The Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB) has been pending in Parliament for over a decade now. One argument that should be made in favour of it, but is almost never cited, is the experience of the 33 per cent quota for women in panchayati raj institutions.
The quotas for women in panchayats — which brought as many as one million women into institutions of local democracy — have existed for over a decade; many states are now undergoing a third round of panchayat elections. The state of our knowledge — about how many of these women have contested a second or third time, how many won general seats after proving their mettle on a reserved seat, how many have moved up from the village to the district level panchayat — is curiously imperfect. But there is enough evidence to show that none of this is rare or unusual.
Indeed, the experience of women’s participation in panchayats discredits most of the shibboleths deployed by opponents of the WRB. Take, first, that familiar question: why should it be assumed that only women can best represent their own interests? The fact is that panchayats headed by women have demonstrated impressive developmental gains. They have tended to prioritise drinking water, smokeless stoves, and girls’ schools over roads and community halls. While water is not a gender-specific good, the drudgery associated with its absence is borne almost entirely by women. As a former president of a zilla parishad put it, even when both male and female panchayat members demand a road, it means different things to them: for men, the dream of driving a car on it, for women security for their daughters walking to school.
Two, it is often argued that quotas will only bring in wives and daughters. This is scarcely different from national or regional politics, where women leaders have often held office by virtue of their association with a male politician. Today, if our politicians had perforce to give up their seats for women, their own wives and daughters would emerge quickly enough. It is not uniquely in panchayats that the pathology of the ‘sarpanch pati’ exists — much the same holds true for the women MLAs whose husbands campaign for them, or women chief ministers whose husbands run the administration. Yet terms like surrogate representation are used only in the context of panchayats when there is in fact a proportionately higher chance here of encountering women representatives who disallow their spouses from accepting bribes or alert the police to apprehend husbands brewing illicit liquor.
Finally, there is the argument that quotas cannot produce gender equality. The empowerment gains of women’s participation in panchayats may be slow, but they are unmistakable. If participation in a self-help group helps women to acquire a voice, election to a panchayat brings self-confidence — to contribute to family decisions on dowry or the age of marriage for children, or to privately discuss village issues with a spouse.
Sometimes belonging to a political family actually helps, as with the sarpanch daughter of a male sarpanch who fought successfully to institute a one lakh rupee fine for rapists, to be shared between the victim and panchayat. Of course, these gains are more likely to be found in regions where patriarchy is less deeply entrenched or there is a history of social reform (Maharashtra) or of political mobilisation (Kerala) or prior experience of reservations (Karnataka) or civil society activism.
Across India, women who have completed their terms in panchayats are participating actively in the collective life of the community, advising new entrants to panchayats and mobilising women to attend gram sabha meetings. Their inability to read agenda papers or minutes of panchayat meetings has created new aspirations for the education of their daughters. From dalit hamlets in UP to tribal blocks in Gujarat, women sarpanches say they want to be like Indira Gandhi or Mayawati. Why, they ask, should our political careers be terminated at the zilla parishad?
The fundamental obstacles in realising the potential of our panchayats — inadequate devolution of functions and even more inadequate devolution of funds, caste disadvantage and illiteracy — affect women and men equally. Women representatives are burdened by these limitations, in addition to those of patriarchy.
To dismiss quotas simply because gender inequality is still around is silly. No quotas, and certainly not those that have been around for just over a decade, can overturn centuries of inequality. They can, however, be seen as a way of chipping away at patriarchy, eroding it by providing new opportunities. That the process itself is empowering is nowhere better demonstrated than in the new aspiration of rural women to educate their daughters.
The writer is professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU, New Delhi. She is currently senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
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