Patna: The first time she heard of a woman leading a village in Bihar as its mukhiya (head), Ramvati Devi (name changed), 50, was astounded. “I couldn’t even comprehend how a woman could lead. How could she have any power over a man or the dominant castes in a village where she had walked all her life with her head covered?” she told IndiaSpend on a recent October day.

In 2006, the Bihar government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had just introduced 50% reservation for women in the state’s rural governance bodies or its Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) to encourage more women to join mainstream politics. Bihar, the first to reserve half the seats for women, is conducting the first round of polling to elect its state legislators today. Many of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s pro-women decisions, from the 2016 liquor ban to bicycles for girl students to reservation for women in PRIs, will play into how the state decides.

Reservation for women has been gradually undoing the gender skew in Bihar’s rural governance--its institutions now have 70,400 women in decision-making positions, which makes for 52%, according to the Bihar Gender Report Card 2019. In 14 years, Ramvati Devi has seen women panchayat leaders like herself transform--from anxious pioneers to resigned proxies for husbands and male relatives to now independent voices fighting to make themselves heard.

Ramvati Devi is now a ward member in a gram panchayat (village council) in Patna district. She has a decade of experience, and had the benefit of mentorship from an NGO in her early years. She participates in decision-making, attends block-level meetings and frequently meets the mukhiya. “I even distributed condoms in the ward recently to spread awareness about contraception. Let the men say what they have to, I do what I have to,” she said.

Yet, countless others still struggle with entrenched patriarchy and shortage of resources, we learned in interviews across seven villages in Patna and five in Muzaffarpur district. Many women leaders still do not have the knowledge, training or exposure to make confident decisions, experts and activists with NGOs that mentor women in local governance told IndiaSpend.

Bihar’s gender indicators show that it lags behind national averages--its female literacy rate has gone up from 37% to 50% between 2005-06 and 2015-16 but this is still below the national average of 68.4%, according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16. It has the worst female labour force participation rates among all states--4.1%, against the national average of 23.3%, according to the National Sample Survey 2017.

“Women’s names have reached the system, but their voices are still far behind,” said Pratima Kumari Paswan, an activist from Parsa Bazaar in Patna, and an independent candidate from Phulwari constituency in the current state elections.

Few women in politics despite panchayat intervention

Gender stereotypes, psychological and traditional barriers, and inequalities in education, training and resources have limited women’s participation in politics everywhere in the world. Reservations in PRIs were expected to empower women and improve their political participation as leaders and voters.

Although the turnout among women voters has increased in Bihar, the overall participation of women in state politics continues to be low. This is reflected in the list of candidates for the first phase of the three-phase 2020 state assembly elections that start today. The Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) has fielded women candidates in 18% of the 78 seats it is contesting in the first two phases and its main rival, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, in 14.4% of 97 seats, data for the first two phases of election from the Election Commission of India, compiled and analysed by the Association for Democratic Reforms, show. Among other parties, Lok Janshakti has fielded women candidates in 16% of 93 seats seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party in 9% of 75 seats, the Indian National Congress in 9% of 45 seats and the left parties including CPI, CPI (M) and CPI (ML) in 4.5% of 22 seats.

Of the 240 sitting members of the state’s legislative assembly, 12% are women, fewer than the 2010-15 assembly that had 14% women.

In Bihar, 50% of women are literate, as per NFHS 2015-16 data. A woman elected as a member of a gram panchayat mostly walks into the role with minimal education, little or no political experience, and very little information about her role or the programmes and projects she has to oversee, experts say. Many of these advantages are available to men because the socio-political systems favour them, leading to better education, exposure and political ambition.

A six-part IndiaSpend series to study the challenges faced by women panchayat heads in Tamil Nadu had found that they had to frequently deal with casteism, financial constraints, sexism and violence. Their public life ended with their term, with no hope of landing another administrative role or a place in mainstream politics--which were often available to their male counterparts.

Need for training, mentoring

The Women’s Reservation Bill was enacted in 1993 by bringing in the 73rd Amendment. While many Indian states reserved 33% of seats for women, the minimum as per the amendment, Bihar was the most generous--it kept 50% seats for women in local bodies. Thereafter, 19 other states offered 50% reservation.

Since men still controlled social and political networks in villages, women mukhiyas often ended up as proxies for the real decision makers--their husbands or other men in the family--as has been well-documented. In our interviews, we found that most women leaders still look to men for guidance on critical issues and their proxy roles have become almost institutionalised in some places.

“Even when women mukhiyas have to be called for official meetings, the letters are addressed to mukhiyapati [the mukhiya’s husband]. The system itself has no problem with this,” said Pramila Kumari, a women’s rights activist with Lokmadhyam, an NGO based in Masaurhi block in Patna. Some of this did start changing around 2016, a decade after the 50% reservation move, when many women were contesting for the second time, she added, and there were instances of women panchayat heads making independent decisions. “But even now I would put their number at a mere 15% and most of these women have some external guidance from various NGOs or support groups,” she said.

