Insights into Editorial: Women as Proxies in Politics: Decision Making and Service Delivery in Panchayati Raj
Gender equality in India is embedded in constitutional provisions, including substantive equality where the states are also empowered to make special provisions for women in order to undo the historical disadvantageous position of women.
- The 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution in 1993 provided for reservation of seats in the Local Bodies of Panchayats and Municipalities for women, laying a strong foundation for their participation in decision-making at the local levels.
Why reservation for women is necessary?
- Women represent almost 50% of the population of India. But their representation in public life is low.
- Statistics continue to dishearten; India ranks well below the global average in terms of women’s representation in Parliament, as well as amongst countries which have mandated the minimum representation of women in Parliament through law.
- In the Human Development Report, India ranks very low on the Gender Inequality Index compared to many other developing countries.
- Female participation in the labour market is 29%, compared with 80.7% for men. Women’s ownership of land and property is less than 4%, whereas 73% of food is produced by rural women.
- Poor participation of women has a direct impact on the priorities and assumptions of policies and legislations. There will be a qualitative change in governance with the inclusion of women in decision-making processes. hence, reservation for women is necessary.
Why some scholars are against reservation for women?
Some scholars have proposed that reservation can have the unintended and adverse consequence of weakening local democracy. They believe that women, who are elected from reserved constituencies, serve as proxies for their male relatives—exercising nominal power while the men retain the real work of governance. Reservation, they therefore argue, intensifies the problem of gender inequality by giving it the veneer of a solution.
However, the last decade has seen a wave of changes. Some argue that even if women are pushed into power with the intent of being proxies, they are eventually able to influence the delivery of public services. In particular, research has shown that women’s needs are better addressed in villages where there is a female sarpanch.
Other challenges before this policy:
- Acceptability of women as elected representatives is an issue. Male members try to create hurdles in the smooth functioning of the Panchayat taking advantage of the woman’s illiteracy or ignorance.
- Also, sometimes, officials with whom the elected women representatives must work can act as impediments in their work.
What needs to be done?
- We have adult franchise, but social inequality denies us equal space in structures. An important remedy lies in enabling women to fight feudal inequality with modern tools. Mere adult franchise is insufficient. Women must have access to real participation in governance through representation in decision making bodies.
- Dissemination of information regarding their rights as well as duties is essential for them and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) should be encouraged to come forward in partnership with the government in order to fill this void. In addition, women representatives across different states should be encouraged to form associations in order to strengthen women’s political empowerment.
- Also, training should be made compulsory. The elected rural women and weaker sections should be educated and trained by which they can get the knowledge and understanding. Special training programmes for the elected women members in Panchayats should be organised.
- The State Institutes of Rural Development and the Non-Government Organizations may be required not only to prepare appropriate curriculum for them but also to organise the programmes for them. The training programmes for the elected women members in Panchayats should be organised at state, district and block levels respectively. The teaching methods for these women’s should be simpler as possible.
- Group discussions, success stories and case studies should be the part of training. Electronic media and audio-visual aids should be utilized in the training programmes.
- State government should introduce incentives for the Panchayats headed by women of marginalized sections of the society for good performance and attendance rather developmental activities taken up.
- Ultimately the improvements in the literacy among women and weaker sections hold the key factor for their effective participation in decision making process and involvement with the developmental activities in the rural areas.
The effectiveness of reservation for women in positions at elected Panchayats has political and social implications. Women’s reservation is not a sufficient condition for politically empowering women. Access to public services is influenced by a variety of factors apart from gender. The stark contrast in public exposure between men and women presents a powerful metaphor for their differentiated position in public space.
- This then calls for a more holistic, qualitative framework to understand the ways in which various social systems intersect and affect a female sarpanch’s influence on the delivery of public services.
- The systematic inequality that infuses every aspect of social expression will have to be addressed for the 73rd Amendment to bring about true local democracy.
- We must note that participation and representation is clearly different from empowerment. An elected woman representative needs the requisite social space in order to effect the changes that she desires.
Reservation for women in Panchayati raj bodies has acted as a catalyst in the process of women’s political empowerment. In order to further hasten this social change, the state should find out the gaps and effectively address them. Also, the onus is on political parties who must voluntarily integrate more women in the political process whether as candidates or as voters. We must remember that empowerment as a process is slow but self-perpetuating. Providing women with opportunities and support systems (such as reservations & other affirmative action) has the potential to put into motion a sustainable process for a change in gendered power relations allowing them to slowly but steadily break the shackles of existing boundaries.