75 years after independence, women’s leadership in panchayats looks like a travesty of the Constitution

One of the most popular web series in India is “Panchayat”, it was appreciated for its simplicity and close to life scenes and dialogues. Every character in this series touched the hearts of the audience and received huge love and applause.

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The story features the character of Pradhan ji, a male figure who leads the office (Sarpanch) without being officially directly elected. His wife fought in the election because the seat was reserved for women candidates only. She is a nominal head and the power was wielded by her husband. All she does is sign these official documents and the rest, she has no idea how the office works or what position she holds.

This is one of the sad realities of Indian democracy and it is often held up as a happy image of women’s representation in Indian politics.

Futile effort to empower women

Recently, there have been several reports of husbands or male family members taking the oath in place of elected female representatives in newly formed Madhya Pradesh panchayats. This is against the rule and such cases are a pure mockery of constitutional democracy. An effort to empower grassroots women is futile.

Panchayat elections
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In December 1992, a female-only third in the Panchayats was guaranteed by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. Article 243D of the Indian Constitution provides for one-third reserved for women out of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election and the number of positions of Presidents of Panchayats.

In India, 21 states provide 50% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj (PRI) institutions. Over 46% of women are members of the Panchayati Institution in India. (2020 data)

A study by the Pune-based Gokhale Institute of Political and Economics showed that 86% of women surveyed said they stood for Panchayat and Zilla Parishad elections because the seat was reserved for a female candidate.

Dominant patriarchal system

The dominant patriarchal system continues to plague India’s political system. Laws are in place to ensure equal representation of women in politics, especially in panchayat polls, women have only become nominal heads.

Panchayat election
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The main barriers for women in panchayati elections are patriarchal mindsets where women work as proxies for their male family members and even women in the system sometimes face insensitivity from their male colleagues. Women are often subjected to violence from powerful elements in society if they make bold decisions.

Quazi Fakhruddin, a barrister practicing at the High Court in Jabalpur, told The Hindu: “A Pradhan Pati culture, however, thrives in the hinterland which defeats the purpose of the exercise which is an adequate representation of women and their empowerment.

Men are the face of Panchayati elections even if the female candidate is running for office. Men project themselves as the future Sarpanch or Sarpanch pati and their face is more prominent in election campaigns, not as the real female candidate.

Literacy for women could help

To ensure more active participation of women in panchayati elections, women elected leaders need to be literate, as this helps to build communication skills and leadership qualities. There should be proper training and workshops organized by the government to make these elected women understand how government works.

Female leadership in the Panchayats
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Women must be empowered enough to be able to identify and break down cultural barriers and improve their socio-economic conditions. In addition, there should be systematic sensitization to build the capacity to take on new responsibilities as local legislators among rural women.

The authorities must maintain grassroots control as if power were legally exercised in the villages and districts.

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Mara R. Wilmoth