The woman's place

Published : Mar 18, 2000 00:00 IST


"WOMEN are uneducated and not aware. We get funds and do not know how to use it. But things are changing." After a five-year tenure as the Pradhan of Kottakotta panchayat in Bagepalli Taluk, V. Umadevi speaks of her work and airs her views with the natur al authority of a leader. "Earlier there were only hand-pumps in my gram panchayat. Now there are borewells with piped water. We got between 100 and 150 electricity connections of Bhagyajyoti scheme. I attended a workshop where we were trained for our re sponsibilities, and I conducted meetings on my own," she said. The wiry mother of two grown up sons was busy on election day in Kolimipalli village when this correspondent met up with her. The voting turnout had been high in this village and one of her s ons was contesting. Umadevi discussed the problems that elected women face and the factors that prevent them from "working like men". She says that she was lucky because she had a politically conscious and supportive family, and had studied till Class X.

Whether Umadevi stands for elections again, either at the gram panchayat level or at one of the two higher levels, will depend on a range of issues. The continued support of her family, her husband in particular, is crucial. Her own motivation and drive, the public recognition of her leadership qualities, her ability to raise the financial resources to contest (either through personal or party channels) and her understanding of politics, are all important factors. But regardless of all this, Umadevi's l ife and thinking will never be the same again after the experience, limited though it may have been, of administration and leadership that she has had.

THE family is often the first political training ground for women who step into the public domain of electoral politics. Whether a woman contests or not is a male decision, made by a husband or a father or an influential man in the village who wishes to see a reserved seat filled by a pliant supporter. Where the family is a politically progressive one, the transition to a new role is made with far greater confidence and enthusiasm, as in the case of Umadevi.

This correspondent met Nanjamma who is contesting from Devikunte village in the Maraganakunte gram panchayat. She is a Scheduled Tribe woman who is contesting in the general category, a bold step which was made possible by the active support of her husba nd and four daughters. "I was reluctant to stand but agreed when I saw there was a lot of public support," said Nanjamma. Unschooled and able only to write her name, she is nevertheless calmly confident. "Many in the village have no house, there are no r oads, no bus service, no health centre. I want to help the people of my village."

While elected office has ensured personal and political growth for women such as Umadevi and Nanjamma, there are others who have not been able to emerge from the crushing weight of male dominance. This correspondent could meet Sakamma, the pradhan of Mar aganakunte gram panchayat, only through her husband, who led the way into the house, sat on a chair while his wife stood up, and proceeded to answer all questions that were put to her. On being told to stop talking for her, he continued to whisper the 'r ight' answers to her which she would then repeat. It was evident that Sakamma was minimally involved in gram panchayat affairs. She did not know -- until her husband provided her the answers -- how many members there were in the panchayat, what the panch ayat had done, how much its budget was and how money was spent. The only question she answered on her own was when she was asked if she would like to contest for the taluk panchayat elections. "I am not interested in contesting again," she said firmly an d loudly, ignoring her husband's whispers.

"Why do you want to talk to her? She just knows how to sign where she is told," C. Kantaraju, a former member of the C.K.Kere gram panchayat, said when he heard one wished to meet the woman pradhan of Kora Hobli panchayat, in Tumkur district.

"Women" he said, "are illiterate, cannot think of development activities and should take the advice of learned members of the panchayat", an opinion stated, if less forcefully, by a number of the men members and candidates this correspondent spoke to.

But remarkable transformations take place in women during the course of a five-year exposure to panchayat functioning. Sashikala was a young woman when she stood for a seat reserved for a Scheduled Tribe woman in Kestur Gram panchayat, Tumkur district. S he became its pradhan owing to the reservation scheme. "For two years the men in the gram panchayat took the decisions and I would just sign wherever I was told to," Sashikala said. "But on one occasion I found that my signature had been forged on a bill for Rs.25,000 and I got 10 members in the committee to support me".

It is almost entirely owing to the 33 per cent reservation scheme that women have come into the political arena in such numbers. The quality of their participation is growing with each five-year panchayat tenure, a process that has been researched and do cumented well in academic studies over the last ten years. The unqualified success of reservation-based empowerment of women in the PRIs is the strongest argument for the extension of reservations for women in State legislatures and Parl-iament.

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