Collective role of women elected representatives: A powerful instrument for good rural governance

What an NGO’s initiative in Nuh district of Haryana reveals

Susmita Guru and Amba Mukherjee | December 16, 2020

#panchayati raj   #RTE   #gender   #local governance   #Governance   #Nuh   #Haryana   #Sehgal Foundation  
Creating awareness through games and play in Nuh district of Haryana (Photo courtesy: S M Sehgal Foundation)
Creating awareness through games and play in Nuh district of Haryana (Photo courtesy: S M Sehgal Foundation)

Local governance is the base of rural development and comprises of mechanisms, process, and institutions through which citizen and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations, and mediate their differences. It is a mechanism by which citizens and groups can define their interests and can interact with institutions of authority. At the village level, local institutions are the potential growth centres that are primarily responsible for the community development programs relevant to the needs of the people.

Governance is also a process by which government programs can be monitored to ensure the effective delivery of public services to citizens. The concept of good rural governance refers to building effective government [The term implies ensuring food, health, education, and security to people in villages] wherever it does not exist. The term refers to structures and processes designed to ensure accountability, transparency, responsiveness, the rule of law, stability, inclusiveness, equity, empowerment, and broad-based participation (Unesco, 2009).

In rural India, many important characteristics such as equity and inclusiveness have been ignored for many decades (Mosse, 2018). Even though women constitute nearly half of the total population in India, they are often excluded from the politics and public representation (Kumar, Dhamija, & Dhamija, 2016). However, it is a well-supported claim that good governance cannot be achieved without the equal participation of women in the process as they are the critical agent of the development process. A landmark decision in the direction of women’s participation in decision-making was undertaken during the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution in 1993, which made one-third of the positions for women in local governance. Resultantly, a 33 percent reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) was made mandatory. This amendment has led to increasing seats and participation for women PRIs.

In addition to PRIs, a provision has been reserved for the participation of women in other village-level intuitions. Recognizing that the welfare of children is directly associated with the inclusion of women in school governance, the Right to Education Act, 2009, affiliated the provision of a school management committee (SMC) mandated with 50 percent of the members to be women (RTE, 2009). The composition of the SMC ensures the involvement of parents, teachers, teachers of other schools, and representatives of the board.

Likewise, the National Rural Health Mission provides for a village health, sanitation and nutrition committee (VHSNC), which works on collective action issues related to health and its social determinants at the village level. VHSNCs have a mandate for at least 50 percent women’s participation in the committee (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2014).

With the paradigm shift, the political participation of women has increased at all levels of grassroots institutions (Mazumdar, 2000). But many impediments and challenges are highlighted over the years in the active participation and decision-making role of women in rural governance (Preeja & Ramanathan, 2016). The social structure created over centuries, working against the interests of women, has not allowed women to raise their voices against the wrong happenings in society, thus they were unable to perform many critical functions at the expected scale (Palanithurai, 2002). There are evidences where their voices remain unheard by male government officials and they often face ill treatments (ibid).

As a consequence, many women representatives feel uncomfortable visiting government officials alone, and they remain dependent on male members of their family for that. This affects the performance of their work. To meet the particular challenge, women representatives from different village-level institutions can come together to use their voices collectively for the improvement of village governance. Particular acts have been kept within the framework of collective action method, leading to the creation of a people’s organization, commonly referred to as groups that decide to act together (Ravnborg, et al., 2000). A similar collaborative model of good rural governance has been developed by a Gurugram-based NGO, Sehgal Foundation, in which women elected representatives (WER) of diverse institutions are trained in a common platform and encouraged to address problems of the village collectively.

This paper argues that the collective action of women representatives has been a strong instrument for good rural governance and can solve many problems related to the functioning of village-level institutions and the delivery of the government schemes in the villages. The study highlights how longstanding problems of the villages were solved with the collective role played by women representatives in the villages of Nuh district in Haryana. The paper further discusses in detail the challenges and constraints faced by women representatives in raising the village issues discretely.

