Sriparna Chaudhuri, 2010 Vital Voices of Asia
Vital Voices of Asia Summit to Empower Women and Foster Growth
Remarks from Sriparna Chaudhuri, Director of Media, The Hunger Project-India
New Delhi, India
It is an honour to speak at this Summit. Thank you for inviting me to speak on this topic. It is indeed the very ground that we stand on and a subject that I have been personally involved with for the last three years.
I work for The Hunger Project where we work to strengthen the political leadership of women in village councils or panchayats through Women's Leadership Workshops. Typicallly a panchayat is made up of four to five villages and has a population of 5,000 to 6,000 people. In India we have 33.3 percent to 50 percent reservation for women in Panchayats.
This reservation has today led 1.2 million rural Indian women to hold public offices.
Given the external environment and their positions in home and society, politically elected women face so many more challenges in their day-to-day public life. They are poor, the society is patriarchal, it has suppressed them for centuries, they are non literate and they have had no exposure to the outside world. They are not recognized as political representatives and the working environment of an elected woman is a challenge in itself.
The need, therefore, rose for them to form associations and federations. The fundamental thought behind it was that an elected woman needed a collective voice to achieve results with ease. As one woman said, "If I go to the collector's office with a petition, he turns me away, but if I go with 10 other elected women he feels obliged to meet me." They wanted to be part of a network and a force that would get due recognition and have an identity.
Given the history of movements in this country, there are several women's networks across the country. There are dalit women networks, muslim, minorities networks. Self-help groups have also played a significant role in collective action. But, there were no networks and federations in the country for political women. They need it the most for they have no networks supporting them today.
The Hunger Project has been involved for the last three years in facilitating the building of these federations across the country.
Today, there are 175 federations at the block level with a total membership of more than 10,000 women and one state level federation in Karnataka with a membership of 2,000 women. Though the membership base in each of the federation is heterogeneous - the women speak many different languages in the same state, belong to different religious groups, ethnicities and cultural practices - their common identity is rooted in the fact that they are all elected women and face the same set of challenges.
So, what is a federation? A federation is essentially a forum which represents the rights and interests of elected women. They are platforms which present the united strength of elected women. These are spaces for co-learning, sharing of experiences, addressing common issues and concerns, fighting against social injustices. These are also platforms from where elected women representatives are able to advocate for women's political rights, lobby against policies that adversely affect them.
What have they done?
- As a collective they have implemented NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programs), improved PDS (public distribution systems), mid-day meals;
- Promoted good governance by demanding accountability, used RTI (Right to Information), transferred corrupt officials, played an enormous role in supporting women candidates during elections;
- Used it as platform for advocacy - 50 percent reservation, two-child norm, illiteracy clause, advocated for honorarium;
- Been agents of social change and addressed gender-based violence, alcoholism and marginalization; and
- Disseminated information, fought for political rights for women, built visibility and a political identity, built rapport with the media.
Why are federations successful?
These associations and federations are a concrete face, they have a certain legitimacy, governments recognize them, talk to them, negotiate with them. In fact governments cannot afford to ignore them. They are also democratic institutions based on principles of inclusion. Concrete successes help to heighten ownership and legitimacy; and this drives the process of institutionalization of federations forward.
The elected women have gained a lot from these federations. But there are still many challenges. Political parties look at federations as a vote bank. Class and caste dynamics within the federations is a continuous challenge. But the main challenge is sustainability.
These federations cannot be built in two or three years. They need continuous support, handholding and mentoring. Today in India, federations of elected women representatives are at a very nascent stage. They need support and training to sustain themselves. We need to invest in them if we wish to make women's political participation a reality.