Empowering women

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

The process of democratic decentralisation in Kerala has had a significant impact on women.

KERALA is in the throes of a political and social transformation. The impact of a decision taken four years ago by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, to delegate a substantial part of development planning, Plan implementation and its monitoring to elected local bodies, has been remarkable. Between 35 and 40 per cent of State Plan funds have been devolved to 990 rural panchayats, 152 development blocks, 58 municipalities and corporations and 14 district panchayats. While the process of change wa s activated by an administrative fiat from above, it was energised from below by a popular campaign, "The People's Campaign for Democratic Decentralisation", which has ensured wider and more creative public participation, and a greater degree of transpar ency in the work of local bodies. The experiment has given new meaning to democracy and its translation into practice.

There appears to be little awareness outside Kerala of the extent and nature of the change that the People's Campaign has brought into life in the State. A section upon whom the process of decentralisation has had a significant impact is women. Once deve lopment planning became an exercise conducted at the local level, elected representatives and planners were squarely faced with an important economic issue. This was the issue of women's work, their contribution to production, the evaluation of their lab our, the reasons for the falling work participation rate among women, and so on. It meant resolving, or at least trying to resolve, the social paradox that is distinct to contemporary Kerala society today. Women in Kerala, even as they have made several impressive gains in the areas of education, life expectancy and health, have remained relatively "invisible" in the public domain, with falling work participation rates and a conspicuous absence from leadership roles in trade unions and other mass moveme nts.

Planning for women required more locality-specific data on women and their economic and social roles, and a new understanding of how to allocate resources for women's development. It also brought about change at another level - in the administrative and social roles played by women elected representatives. The strong push from above in the direction of affirmative action gave the necessary administrative sanction to the empowerment of women in the panchayats, but that was just the beginning. For women e lected representatives to come into their roles, a qualitative change in their self-perception, as well as in social attitudes towards them, was required. This was a harder goal to achieve, but there is evidence that with the People's Campaign providing the enabling environment, traditional barriers are being broken and women are striving, not without difficulties or setbacks, of course, to become equal partners with men in the planning for development process that the People's Campaign has envisaged.

"The Kerala experience has shown that we no longer need to convince anyone of the absolute necessity of reservation of seats in decision-making bodies for women," T.N. Seema, Member, Kerala Planning Board, told Frontline in an interview. "However the real achievement of decentralised planning for women has been the creation of an enabling environment that has given meaning to reservation. Women for the first time have been given the political space to develop."

AS early as 1991, Kerala introduced 33 per cent reservation for women in elected local bodies. In the 1995 elections to local bodies, 4,153 women gram panchayat members, 595 women block panchayat members and 116 women district panchayat members entered o ffice. Between 35 and 40 per cent of the annual Plan funds of the State Government are now set aside for projects and plans drawn up by local bodies. To help these bodies understand and shoulder their responsibilities, a massive campaign was launched. On e of the stated objectives of the campaign was to raise the quality of women's participation in the development process and to infuse a greater sensitivity to women's concerns.

Guidelines were issued to ensure greater participation of women at every stage of the planning process. Development plans were to pay attention to the special requirements of women and, most importantly, special women-targeted projects for which at least 10 per cent of the budgeted outlay was to be earmarked were recommended. This was not all. In what the organisers of the campaign call the "largest non-formal educational campaign the country has witnessed", around 15,000 elected representatives, 25,000 officials and 75,000 volunteers were given training at the State, district and local levels. In each round of training a separate handbook was prepared and issues related to gender and development allotted a separate chapter.

ALTHOUGH a gender perspective was integrated into each of the three phases of the planning process, it soon became clear to the campaign organisers that the formal integration of women into the structures and processes of decentralisation, while increasi ng their visibility, did not automatically ensure their participation. For that a conscious policy of activisation was required. A special subject group on women and development is now mandatory in the gram sabha meetings. A separate chapter in the Devel opment Report drawn up by each panchayat and municipality is devoted to women and a strategy for women's development is discussed and adopted at every development seminar. This includes a review of the status of women in the locality, their employment si tuation, problems of working women and the social status of women (ranging from issues such as their involvement in public activities to the many forms of violence against them). Among the task forces set up to implement the recommendations of the develo pment seminars, there is one on women, which prepares a gender impact statement.

