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Barrriers and Solutions To Increasing Women’s Political Power At The Local Level

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By Madhu Joshi

Despite constitutional provisions, women face many barriers when they participate in local governance. However, this is slowly changing, and efforts to address these barriers are underway.

Globally, there are nine heads of state and eight heads of government who are women, and 56 of the 146 nations (38 %) studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of state or government for at least one year in the last fifty years.

In India, women make up only 11.8 % (64 MPs) of the 542-member Lok Sabha and 11 % (27 MPs) of the 245-member Rajya Sabha. There are only six female ministers in the Union Cabinet. According to the Economic Survey 2018, of the 4,118 members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) across the country, only 9% are women. But there are more than a million women elected to the three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) of local governance.

Related article: Power to the people—the journey of Panchayati Raj Institutions 

Women Representatives As Potential Change Agents

In 1992, the Government of India passed the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution to adopt a decentralised model of governance and to strengthen participation and inclusion; the Amendments also mandate the reservation of seats for women, Scheduled Castes (SC), and Scheduled Tribes (ST).

[quote]Studies show that reservations have improved women’s participation in the public sphere.[/quote]Though naysayers talk about how most women are proxy candidates for their male relatives; there are studies to show that reservations have improved women’s participation in the public sphere. Most studies reveal that women in local government pay particular attention to addressing the needs and interests of women whether this means investing more in water, nutrition or children’s education.

The Change Though Is Slow

Centre for Catalyzing Change’s Pahel initiative that works in ten blocks of four districts in Bihar to promote the participation and leadership of elected women representatives (EWRs) has thrown up some interesting insights. The project—which is supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation—has been running since 2006, and hence there are learnings across three election cycles.

Low self-esteem translates into longer lead times

Initially, most EWRs feel that they do not have the professional skills or knowledge to participate in meetings or decision-making processes successfully. Also, for many women, it is the first time they are stepping out of the domestic domain, and therefore they feel they need the support of their male relatives (mostly husbands). When they do attend meetings, they often lack the confidence to raise their own opinions and priorities.

Patriarchal barriers add to the problem of limited capacities

The potential of elected Panchayat members—whether male or female—as agents of change is widely recognised and many schemes and programmes, such as Community Action for Health and School Management Committees, mandate a leading accountability role for them. However, the lack of role clarity and their limited capacities act as a barrier, and in the case of women representatives, patriarchal barriers compound their difficulties.

Related article: Where are the women in policy making?

Candidates awaiting results, Dhenkanal District, Odisha | Photo courtesy: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Strategies That Work

Given the multiple barriers and exclusions of gender, caste and class that EWRs have to negotiate, one-time inputs and mere provision of information through campaigns and information packages is simply not enough.

Regular mentoring, during their entire tenure, is critical

At Pahel, a structured three-day training module takes EWRs through their roles and responsibilities, and focuses on improving communications skills, understanding gender-based discrimination and structural patriarchy, and finally equips them to monitor the quality of public health services.

Thereafter, the mentoring process continues through quarterly orientation sessions and support to meet government officials to raise service-level gaps. EWRs are mentored for most of the electoral cycle to understand the functioning of PRIs, identify issues in their constituency as well as push for solutions and accountability for basic services like health and education.

Important to continuously monitor the quality of training

Government training institutes in most states have structured training programmes for newly elected Panchayat representatives. But given the sheer number of representatives and the multiple exclusions faced by women members, there is a need to repeat and reinforce these trainings at regular intervals.

Needless to say, for large-scale training programmes, rigorous monitoring of the quality of training is critical.

Providing Tools Builds Confidence

Women leaders were initially equipped with pictorial checklists to monitor the quality of health services in their constituencies which helped them generate their own evidence of gaps in quality and access which they could place before service providers. Given that 49% EWRs had their own mobile phone and 42% had access to a mobile phone in the family, Pahel piloted mShakti, an IVRS platform to test the feasibility and effectiveness of monitoring of service delivery by EWRs, which they could then report back via their mobile phones.

[/quote]Tech-based solutions provide critical information and training inputs to women PRI representatives.[/quote]In the age of technology and widespread access to mobile phones, technology-based solutions might be useful to reinforce training inputs and provide critical information that will give women Panchayat representatives the confidence to play their leadership role with success.

The Pahel end line showed an increase of 58% in knowledge about their responsibilities as PRI members and a 32% increase in awareness of different components of reproductive health (as compared to the baseline numbers four years earlier). As a result, nearly 83% EWRs were attending at least one Panchayat-level meeting and meetings with officials every quarter.

No Looking Back

During our time in Bihar, we’ve seen the women leaders evolve as development catalysts in their wards and panchayats. While they were mentored to take action on improving health services, they applied similar strategies to intervene in schools, ensure access to entitlements, roll-out infrastructure improvements and drive flood relief. For most of them the motivation was the respect gained from their family members and communities:

“Now people refer to my sons as the Ward Member’s sons, which is something unusual in our society.” -Ward Member, Muzaffarpur, Bihar

“In this man’s world, educated people like the Block Development Officer and other officials would not notice me. Now I can ask them to do their work.” -Ward Member, Sitamarhi, Bihar

About the author:

Madhu Joshi, Senior Advisor, Gender Equity and Governance at Centre for Catalyzing Change or C3 (formerly CEDPA India), has more than 24 years of progressive experience with women’s organisations, national and international development agencies. 

This article was originally published on India Development Review, it can be found here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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