Women empowerment has got a twisted definition in Khaira Khurd. The village located in Sardulgarh constituency of Punjab’s Mansa district has elected six woman of the possible nine as panches in the recently concluded rural polls. Of the six, five have won from wards reserved for women.
Here comes the twist: Four out of six woman panches are illiterates, one has cleared class 5 and another attended school till class 8. All eyes were on the six women when they, alongwith the three other male panches and the sarpanch, also a male, took oath at a district level function on Friday. Reason: they took oath with their faces covered under a long veil.
The women also made it clear that they are not going to lift their veil while performing day to day duties as elected panchayat representatives.
“This is the culture in the entire village and hence they are used to live like this,” said Parveen Kumar Jakhar, the newly-elected sarpanch of the village that is situate0d close to Haryana border.
The women echoed Jakhar. “We live close to Haryana border and our culture is similar to that state. Hence remaining under veil is part of our lives,” said Anusuya, who has attended school till class 5. Forty-year-old Gayatri who never attended school, said, “Though illiterate, we are well aware of the needs of the village. The veil is part of our culture and this is how we have been living for the past many years. So we cannot change our lifestyle even if we have been chosen as panches”.
Anusuya, also in 40s, too added that she can “sign her name, but cannot read” much. “However I am aware that much needs to be done regarding education of girls in this village”.
The other woman panches are Shakuntla (40), Sumitra (55), Savitri (50) and the youngest Manju Bala who is her late 20s.
Of the three men elected as panches, Dholu Ram is an illiterate while Roop Lal and Raya Ram are matriculates.
Sarpanch Jakhar, a farmer, is most educated of them all and holds a diploma in physical education. “We have a senior secondary school in this village. Of the 307 students there, 50% are girls. Many children from the village go to private schools as well. However, girls are not very forthcoming in pursuing education beyond class 10. No doubt several members of the panchayat are illiterate…but we will focus on girls’ education,” he said.
With 50 per cent members of the 10-member panchayat being illiterates, and another two barely able to write their names, the obvious question arises: how will the panchayat function. “I will make the woman members understand how panchayat works and will read out the rules and other details before taking their signatures or thumb impression,” said Jakhar.
Of the eligible 2,397 registered voters, 2,203 exercised their franchise in the election for sarpanch. Jakhar won by securing 1,145 votes. “The panchayat will work to set up a library, a sports stadium, a gym and a government dispensary in the village and I am expecting support from the woman members”.