadu met leaders from different political parties to suggest policy changes to ensure rotation of panchayat seats once every 10 years instead of five. Regular participation in the network meeting provided awareness on gender issues and opened their eyes to several new ideas.
Although networks such as these proved useful, it was the question of sustainability that needed to be addressed. This initial experiment of networked women leaders (1996- 2006) ceased to function after the 2006 local body election, when only 30 women leaders were re-elected to the Tamil Nadu panchayat, after the seats were de-reserved by rotation. Though women were elected to the one-third reserved seats after rotation, most of them were new to the system.
Following the footsteps of the women leaders of Tamil Nadu, other states (Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) formed the women leaders’ network in 2000, facilitated by the civil society organisations like Sakhi-Kerala, Singamma Sreevasan Foundation-Karnataka and Loksatta-Andhra Pradesh.
The Karnataka model
Those involved in the association initially invited only development practitioners, feminists, researchers and academicians to their meetings. The experience was funded by the government and international agencies. Once the project period ended, the facilitating agency withdrew support to the network in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The FEWR state level federation in Karnataka, SUGRAMA, created their own website (sugrama.org). M Renuka, ward member of the Namagondlu Panchayat of Chikkaballapur District, currently serves as its President. SUGRAMA is the only federation of EWRs in India which has a membership of more than 2000 elected women members. Initially, tribal woman was scared to file sexual harassment cases against upper caste men. After the persistent efforts of women leaders under Karnataka FEWR, offenders were caught and fined. According to the women leaders the network helped them to not only recognise gender issues but also assisted them in collating experiences and sharing collective support. The Karnataka experience was a transformation platform for many women leaders who became more articulate in public meetings, fearlessly addressed seniors, and learnt soft skills such as negotiation.
In Tamil Nadu, where the network was first formed, it focused only on EWRs. After the term ended, EWRs slowly withdrew from the public space. The members belonged to different ideologies and pulled in different ways, leading to the collapse of the Federation. But the network did help them realise that even if they did not contest elections, they could actively work for the community. The Karnataka experience, however took the process a step further. It helped realise that resolving ideological differences among network members hailing from diverse social background and having different agendas is an important part of network creation. The latest experiment to network women leaders, which was initiated by The Hunger Project in Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu in 2012 and 2013 respectively, is trying to bring broad based alliance by involving ward members of the panchayat. The greatest challenge is working out smaller networks and integrating these mini-groups to form a broader network. It is also necessary to put in place inter-state networks for interfacing and mutual learning. But most importantly, hand-holding of women leaders must be supported on a long-term basis by organisations and institutions which are working for the empowerment of women.