The lack of education, digital literacy, training, and exposure can limit a woman’s investment decisions and oversight capabilities as a panchayat head but this can be changed with training and mentorship, said Madhu Joshi, who is associated with organisations working with women PRI members in Bihar.

“These women assume office due to reservations. Even their access and usage of a mobile phone and internet is limited. Additionally, they have to navigate the barriers of patriarchy within the family and in the community,” said Joshi. “These women leaders need mentoring, exposure and collective platforms in order to assert themselves.”

‘How will I learn if I am excluded?’

Renu Devi, 56, is the mukhiya of Tineri panchayat in Patna district. She lives in a well-constructed house that has a boundary wall to keep away members of the Moosahari community, considered the most marginalised among the Dalits, who live in the neighbourhood. Inside the gates, a makeshift board announces her name and a chair and table mark the official meeting area for the mukhiya. There are plastic chairs for visitors.

When we visited her, Renu Devi declared that her husband is away and is surprised to hear that we have come to meet her. She proceeded to sit on a plastic chair. Why does she not take the mukhiya’s chair, we asked. Because she isn’t the [real] mukhiya, she answered.

Recalling the ordeal of delivering her children on the floor with a dai (midwife), she said she had suggested to her husband that antenatal care be made more accessible for women at the village anganwadi centre. “I told him, but who listens, men are not bothered by these problems,” she said but quickly changed her tone of voice. ”Anyway he is more educated, he knows better, he always does the right thing.”

The reason for this diffidence, said Pramila Kumari, is that women are rarely taught to be confident or value themselves. “These women had little exposure growing up, their families constantly remind them of how stupid, inept and inexperienced they are, they are taught to be invisible,” she said. “Men also ensure that their wives have little power or freedom, so it is very difficult for these women to stand up to the entire system and take charge.”

Independent women mukhiyas, even strong ones, complained that they are not taken seriously by block officials. “They didn’t listen to me, they also sought my husband and my suggestions went unheard on the assumption was that I won’t understand anything and I won only because of reservation,” said Anamika Devi, 40, mukhiya of the Chapaur panchayat in Patna. “If they kept excluding me, how would I have learnt anything?”

It took time but people started to listen to Anamika Devi because “they know that I get work done so they also have to listen to me, even dominant caste men”. The Chapaur panchayat has three dominant caste men and two dominant caste women ward members.

“The system is particularly loaded against women from marginal castes,” said activist Pratima Kumari Paswan. “They think she can be easily intimidated and manipulated.”

A recent report from Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district reported that a Dalit woman panchayat head S Rajeshwari was asked to sit on the floor during meetings where others sat on chairs. Sunita Kumari, ward member of the Tineri panchayat in Patna, reported similar experiences in her early years. “When I attended my first gram sabha after winning, the Bhoomihar [dominant caste] mukhiya asked me to sit on the floor despite being a ward member, I told him that I won’t, I have earned my right to sit alongside you,” she said, referring to Renu Devi’s husband who was then the mukhiya.

Women ensure better facilities

Research shows that villages reserved for women leaders showed better availability of public facilities such as drinking water, schools, health centres, fair price shops and so on.

“We had no tap water in our house for a long time, we kept asking for it but nothing was ever done,” said Leela Devi, 40, from Masaurhi block. “Then I realised--why do I have to keep asking for what is rightfully mine? So I contested the elections, became a ward member and the first thing I did was to use the sanctioned money to get tap water into every home in my ward.”

Women leaders tend to prioritise basic services and are also able to collaborate with frontline functionaries to effect these changes, according to a 2015 study by Centre for Catalyzing Change, an NGO working with women pradhans. “When I was in school, there were only two girls in our class, no one told us about nutrition, menstruation or family planning. I don’t want my daughter to grow up the same way I did,” said a female mukhiya who chooses to remain anonymous. She is now communicating with local school and anganwadi centres on the need to make free sanitary pads available for adolescent girls.

However, a study assessing the impact of female political leadership on governance of projects implemented under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) found more programme inefficiencies and leakages in village councils reserved for women heads.

“But it is also important to remember that they are constrained by the lack of financial and digital literacy which to a great extent deters them from engaging with and challenging powerful stakeholders,” said Madhu Joshi. “However, the study also shows that governance improves as female leaders accumulate more experience.”

Role models

“When women see other women taking charge, they also want that authority, everybody likes to be called netaji [leader],” said Pramila Kumari.

This 2003 study showed that women in West Bengal villages headed by female pradhans (head) were twice as likely to address a request or complaint in the previous six months than those governed by men. This indicated increased involvement of women in rural governance.

Reservation, when properly implemented, has been effective for promoting women’s participation in electoral processes and for advancing women’s equality in post-conflict countries, said a United Nations, 2005 report on women and elections.

“The reservation was a political move to appease female voters, but the larger political participation of women has also been increasing in the state,” said Paswan, the activist. Till 2000, the gender gap in voter turnout in Bihar was around 20% (in favour of men) but in the last elections in 2015, female voter turnout was 60%, compared to 53% male voters.

(Tiwari is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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