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Women are naturals at grassroots governance

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DEHRADUN, India, Sep 10, 2005, 2005 (IPS/GIN via COMTEX) -- The picturesque Himalayan state of Uttaranchal is leading the rest of the country in taking advantage of legislation that reserves a third of all elected seats in local bodies for women.

No longer satisfied with playing second fiddle in local leadership, women in this state now occupy a full 45 percent of seats in its panchayats (rural local bodies).

"Our aim is to raise women's representation even further to 50 percent in the next five-yearly round of elections in 2008," said Gitanjali, a trainer at the Rural Litigation and Empowerment Kendra, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with communities in Uttaranchal and trains women who are leaders in local government.

For centuries, panchayats formed the basic units of governance across the sub-continent, but their importance was undermined by centralized rule brought in during the British colonial period that ended with independence in 1947.

Influential leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi, ensured that panchayats had a key role in the constitution drawn up for the new country. But the competitive party-based politics that followed restricted their influence until 1993, when the 73rd amendment restored rural local bodies to their intended place.

Described as a "revolution based on maximum democracy and maximum devolution," a key feature of the amendment was that 33 percent of elected seats were reserved for women in some 250,000 local government bodies that function below the district level.

Seen another way, this quota meant the empowerment of 1 million women -- as India's panchayats are run by 3 million elected office bearers. In Uttaranchal state, 2,511 of the 6,925 panchayat presidents are women.

Uttaranchal was only created in 2000. It was hived off from the larger Uttar Pradesh state, still India's largest and most populous region with a population of 170 million.

Women played a key role in the struggle to create Uttaranchal, with busloads of them driving down to the national capital of New Delhi to stage demonstrations and highlight the geographical and even ethnic distinctions that could be addressed only through separate statehood within the Indian federation.

The next step was to dismantle the old trappings of centralized rule from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh -- in many ways more distant than New Delhi, and also more corrupt.

For Sarla Devi, pradhan (president) of the Prithvipur panchayat, that meant encouraging people to turn to panchayats for solutions to their problems, rather than the often corrupt police.

To bring about this shift, she passed a resolution putting an end to police interference in local disputes and issues unless this was approved by the panchayat.

In the five years that women have been in local government, the biggest challenge they faced was in taking on an entrenched system of "commissions" paid to various government officials -- something that depleted funds allocated for welfare activities.

Maina Devi, pradhan of Dhulkot in Dehradun District, said she had also encountered problems with paying daily wages to laborers under government schemes: "The pradhans were allocated roughly one U.S. dollar to be paid each laborer when even the law had fixed the minimum daily wage for unskilled labor at about two U.S. dollars. It became impossible to find laborers."

This led to a sense of disillusionment and helplessness among the elected representatives and restricted their ability to work effectively. Gayatri Bhatt, pradhan of Sitabpur in Pauri District, said panchayat leaders had little real power in key areas, as this remained in the hands of other government officials because of bureaucracy.

Academic assessments of women panchayat leaders nationwide conducted by the Women's Studies Center at Delhi University corroborate field reports that corruption at the local level has lessened considerably because of the presence of female pradhans.

This is despite the fact that the patriarchal underpinnings of Indian society have also worked to undermine women's empowerment, through the phenomenon of the "pradhan pati" (the husband of the panchayat president) abusing his wife's position. This has opened the door to irregularities and corruption.

"When people have chosen women as their representatives, it is their (women leaders') duty to carry out their work on their own without interference from male relatives," said Kamla Bamola, pradhan of the Subash Nagar panchayat near the town of Haridwar.

In Uttaranchal, women's organizations known as Self Help Groups (SHGs) have helped women overcome corruption and patriarchy. These groups work alongside panchayats, and in some cases even overshadow the elected local bodies.

For example, at Naitri village, close to the Tibetan border, the women's SHG is now busy building up the panchayat house after collecting money to acquire the land. Men in the village objected to the building which, to them, appeared to entrench the new power of women -- but they were easily ignored.

"The SHGs have done more than anything else to further the aim of achieving gender equality as outlined under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set for 2015 by the United Nations," said Chhaya Kunwar, senior coordinator of the Himalayan Action Research Center (HARC), an NGO that focuses on women's empowerment in Uttaranchal.

Over the past three years, HARC has facilitated the creation of 182 SHGs in Uttarkashi district in which Naitri falls, and Chaya believes they have been instrumental in achieving progress towards the MDGs -- especially those related to achieving universal primary education and poverty alleviation.

Copyright (c) 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved.

(C) 2005 Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved

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