The last couple of months were not just confusing but also contradictory in terms of the message that one received. While International Women’s day was celebrated on the 8th of March across the country, events that unfolded in April was not something that would make us proud. While political parties vied with one another to demonstrate their support to the cause of women, none of them had the courage to walk the talk. The number of women contesting the elections from all the mainstream parties including those controlled by women themselves was abysmally low and a cause for concern. It looked as though their commitment stopped with discussing the women’s reservation bill in parliament but taking it no further.
What we need to recognize and appreciate is that in the critical areas for the well-being of the nation, women are now coming onto the front lines. This is not just true for rural India but for its urban areas as well. The future of India depends on overcoming enormous challenges in health, education, nutrition, population and environment. Women bear primary responsibility in every one of these areas – day after day after day. It is women who know best what needs to be done, and it is women who are most committed to taking these actions.
Yet for thousands of years, India’s women have been systematically denied the freedom, resources, information and decision-making power they need to carry out these responsibilities. In many parts of India, women have been kept in an almost unimaginable state of powerlessness, illiteracy, isolation and malnutrition. India now faces a historic opportunity. As local democracy and expanded opportunity flourish around the world, India must not be left behind. The first step has been taken with the unprecedented 73rd amendment to India’s constitution, which mandates the transfer of decision-making power and resources in the rural areas to local Gram Panchayath. Most revolutionary of it all is the mandate of reserving 1/3 the seats for women – guaranteeing them a role in determining the future of their communities.
The transfer of power to one million women elected Panchayath members – many of whom are illiterate – is the greatest social experiment of our time. Nowhere else in the world is such a political process underway. These women are struggling against all odds to improve the lives of their families, their villages and our nation. They are the key change agents for a new India. By ensuring that they gain access to the resources and information they need – and by allowing their voices to be heard – India can finally become one nation. In doing so it will fulfill its destiny and reveal its true greatness. While some political scientists may observe that it is men who seek to control power by proxy in these Panchayaths, there is no disputing the fact that a quiet shift is already becoming evident.
Rural India today depends on its women for survival. Its children and families are fed, clothed and sheltered by women’s labour. Its water and firewood are gathered by women’s hands. Its families, farm and rural economy are productive because of women’s works. Yet, when the men are asked, many say that women do nothing at all. Because of women’s low social status, their work goes unrecognised, unvalued and unsupported despite making indispensable contributions in all areas of rural life and economic maintenance. Let us look at some startling facts which most of us have taken for granted but never given a deep thought to. Within the household they have taken on the traditional responsibility for most of the work, and caring and providing for their families. They have taken on the task of collecting water, fuel and fodder. They also cook, clean and wash and care for the children and the elderly. Most women who cook using firewood inhale smoke equivalent of 20 cigarettes and suffer from all the consequent lung, chest and eye diseases. Apart from all this, they also participate in agriculture, dairy-farming and other related tasks. Though they contribute to more than 50% of the economy, they are rarely compensated for these efforts. And when they are in control of their incomes, they invest in the well-being of their children and their families. Not to be left behind, their urban counterparts are now participating in all sectors including those that were traditionally of the men. Whether it is driving public buses or running corporations or newsrooms, from being a scientist to sitting on boards, from running NGOs to being senior bureaucrats, from academicians to engineers – we are now seeing them where they richly deserve to be.
We also need to understand that the subjugation of women is ingrained in Indian society. It has been so much a part of ordinary reality that it largely unseen, unexamined and unquestioned. Yet today, after thousands of years of suppression, the women of India are awakening to a new possibility – a future based on self-hood, equality and full participation. Despite the general reluctance of the men, women will soon enter the world of national and state politics and policy and leave their imprint. Already women are holding the mantle of governments in a few states. Whether one desires it or not, whether one provides a legal framework or not, it is in the interest of the nation and its future that women take on leadership positions. And this leadership need not be something that is at the state level or in very visible positions alone. Women can quietly and meaningfully demonstrate a leadership that is at once humane and devoid of any political or electoral undertones. I recently was witness to one such incident. Seethamma (name changed to ensure privacy) was a very poor and elderly widow in Mogarahalli village in Srirangapatna taluk of Mandya district. Her close relatives had stopped caring for her and she was drenched in her own urine and pus dripping out of her sores. The smell was so strong that one could not enter her room without closing one’s nostrils. It was in this condition that the dedicated personnel of the palliative care unit of SVYM met her. They wanted to shift her to a center providing care for such patients but her family members refused to allow this. A false sense of family pride and an eye on the little property that she had, made them immune to all the pleading of our staff. The local villagers and traditional leaders did not want to get involved. It was then that we were witness to this silent power of the local women. Rukmini, Sundaramma and Komala were members of the local Gram Panchayath. They decided that enough was enough and took the family members of Seethamma to task. They berated them for not only neglecting her but also for preventing her from accessing care. They took matters into their own hands and had the Panchayath pass a resolution permitting the women to be shifted to the local care center. They did not stop with this. They informed the local police, mobilized resources from the village, cleaned up Seethamma and moved her to the Terminal Care Center run by a humanitarian NGO in Mysore. When I met these women to understand them and their motivation, I realized that no political undercurrent was motivating them. All that they were concerned about was the well-being of a fellow human and the dignity and self-respect of another woman.
India’s political spectrum needs such women – not only to cleanse our system but also to bring in the selflessness and the leadership that this sector is desperately crying for. Are our major political parties listening?