ON MAY 29 last year, a mahila mahapanchayat was organised by Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Shakti Manch at Manas village in Kaithal. The aim of the panchayat was to spread the message of equality of women. In a first, the two women sarpanches of the village were asked to remove their veil and address the gathering, which also comprised men.
Dr Santosh Dahiya, president of the Manch and a social activist who organised the panchayat, said that while one of the sarpanches instantly agreed when she asked her to lift her veil and speak to the gathering, the other required some convincing.
The difference between the two sarpanches is still evident 11 months after the panchayat. The village elected two sarpanches because of its large size. It has more than 5,000 voters.
Mukesh (27), who has done MA (English) and B.Ed, is more vocal about the issues in the village. Class XII pass Rupesh (23) leaves it to her husband to do most of the talking.
Rupesh says, “It was the first time I addressed a gathering. I just said that the we need to take the beti bachao, beti padhao programme forward.”
Her husband Narender chips in, “Purdah karna gaon mein se nahi jayega yeh kyunki isko apni sanskriti mante hain. Sirf apne bade buzargon se hi parda hai. Yeh rivaz shuru se chalte aaye hain. Koi chhod bhi de toh log kahenge isko toh sharam hi nahi hai.” (The concept of veil will not end in villages as we consider it our culture. The purdah is only from elders. The tradition is there since the beginning. Even if someone leaves it, people will say she has no shame.)
It is Narender who handles most of the work of the panchayat. A contractor in the construction business, he says that he has cut down on his work to ensure that there are no problems with managing the affairs of the village.
He says that the men in the village are not comfortable talking to women. So they come to him for getting their work done.
“Yeh meri Mrs hai….hamara alag toh kuch hai nahi. Humne apna kaam kam hi isliye kiya hai ki inko koi dikkat na aaye. Gaon wale inse bolne se thoda jhijhakte hain. (She is my wife… there is no concept of ‘separate’ between us. I reduced my work only to ensure there are no problems. The villagers hesitate in speaking to her,” he says.
He adds that although Rupesh did have an inclination to study further, studying up to Class XII was “sufficient” for her to teach their children – a two-and-a-half-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. “After all, she does not have to take up a job,” he says.
Since the panchayat in May last year, the village has achieved some feats. The government gave it an award for having the best sex ratio at birth in Kaithal district in 2016-17. The village has a sex ratio of 150 girls against 100 boys. A total of 65 girls were born against 42 boys in the village last year. The village also has the distinction of having several girls as national players, especially footballers.
Mukesh (27), the other sarpanch of the village, who did not need a male member of the family to guide her in her conversation with The Indian Express, said the improved sex ratio in the village is because she and other women keep a vigil.
“Whenever I get to know that a woman in the village is pregnant, I and other women keep a watch. In day-to-day conversations, we convey the need for ensuring that they should take care of their health and visit the health centres. The women know someone is watching them. This ensures that they don’t go for sex selection,” she says.
During the mahapanchayat, the women complained about the problems they faced due to the men drinking. Some complained about women selling liquor from their houses.
Mukesh says, “It was the first time that we got to know about the problems that the women were facing. When women tell the men about their problems, they do not convey to the sarpanches. At the mahapanchayat, the women spoke freely. One of their main problems was consumption of alcohol by the men. Even young boys were consuming it. We got the vends closed.” But even the more outgoing Mukesh, who had readily removed her veil at the mahapanchayat, says she will never look at men face to face without her veil.
“In the villages, we still cover our faces. When I was asked to remove my veil, I sat in the panchayat in such a manner that I did not have to face the men,” she said.
Mukesh says that she was initially reluctant to speak at the panchayat. However, her family has told her to express her views wherever required. Also, during her B.Ed course, she was required to make presentations that helped her.
Mukesh lives in Kaithal, which is at a distance of around 10 km from the village. She visits the village once a week or more if there is an issue that needs to be resolved. She says that women who have problems come to her. In case the family does not want their daughter-in-law to travel alone, she comes with her mother-in-law. The men, however approach her father-in-law Om Prakash, who is a property dealer.
Her husband, Narinder Singh, is a police constable. She says that even she wanted to join government service, but after her husband joined service, she decided to take care of her two children – a six-year-old daughter and one-and-a-half-year-old son. Mukesh says it will take some time for old mindsets to change. But with new people taking over the mantle, things will look up in the future.
“The important thing is that girls should be educated. This will help bring about a change,” she says. Dr Santosh Dahiya says that in her visits to the village after the mahapanchayat, she has seen the women becoming more vocal.
She adds, “For a long time, women sarpanches have remained rubber stamps. There is a need for this to change. I chose this village to hold the mahapanchayat as it had two sarpanches. The idea is not only to save the girl child, but also accord women status equal to the men.”