Monday, July 01, 2013

In India, women village heads face gender bias, discrimination

It's been a while since I posted the my last. Here's what kept me away: attending the Dart center media fellowship in Bangkok, Speaking at the Women Deliver maternal health conference in Malaysia and finally, covering the 38th global conference of UN-FAO. And in between all these, I have been traveling across the conflict-ridden districts of central India, meeting women tribal village heads. And sharing here the first of my intended 10-story series on these women leaders. You can also read the original article HERE

Kanker: Vasan Buiki, sarpanch (head of village council) of Malgaon village in central India's Chhattisgarh state wears a permanent scowl: the 48-year old was elected the village head leader three years ago, but still finds it difficult to manage the affairs of her village council, known as 'panchayat'. "Being a sarpanch isn’t easy. There are too many decisions to take, too many people to think of. I wish I had some training!" she says, sitting in a grocery shop next to her house which is owned by her family, but she has to take care of.
Vasan Buiki  head of Malgaon village council in central India s Chhattisgarh state finds it difficul...
Vasan Buiki, head of Malgaon village council in central India's Chhattisgarh state finds it difficult to find time for her work as she is busy taking care of the family-owned grocery store in her village.

Buiki—a Gond tribal woman—became a sarpanch in 2010—the year the government of her state decided to reserve 50 percent of village council seats for women in order to encourage and promote women’s participation in local politics and governance. While the decision increased manifold the participation of women in political system, most of them also came unprepared and inexperienced. To address this, the state government organizes annual training workshops for the village heads. Popularly known as “empowerment workshops,” the training help the leaders acquire the much-needed skills of village administration. Attending the workshop could have been hugely beneficial for Buiki, who had never stepped out of her home alone, had never spoken to men outside of her family and had no idea how a panchayat worked, before she was elected one. But, running the grocery store and doing household chores keeps the sarpanch so busy, she couldn’t find time to attend the workshop. "The workshop was in the capital town Raipur, which is four hours journey from here. My family said, it was too far away," she says, lowering her voice into a whisper as her husband and her son—both farmers—walk into the house. Dulmat Netam, the sarpanch of Pandarwahi, another tribal village in Kanker district, has a similar story. The 30-year-old mother of two says that her husband, a former village head, told her that the training was “not that important” and therefore she need not leave her house to attend one because he could help her run the panchayat. According to Netam, her day begins at five in the morning, but she can go to her Panchayat office only after finishing all the household chores. These include fetching water from the community well, cooking, cleaning and sending her children to schools. "I have to take care of the panchayat, home, my two children. I have to cook, clean, wash, fetch water. Where is the time for anything else?" she asks.
Dulmat Netam and Maya Kavde - women village heads in the former s office.  It is important for women...
Dulmat Netam and Maya Kavde - women village heads in the former's office. 'It is important for women to network. Together we can overcome many challenges', says Kavde

Lack of administrative skills and freedom to take decisions on their own is making women to be increasingly dependent on their male relatives such as husband, elder brother or father in-law, preferring to stay home. There are reports of ‘Pati Panchayat' (meaning husband-run village councils) existing across the state. Says Reena Ramteke, a local gender rights activist and journalist from Gariaband district of the state, The whole idea behind the 50 percent reservation was to encourage more women to take part in governance and empower themselves. But while the former is happening, the latter isn’t; with a non-cooperative environment at home, women are meekly handing over their power to decide to their husbands who then run the panchayat in proxy. The husbands conducts all meetings, take all the decisions and the women leaders only sign the papers. In Netam’s case this seems to a reality. The remedy, says Netam herself, is to conduct the training workshops right in the village. If the training is organized inside the village, nobody can stop me from attending it, she says. However, she refuses to discuss this with her husband saying, "I don’t want a feud in the family." Unlike Netam and Buiki, 38-year old Maya Kavde, of the neighboring village of Makdi Khona has attended all the three workshops which she says has built her administrative skills considerably. The reflection of that is the development works she has carried out in the village: new roads have been constructed, the community village ponds have been de-silted and dug deeper solving the problem of water shortage, the village school which offered only primary education, has been upgraded to a secondary level school and above all, an emergency ambulance service has been launched in the village as well. However, despite her great performance as a Sarpanch aside, Kavde is far from being happy. Widowed in 2008, she was thrown out of her husband’s house by her father in-law. Since then, she has been fighting a battle to save herself and her family from an uncertain future: "My father in-law and his sons do not want to share the property with me. They say, 'You are a sarpanch, so go fend for yourself.' But being a sarpanch doesn’t make one rich. Do they think I should start stealing public money?" she asks, her voice shaking with anger and frustration.
The house where Maya Kavde lives with her three daughters since her father in law threw her out of h...
The house where Maya Kavde lives with her three daughters since her father in law threw her out of her husband's house following the death of his son four years ago

To get her share back, Kavde, who lives in a rundown mud hut, is now talking to other female relatives—including two of her sister in- laws who also have been denied their rights to property—and trying to get their support. It is important for us women to stay close. Together, we can have a chance to win many challenges she says, looking hopeful. Besides bias at home, the women village heads also complain about noncooperation from their male colleagues in the panchayat.

Says Kavde, who heads one of the biggest village councils in the district that has three villages under it with a combined population of 3,000. I am tired of the way my male colleagues treat me. They do not attend the meetings. When they do, they show little interest in the village affairs. Some oppose everything I say. They are supposed to be my allies, but they act like my opponents she says. Despite the difficulties she faces, Kavde wouldn’t name anyone. "I am scared of being attacked," she says, "I have three teenage daughters and don’t want anything to happen to them."

 In India, there is a common perception that women in a tribal society enjoy greater freedom and rights than those in a non-tribal community. However, if the village leaders like Kavde, Buiki and Netam are any proof, this turns out to be a mere myth.

The reporter is a fellow of the National Foundation of India

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