Women have not only been competing but outsmarting men in several fields. Stories and surveys from rural India, establish women sarpanchs’ superiority over their male counterparts.
International Woman’s Day has just gone by. We heard and read grand speeches on how women have been doing well in various aspects of life. Indeed, they are progressing. And in some ways, are ahead of their male counterparts as well. We need to learn from the past to secure our future.
The campaign against tree felling in Uttarakhand, widely popularized as ‘Chipko Andolan’ was started by a woman, and inhabitants of Gopeshwar district of Garhwal were in for a shock when they were refused permhission to cut trees to make farm equipments while forest department permitted a sports good manufacturing company to cut 300 trees to make tennis racquets. March 25, 1974 – labourers arrived by the truckload to start logging operations. Gaura Devi, the head of the village Mahila Mangal Dal, at Reni village, led 27 other women to the site and confronted the loggers. When they failed to persuade and were being threatened with guns by the loggers, the women resorted to hugging the trees to stop them from being felled. Women kept an all-night vigil guarding their trees from the cutters until they relented and left the village. The next day more people joined in the protests. After a four-day stand-off, the contractors abandoned the idea and the government allowed villagers to make use of farm produce including timber. Precursor to this movement was the agitation kick-started in Rajasthan by a lady called Amrita Devi.
Women Sarpanchs Better
The 73rd constitutional amendment ensured at least 33 per cent seats in village panchayats to women. Now, more than 40 per cent of local council leaders - both rural and urban - over 10 lakh leaders, are women. And a number of studies have established that women sarpanchs have been faring much better than their male counterparts.
Vandana Bahadur Maida of Khankhandvi village, in Madhya Pradesh, was the first female head of her village panchayat, elected after superseding her husband. A cursory inquiry in the village is enough to elicit positive response about her. She has been making efforts to make them aware of various government schemes to enhance their health, sanitation, education and agriculture. She has been thinking of ways to bring long-lasting changes to her village.
Women are known to be more sensitive to basic needs of their people. On being elected Sarpanch of Pachhmata village in Rajasthan, Pratibha Choudhary, for example, accorded priority to ensuring that every family in the area was able to perform the last rights of their loved ones in a proper manner. To many, this may seem like an unusual issue. But Choudhary had observed the financial difficulty and emotional trauma that a family had to endure in the face of this problem – to arrange for firewood for the funeral pyre. Much to the relief of villagers she started providing firewood for pyre free of cost. As she had seen poor families and those from the lower castes, struggle to buy wood to cremate their deceased.
More independent, More money
Latest studies confirm that women panchayat leaders no more depend upon their husbands or fathers to discharge their duty. Nearly 60 per cent of women panchayat leaders, in a recent study, were found to be functioning independently. These women had at their fingertips knowledge of panchayat accounts and government programmes executed through panchayats. Two were not allowed to function independently, but they were familiar with the accounts and programmes.
Women panchayat leaders in Tamil Nadu invest 48% more money than male counterparts in building roads and improving access. According to an India Spend study in water-scarce Sivagangai in Tamil Nadu, although male and female sarpanchs spend equal amounts on water infrastructure, such as borewells and pipelines, women leaders invested more money in sophisticated water systems to ensure pure water for their constituents. While women tend to spend more on improving infrastructure, men tend to invest up to 1.5 times more on regular maintenance, such as repair of water and street lights. The study also concluded that men sarpanchs spent up to six times more on installing lights. Doesn’t that imply that women are more mature and honest leaders than men?
In yet another study, Banerjee and Dulfo conducted a survey of the intended beneficiaries to understand what kind of services they perceived they have access to. They randomly selected 16 villages with female sarpanch and 16 with male sarpanch, in the Sangli district of Maharashtra. From each of these villages, 20 female villagers were randomly selected. An ‘Index of Services Availability’ (IOSA), was developed to measure the quality and quantity of services available to the women respondents living in these 32 villages. The survey focussed on services and issues that are particularly relevant to women like drinking water, toilets, drains, schools, fair price shops, self-help groups and Janani Suraksha Yojana, alcoholism etc.
The survey found that the male sarpanchs had higher socio-economic and educational status and had better political connections vis-à-vis the female sarpanchs. But, female sarpanchs had greater impact on socio-economic aspects of fellow villagers’ life.
The availability of basic public services was found to be significantly higher in female-sarpanch villages as compared to male-sarpanch villages, in cases where the election had been held 3-3.5 years prior to the survey. However, this result could not be seen in villages where election had been held one year or less, before the survey. This implies that female sarpanchs take some time to understand the rules and processes and become more effective relative to male sarpanchs over a period of time.
In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also acknowledged women’s superiority in delivering public services. Addressing about 8,000 women sarpanches from across the country on the occasion of International Women’s Day this year, he said, “The women have broken so many myths. They have shown how a positive change has begun in
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