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

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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!

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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.
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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.

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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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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.

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