Prerequisite of collective action for WER in addressing the rural problems and initiative by a CSO
Collective action has always been fundamental for human society and plays a particularly prominent role in rural development programs (Dick, et al., 2004). It generally refers to the formation of a group that decides to act together for any issues. Collective action leads to the creation of people’s organizations, commonly referred to as groups that bring together individuals with common problems and aspirations and who cannot, as individuals, meet certain goals as effectively (Kariuki & Place, 2005). The concept is about describing and analyzing people’s participation in networks of trust that are used to generate social capital.

This helps in assessing the role of institutions as avenues for disseminating and scaling up technologies and information, and as vehicles through which social change and social action occur (ibid). The term ‘collective action’ in this study means the * collaborative role * of governance that is solution-oriented with a focus on public value where diverse stakeholders can work in a group to improve the delivery of services. The collective action is essentially important for the women elected representatives in rural settings as they constantly face numerous challenges when they act alone in addressing critical issues of the village.

Ever since the enactment of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, women from different institutions have assumed the role of people’s representatives; but due to the plethora of social structural limitations, women’s function in these institutions has met with big impediments in the performance of their expected responsibilities. To understand the need of the collective role of women representatives, the study highlights the challenges women representatives have faced so far with their active participation in local governance.

Despite significant contributions by women representatives to society, there are ample instances where women representatives have struggled constantly with multiple challenges. Several case studies documented the physical violence and assault of women sarpanches for not toeing the line of male members. The murder of a woman sarpanch in Vellipuram of Tamil Nadu is an example from many cases. For attempting to supply water through water pipes, she was murdered by local henchman who had lost their hold on the earlier supply of water with tankers. This bares evidence of the threat that women representatives face in local governance (Pandit, 2010).

Studies undertaken on this aspect highlighted that women representatives often face problems in raising issues of their areas due to the negative attitudes of officials. Officials do not listen to them when women visited their offices alone; and when they meet officials with male members of their family, officials used to talk to the male members and not to the women representatives (Palanithurai, 2002). Family constraints and limitations are often highlighted by the researchers for which women representatives face a different set of problems. The male members in the family do not allow women to visit different places alone where they need to go (ibid), and men feel that women are elected not on their own merit but because of men’s support or due to the constitutional reservation provision (Tripathi, 2019). Women leaders are often oriented to believe that they have been elected to the village-level institutions only because of the influence of their husband or other male members of the family. There are also instances where the husband uses women as proxies (Sekhon, 2006) and he exercises all political power and decisions (Puri, 2016). The woman’s function remains only to put her signature in the paper (ibid).

Again, caste prejudices emerged as a major stumbling block in the way of the functioning of dalit women representatives of panchayats. It is a general perception that there is no support system for dalit woman representatives. Being illiterate, poor, and lacking experiences in managing public institutions, they are forced to hand over the responsibility to someone else, especially to influential people in the society. Thus, dalit women representatives are declared incompetent in managing the public institutions (Palanithurai, 2002). To build the confidence of these women, there is a need to start work with the group of women representatives with required periodical training, orientation and sensitization so that they can perform the assigned work appropriately. Moreover, they will learn from each other in the group, discuss and share their problems, and take action accordingly for good rural governance.

In this direction, the organisation initiated a platform where women representatives of all the grassroots-level institutions can train together to develop their leadership quality and gain knowledge about the provisions of different welfare schemes to address the issues collectively in front of the government officials.

