This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by India Fellow Social Leadership Program. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

What My Fellowship In Gujarat Taught Me About The Role Of Women In Local Governance

More from India Fellow Social Leadership Program

ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

As someone who chose to immerse herself in the grassroots movement straight after attending an all-women’s college, the transition to truly accepting the fact that ‘Change is slow’ is still underway. While attending meetings, trainings and interacting with local government representatives here in Kutch, Gujarat, I began to wonder where the women were.

Although the idea of a Sarpanch Pati (more commonly referred to as ‘SP’) is not new to me, I have not really understood the ideas, social structures and hierarchies of the ecosystem I am a part of. Most importantly, I don’t think I will understand it in a period of one year.

The question of where the women were is also not completely justified, for there are many exemplary women taking the lead in both urban and rural settings here. My issue then, is with the fact that they are called Mahila Sarpanch. Why should we attach gender to her occupation? Do we call men ‘Purush Sarpanch’? Sounds unreasonable, doesn’t it? Why not just say that the sarpanch of Vadasar Gram Panchayat is exemplary? It felt to me like a step back in the long struggle for equality, for women to be acknowledged as capable as men.

I am aware that this comes from an ideal scenario based on my own perspective formed through my privileges, experiences and observations of patriarchy intermixing with governance. A conversation with a friend opened my eyes to the other side of the argument. Maybe acknowledging a woman’s triumphs over the odds stacked against them in the first place is also important. Maybe, being known as a Mahila Sarpanch is a way to reclaim their struggle of making a place for themselves in an otherwise male-upper-class dominated space.

A meeting with young adolescents regarding menstruation and best practices. Image has been provided by the author.

What emerges is also what we interpret as the most important in our own hierarchy of discriminations. For me, it is gender. For someone who has faced class- or caste-based or religious discrimination, they may see those as the worst. This is not to say that any are below or above the other. It is simply a matter of accepting how our perspectives work.

Is there an equal number of male and female ward members? Are enough women being written about? Does the Panchayat I am writing about conduct mandated Mahila Sabhas*?

These are some questions I ask in my head, and at times, out loud too. In search of these questions, I have met inspiring women and young girls. From one Sarpanch who ensured that a single migrant reached her home in Kolkata and she took care of her as her own during the lockdown to another who gave up her home to set up a workshop for stitched masks, there are endless stories of everyday activities that are full of qualities that one looks for in their leaders.

On the other side, there’re still many inequities to overcome, for there is not a single woman participating in a Social Justice Committee meeting or training. According to the Gujarat Panchayat Act, 1993, “A village panchayat shall constitute a committee called the Social Justice Committee for performing such functions as are essential for securing social justice to the weaker sections of the society including persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, as may be prescribed, and the constitution of such committee shall be such as may be prescribed.”

This also includes a committee of 3-5 members, with a mandatory woman member from an SC/ST community. While the inclusion of women may seem a necessity, given what is described as social justice, it is seldom carried out keeping in tandem with social traditions and cultures, each unique across the terrain of Kutch.

The leading question then is, if there are provisions on paper, how are they navigated?

This depends on the medium of the spreading of awareness, the involvement of locals and community relationships. I have been able to witness some of the greatest relationships between an organisation and the community it works with, and the change that this relationship has resulted in over the years. This includes engaging with the community respectfully and with an understanding of the fact that the process takes time and determination.

Image has been provided by the author.

It requires building immense trust to allow teams to talk to female members of the house in the last village of India towards the Rann of Kutch, let alone invite them for a Mahila Sabha.

It takes years of efforts that leave an impact in the smallest of ways, such as the first step of a family towards inclusive meetings that have both young girls and boys, which the elders of the community themselves may not have experienced or understood completely, but are willing to send their children and grandchildren for.

Perhaps, it is this change and these first steps that I should be looking forward to. Because things take time. I also realise that I cannot expect to see equal representation at every meeting or meet women for every second or third sarpanch. However, what I can expect is meeting a woman of my age in training to contest for municipality elections in Bhuj or an adolescent girl meeting to say that she wants to reappear for her Class 10 board exams and eventually go for civil services.

Change is slow, change takes time, change moves at its own pace. It is how I view gender in terms of governance, in terms of its context that should matter.

Heavy words such as ‘intervention’ and ‘capacity building’ may not make much sense at the get-go, but in a few years, they will show their impact. When another outsider like me will witness more than one woman attending a training session, they might wonder why women aren’t chairpersons of the committee.

That is the idea, then. That every small step already achieved is taken as a given, as a baseline, and worked on to achieve the next milestone, as perspectives, goals and even policies (such as the idea of a Mahila Sabha) realign themselves every now and then, especially when it comes to gender and local governance.

*In 2013, the state of Gujarat mandated to conduct Mahila Sabhas, as a village level meeting of women, ahead of the Gram Sabha. This serves to give them a platform to discuss issues that they perhaps cannot bring up in the Gram Sabha and have them engage in leadership with confidence.

About The Author: Shefali Gupta is an India Fellow working with SETU Abhiyan in Bhuj, Kutch, as a part of her fellowship. She is supporting the organisation with documentation of best practices; designing and executing field research in the existing area of work to fuel advocacy with the local governance.

This post is a part of COVID Diaries, a special series under the #ReimagineTogether campaign. Tell us how this lockdown and pandemic has affected you! Join the conversation by adding a post here. here.
You must be to comment.

More from India Fellow Social Leadership Program

Similar Posts

By Ayush Kumar

By Jaya Laxmi

By Mir Umar

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

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.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

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

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below