According to Seema, the process of women's activisation was neither automatic nor easy in the first year of the campaign. Several problems were encountered. For all the efforts made, the campaign failed to ensure sufficient participation of women, especi ally at the phase of implementation. "In the second year of the campaign, we solved a lot of the problems we encountered in the first," explained Seema. "For one thing 10 per cent allocation for the women's component plan (WCP) became mandatory in the pa nchayats. Then the fight was for what the allocations should be within the 10 per cent." For example, should infrastructural schemes such as roads and bridges, which benefit the entire community, be brought under the WCP? In the productive sectors, how c ould the shift from mere asset distribution schemes among women to schemes that ensured their control of the assets or resource be ensured? How could gender stereotyping be avoided when projects in the productive sector were planned for women? And so on. "In this fight, a big role was played by women elected representatives," recalled Seema. "Our training package for them is directed at breaking traditional roles and helping them solve practical and strategic needs," she said.

For the organisers and participants - men and women - of the People's Campaign for Decentralisation, who consciously foregrounded the question of quality participation by women as one of the goals of democratic decentralisation, the experience of the las t four years has been a mix of achievements and lessons learnt from failures. Nothing could have better illustrated this than the one-day session organised for women elected representatives at the International Conference on Democratic Decentralisation h eld recently in Thiruvananthapuram ("A people's movement", Frontline, June 23). Women elected representatives, many of them panchayat presidents and municipal chairpersons, shared their experiences, speaking, sometimes with brutal frankness, of th e battles they had to wage against fault-finding male colleagues and a society that was not always sympathetic to women who had stepped into what were considered male roles. Even more difficult was fighting patriarchal attitudes in organisations and mass movements that were themselves engaged in struggles for social and political change.

Many women were unwilling entrants into the tumultuous world of elective office. There were memories aired of the terror of facing the first public meeting and making the first speech. "Five years ago, when I stood before a mike, no one could hear me say 'My Dear Friends'. My voice shook and knees knocked against each other. Today I can speak for five hours at a stretch," said C.V. Omana Kunjamma, vice-president, Mezhuveli panchayat. Many women incurred the wrath of their families for keeping late hours and "neglecting" the home. "I could not enter my home for three or four months after I joined politics," recalled Kutty Amma Michael. "However capable women are, there are men who oppose us. Without reservation we could not have sat on this stage."

Many women spoke of the liberating effect of knowledge and information upon them. The training in decentralised statecraft that they received was the instrument of self-empowerment for them. Omana Kunjamma, who described herself as a "housewife from an a gricultural family with no political background", spoke of the opportunities given to her "to learn about drainage mapping, socio-economic surveys, secondary information data collection, the need for school complexes, local history writing, women's devel opment, medicinal plants and health status reports, watershed development and soil and water conservation projects, and project design clinics".

"The voices of women are often drowned," said Cicily Anthony, member of the Kalpetta Municipal Council. "Earlier many men in the council would just ignore us. Women first took it and then decided to change all that. We insisted on performing our assigned administrative tasks, and efficiently too. That made a difference in public attitude towards us." Cicily recalled the humiliation and anger of a woman councillor who was not informed about the postponement of a meeting by her men colleagues and who brou ght 20 persons from three kilometres away only to find the meeting hall empty.

K. Sulochana, president of the Thiruvaly gram panchayat (a post reserved for a Scheduled Caste woman) spoke with passion about her fight to stay in office and complete her term, and her pride at having done so well despite the opposition she faced. "I ha d to bear constantly the barbs and insults of my male colleagues for being both a woman and a person from the Scheduled Caste. They tried to wear me down and make me resign. When that did not happen they tried other ways of preventing me from working." S he recalled how during the course of a meeting that went on late, the irate husband of a woman block panchayat member stormed into the meeting and abused his wife in front of the others for being "irresponsible" and neglecting her children and her "dutie s at home". He also abused Sulochana and dragged his wife out of the meeting. "The other men in the meeting did not defend me or the other woman," she said. Fatima Abdul Qadir's first reaction to the news of her election to the Zilla Parishad, an electio n she contested under pressure from family and friends, was incredulity and a flood of tears. She went on to become Zilla President and one of the few in her position to break consciously gender stereotyping while planning projects for women. Her Zilla P arishad trained an entire team of women as specialised masons. Women were also brought into the transport sector as bus drivers, conductors and door-keepers."

The experiences of women as related by them necessarily focussed upon their struggles to establish their own identities as elected representatives. Obstructive social attitudes were for them the major impediment for empowerment. But surely, the issue of women's empowerment through the decentralisation process must go beyond the empowerment of elected representatives alone, important though that may be. To study and understand the specific features of the economic role played by different segments of wom en, so that they will be the beneficiaries and participants of decentralised development in a real sense, is a role that local bodies are cast to play. This surely will be one of the major - and lasting - contributions of the People's Campaign."

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