Nuh district is one of the 101 “most backward districts” identified by the NITI Aayog during 2018. The district is in Haryana, which is otherwise termed a well-developed state. Women in this region remain under a strict patriarchal structure and often remain within the four walls of their home. The literacy rate of women in the district is critically low by 36.60 percent, whereas the average national literacy rate is 53.7 percent (Census, 2011). Despite the women reservation in grassroots institutions, only 41 percent of women are elected as people’s representatives as sarpanch against 59 percent of male representatives in the district. Out of these 41 percent, around 71 percent belong to backward castes. Simultaneously, women’s representation for the panchayat is deficient with 34 percent, against the male representation of 66 percent. (NIC, Hisar)

Initiative to strengthen the collective role of women elected representatives
Toward building the capacities of women representatives in the villages of Nuh, Sehgal Foundation has created a platform where more than 400 elected representatives from 20 villages of different village-level institutions including the gram panchayat, school management committee (SMC), village health and sanitation committee (VHSNC), and the anganwadi workers are trained about functions of these institutions with a long curriculum. No doubt, the leadership of these representatives is very critical, and they have to contribute significantly for the village development. Henceforth, the program targets encouraging these women representatives to take up leadership roles through collective action for the overall development of the village.

The women collective groups were constituted during April 2019 in the block of Taoru and Nuh in the district. In each village, 12 to 15 members come from all the village-level institutions. The training sessions are generally undertaken in a common place preferably in the anganwadi centre of the village twice a month. The training sessions generally focus on the development of leadership, communication, and negotiation skills so women can articulate the problems of villagers/village and negotiate with government departments to improve delivery of public services. Since then, women regularly meet together and have learned how to address the village issues collectively. They have learned about schemes such as pensions (old-age, widow, handicapped, and deserted women), the public distribution system, Aysuhman Bharat, labour card registration, Aapki Beti Hamari Beti, and many others.

Many of these women had been completely unaware about the existence of these schemes. They were also informed about the work of the village-level institutions like VHSNC, SMC, and PRI. Though they are members of these groups, they were not aware about their exact roles and functions as a member. The particular initiative has helped them understand their role and function for the development of the village. With this knowledge, women are also taking action consequently at the village level. In a group they go to different offices and meet officials and address the problems of the village. Sharing their experiences, they confirmed that the government officials do not listen to them when they go alone. Moreover, they feel comfortable going to different places in a group. They enjoy discussing the village problems and subsequently taking action in addressing the problems. Some initiatives taken by these women at the village level are discussed in detail.

An initiative of WER toward village cleanliness
A common problem in Gurnawat village was the lack of wastewater disposal facilities. Due to inadequate wastewater disposal facilities, water was flowing onto the road, making it dirty and filthy. The women representatives of WER then took the initiative to create wastewater disposal facilities. They approached Dayawati, the sarpanch of the village, and explained to her about the problem villagers were facing on a daily basis due to the unclean surroundings. The sarpanch was quite cooperative to the group and met with the secretary and heard these women. Within a month, funds for the construction of nine soak pits were sanctioned. After the sanction of funds, a meeting was held among the WER for the identification of the location for construction of soak pits in the village. As per their decision, one soak pit was constructed near the anganwadi centre because the road was full of filthy water; and women, especially pregnant women, and children faced difficulties accessing the centre. After the construction of the soak pit, the accessibility to the centre has been smooth.

Interaction with the people revealed that the construction of soak pits helped in the reduction of filth over the roads. Five soak pits were constructed in the primary and middle school. Earlier, there was a big soak well in the school for wastewater disposal, but it was not enough for the entire campus and was overflowing, thus was dirtying the school campus. The school teacher added that after the construction of soak pits in the school campus, it has checked mosquito breeding to a great extent and seems neat and clean these days.

Collective voice of WER helped students receive the entitled money for school uniform
The elected women representatives of Gurnawat established the strength of the group of voices when they approached the block education officer for availing the entitlement amount of Rs 300 for school uniforms for the students of the village, which is mandated under the RTE Act. The idea came to them when they saw some students were attending classes without school uniforms. They came to know from their parents that they hadn’t received the entitled money which generally transferred to the accounts of parents for the school uniforms.

Initially, members of the SMC went to the school headmasters and inquired about the delay in transferring the amount. However, the school headmaster could not provide a satisfactory reply. Then the committee members discussed the issue with the larger group in WER and decided to meet the BEO personally in Taoru. These women were very confident to meet and discuss the issue with the BEO. Many of them had never visited any office before this, but they had no fear because they were in a group. In Taoru, they met the BEO in the block office and discussed with him in detail about the problem and presented a written complaint on behalf of the SMC members. Action was taken immediately, and the entitled money was transferred to the account of parents within a week. Parents of the children were also happy with the prompt action taken by the group of elected women.

