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Slow climb to the top
While there has been a steady improvement in the social status of women, the most positive aspect of their empowerment is that they are now heralding a new economic and political revolution
Women are always saying, “We can do anything that men can do.” But men should be saying, “We can do anything that women can do,” said Gloria Steinem.
It was in 1963, on a hot summer day in Washington, DC, when Martin Luther King Jr held his most famous speech. Gloria Steinem, then a young journalist, who later pioneered the worldwide movement for women’s empowerment, was one of the 250,000 people making their way towards the Lincoln Memorial. She wanted to hear the eloquent leader of the civil rights movement firsthand.
King Jr held his speech, one that continues to resonate today — “I have a dream,” King called out, “that one day… the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Most women like Steinem, who listened, were stirred by the resonance of his words but they found something was missing.
Steinem felt women’s rights cannot be separated from civil and human rights. Inequality is inequality, no matter if one is being discriminated against because of skin, colour, religion, gender or sexual orientation. She pledged that after black power, it should be women’s liberation.
Fifty years later, in 2013, Steinem received in the White House, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the two highest civilian awards in the US. The then US President, Barack Obama, who presented her the award said, “Because of her more women are afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve.”
Twenty years before Steinem was crowned, India made a poignant tryst with female empowerment at the lowest rung of the social, economic and political pyramid. A unique policy experiment at village-level governance, one that mandated one-third representation of women in positions of local leadership, brought in a watershed law called the ‘Panchayati Raj Act’.
The Act reserved one-third seats for women on gram panchayats (village councils) that took decisions on every important subject in the rural political life.
These quotas have now become an international norm for fast-tracking entry of women in politics. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals aim for women’s equal participation in politics by 2030. It is now an international norm that quotas can fast-track women’s entry into governance.
Mainstream view is also that this is the most effective route for achieving it. Women are now considered by policy designers as crucial for equal opportunity and development of the society. The common denominator between all global development initiatives now is female empowerment.
India’s affirmative action, aimed at chipping away centuries of powerlessness, is one of the many watershed stories. Women have risen to participate in decision-making process and play a role in public life. Councils have been the jealous preserve of men because they choose which public goods to invest in — from drinking water facilities to roads — and where to put them.
Although a million women instantly entered electoral politics through reservations; many had to retreat and several others, who held the ground, underwent great emotional and social hardship. Women have had to battle cultural dogmas, social codes and taboos that were passed on for several generations. But the women persevered and they have come a long way when they were proxies for their men, infamous sarpanchpatis (husbands of women sarpanchs) who fielded their wives as a front.
The rough edges are slowly smoothening as women have learnt to coexist with men. They know that remaining on crossways with them would not be in the interest of their community’s development. As Steinem herself has been at pains to emphasise: “A feminist is anyone who recognises equality and full humanity of both women and men.”
Women began slowly but they are now no longer shaky about their place in the world. They started their work in benign areas and slowly broadened their agenda. Women are the carers in family — they understand commonly over-looked issues like health, nutrition and education. What these women have advocated seemed so simple: Water, fuel and fodder but it led them to fight larger and larger battles, such as drought and water collection issues, alcoholism and violence against them. They learned how to force change when it wasn’t given freely. Their anger came in waves: Sometimes it was aimed at the primary health care staff, sometimes the bus station master or local officials for providing services to which they were entitled.
India’s rural women are now heralding a new socio-economic and political revolution. They are ensuring that roads are repaired; schools are built; electricity is brought; toilets are installed; medical services are available; water sources are made safe; local savings groups are formed, and the list goes on. When put in charge, they have shown that they are better than men at ensuring public good which has greater priority for the community.
According to Esther Duflo, an economist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this new alignment of power has translated into several visible and tangible gains — more public services from wells to roads. Villages headed by women invested in more services that benefited the entire community, in particular, water and sanitation facilities. Women value proximity, whether it be to a drinking water source, a fuel source, a crèche, a health centre, an office of administration or a court of justice.
Instead of outrage and anger that urban feminists’ project, these women panchayat leaders speak with clear-minded realism about opportunities and costs. For many women, attending a panchayat meeting means sacrificing a day’s wage. For several others, it means assuming leadership for the first time in their lives and then subsuming it at home to serve their in-laws and husbands.
The initial days were not easy for Tanubai, a diminutive and fully unlettered tribal woman in village Makarwakdi, in northern Maharashtra. She was the first woman sarpanch (head of village council). When she was asked by supporters to run for the election, the idea petrified her upper caste menfolk who tried to scare her away, but she ran for the seat and won.
Whereas she wanted to immediately get to the task of wiping out alcoholism and gambling from the village — it was her primary poll promise — she had no idea how to go about doing it. Interestingly, what did work in her favour was the fact that in her panchayat, the majority were women panches (council members). When she was chosen as the sarpanch, it was impossible for the men to dominate the proceedings. She kept up her pledge and launched an anti-graft drive against the local officials.
Despite the odds, Tanubai persisted and persevered along with her team. Thanks to her single-minded focus, she has been able to rid her village of so many male vices, conscious of how negatively they affect women and children.
In my engagement with the most vulnerable populations, I have seen there is no greater force than the power of women in improving their own lives and the lives of those around them. Women are leading their families and communities down a new path of self-reliance, security, resilience, courage and prosperity.
I have always admired the dedication and fearlessness of these women who have aspirations for themselves and for their families. As they lift themselves out of poverty, they carry their families to a better life. They symbolise a kind of naturally occurring solidarity between the millions of women at the bottom of the world’s pyramid.
(The writer is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker)
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