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Husbands, play second fiddle, let women sarpanches come forward

The Centre will unveil a scheme next week to train women sarpanches across the country to empower them to take their own decisions and not rely on their husbands.

A pet peeve of Union Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi has been the problem of “panchpati” or “pradhanpati”. In most of the 2 lakh gram panchayats headed by women, the show is usually run by husbands.

The Centre has carried out a pilot training project in Jhalawar district in Rajasthan in late April last year. “Most of these women stay in ghunghat, and are bossed around by their husbands. When we decided to carry out the training, all women turned up with their husbands who said that they, too, wanted to learn. We sent them away,” Gandhi had told DNA earlier.

The scheme, Women Sarpanch Training, will train women in civil engineering, law, village development, implementation and supervision of government schemes, social norms, anganwadi structure, and other crucial matters. The scheme will be funded by the WCD ministry, and will be implemented by the state rural development department.

Yet, when DNA called all 10 women panchayat sarpanches out of the 24 panchayats in Jhalawar district, Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s constituency, a different picture emerges. In not a single instance did the designated woman sarpanch pick up the phone. Either the number was not working, or, as in most cases, the phone calls were answered by their husbands. All of them said that since their wives were away, they were picking up the calls.

Calls made to women sarpanches in Barbar, Borkheri Goojran, Ratlai, Reejon, Baray, Jheekariya and Kushalpura were also answered by men. Calls to women sarpanches in Bakani, Bans Kheri Lodan and Jheejaniya went unanswered or remained unavailable. In Kushalpura district, Gordhan Lal, the husband of the sarpanch Geeta Bai, went as far as to say that she does not talk to people and that he speaks on her behalf.

Reejon sarpanch Anita Gurjar, one of the few women DNA spoke to, was the lone sarpanch who had any recollection of the training she received. “We were taught to ensure that sanitation is maintained well in the village, and we were taught about the various schemes of the government, and how to ensure that the villagers know their rights and responsibilities,” said Anita.

Richa Audichya of the Hunger Project, who has worked in empowering women sarpanches for nearly a decade, recalls the case of a woman sarpanch leader in Mount Abu. The woman, who used to work as a house help, rose to the seat of the sarpanch in a stellar election. Yet, on the D-day, the thunder was stolen by her husband.

“When the panchayat first convened, the husband stepped forward to sit on her chair,” says Richa, who works to teach women sarpanches in planning pre-election campaigning, and in understanding administration matters. She says that it is routine to have the husband being introduced to the district collector as the sarpanch.

Ramesh Yadavar of the Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), who works in the area of community-based micro finance, says that even though panchayat affairs are mostly carried out by men, things are looking up. Yet, he adds that it is unlikely to see a woman sarpanch sign a paper without her asking a male associate about what it really means.

As per the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, there is 33 per cent reservation for women in gram panchayats. Yet, in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tripura and Rajasthan, there is 50 per cent reservation in gram panchayats.

Most women do not end up in offices, and, mostly, women backed by husbands with a political career usually come forward. To do away with these problems, the Rajasthan government has made it mandatory for the sarpanch to be in the panchayat office for at least two hours every day, and has made it an offence to have any family member of the sarpanch to be part of the meetings.