With the initiative of WER a hand pump installed in the school
Water is a necessity for life. Unfortunately, the primary school in Utton village was not facilitated by this basic need. The school’s one bore-well was dysfunctional for the past four years. Children used to carry water bottles from home, and the water to cook mid-day meals was arranged by the families living near the school. The cook was constantly facing problems in fetching water for cooking and other related purposes such as cleaning the utensils.

The particular problem was discussed in a WER session, and all SMC members of the WER group discussed the issue with the schoolteacher and learned that the school had no funds to install a hand-pump. They then went to discuss the issue with the sarpanch. The next day, all WER members and the sarpanch went to the school and discussed the problem the school authority and students were facing due to the non-availability of drinking water in the school. The sarpanch assured that funds for the construction of hand pump would be provided. With the cooperation of schoolteachers, a hand-pump was installed in the school during June 2019. Now the teachers are also happy, and they said that these days all the students drink water from the hand-pump. Teachers and students are all happy with the installation of the hand-pump in the school. The parents of the children also realized that, because of the initiative of women’s groups in the village, the problem of water was solved in the school.

WER initiative brought a ray of hope for construction of sub health centre
In Kharkhari, a village in Taoru block, due to the lack of local-level health facilities, villagers have to walk all through to the block for small health needs and for vaccination purposes. Discussion with women representatives revealed that the anganwadi centre in the village is too small to operate all the services including an anganwadi worker, ASHA, and ANM in the centre. Therefore, pregnant women and small children go to Taoru to avail the services for vaccination purposes. No doubt understanding the problem, the sarpanch of the village had proposed to construct a sub-health centre in the village in 2016. However, permission for the construction of the sub health centre was not granted. After the constitution of WER during 2019, the first common problem raised by these women representatives was to initiate the construction of a sub health centre.

The women representatives approached the sarpanch again and, on behalf of the WER, even drafted an application with the signature of all the elected representatives and submitted to the sarpanch. The sarpanch submitted the application to the secretary in the block office. The sarpanch allotted one acre of panchayat land for the construction of the sub health centre. The research team of Sehgal Foundation met the sarpanch to learn about the proceedings. He said he has been in regular touch with the medical officer and is hopeful that this time they will get the permission for the construction of a sub health centre in the village. The sarpanch appreciated the work of WER for village development and especially the initiative undertaken by women representatives for the grant of the sub health centre in the village.

In general, the country has responded seriously to the question of women’s participation in rural governance and has made provisions for mandatory reservations for women in local governance. This is so far a broader democratic movement for women’s participation in governance. However, thorough ground-level research shows that there are many challenges for women representatives especially due to the social structures that were created over the centuries to work against the interests of women. In order to bring about meaningful change in the society, there is a need to introduce an array of innovative interventions to support and strengthen women elected representatives.

In this direction, Sehgal Foundation runs the programme, where the women elected representatives of diverse institutions are trained in a common platform and encouraged to address the problems of their villages collectively. With the collective role model, they work in a group, identify the common village problems, make decisions and take action collectively. In a very short span of time, evidence collected from the field shows that long-pending problems have been solved due to the group voices. Officials who were not listening to women earlier have started paying attention to these women when they approach the offices in a group. Their active role play has changed the perception of their families that they are elected not because of the reservation mandate but due to their capabilities. These WER groups have taken initiative in crediting the entitled amount toward school uniforms, installing a hand-pump in the school, and initiatives for the establishment of a sub health centre. These are a few from many initiatives taken in the villages of Nuh. This is just a start as these women still have a long way to go.  

Guru is Senior social scientist, Sehgal Foundation. Mukherjee is Senior research associate, Sehgal Foundation.


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