Strengthening Elected Women Leaders in India
Five-Year Cycle of Empowering Women's Leadership
Effective bottom-up strategies for ending hunger and poverty combine three factors: mobilizing people at the grassroots level to build self-reliance, empowering women as key change agents and forging effective partnerships with local government. In India, these come together in our Panchayati Raj Campaign.
Panchayati raj refers to India's local democracy, based on elected local councils known as panchayats. The 73rd amendment to India's constitution, passed in 1993, mandates local elections every five years and reserves one-third of all seats for women.
Beginning in 2000, The Hunger Project seized this historic opportunity. Our Panchayati Raj Campaign is a multi-pronged strategy that has, to date, empowered more than 80,000 elected women representatives to be effective change agents for the end of hunger in their villages. In each year of a woman leader's term, we implement specific interventions to empower her to succeed.
When women, who have traditionally been denied a voice in decision-making, come to power, they transform the development agenda toward the human component - focusing on health, nutrition, education, water, sanitation and better family income. They tackle long-ignored problems such as domestic violence, alcoholism and corruption.
Year 1 - Stepping Forth As Leaders
In the first year after election, women participate in a three-day Women's Leadership Workshop that (a) awakens women to their selfhood and human rights, (b) educates them about their powers and responsibilities as panchayat leaders, (c) builds their capacity to create a vision and plan actions to achieve it, and (d) links them with government and other resource people in their area. This is reinforced three months later in a follow-up workshop and through needs-based workshops that women request to strengthen their skills in communication, finances, and knowledge of laws and government programs.
Women leaders are trained to organize the women of their villages into self-help groups (SHGs) for mutual support and economic activity. SHGs become a constituency to stand with the elected leader for women's priorities. The SHGs are mobilized to attend mandatory open meetings known as gram sabhas, where they can hold panchayats to account. They are empowered to meet beforehand to prepare a clear list of priorities.
Year 2 - Leadership for Development
In year two, we work with panchayats to create bottom-up plans (or "microplans") for villages to meet basic needs. These plans are not a wish list; bottom-up planning means assessing available resources and creating strategies for actions that people can take themselves. When resources from local government are required, such as for improving schools or health clinics, planning includes establishing good partnerships with local officials.
During year two, there are additional capacity-building workshops for elected women leaders, particularly about government programs. We take additional action to mobilize women to participate in the gram sabhas, in which panchayat plans and budgets must be approved.
Year 3 - Creating Federations for a Greater Voice
As villages take action, they inevitably run up against bureaucratic obstacles. The best way to overcome these obstacles - and to sustain villages' process of empowerment on their own - is to form federations of elected women representatives. These are formed at the block (100+ villages), district and state levels. Block-level federations are able to provide regular monthly forums for mutual support, and state federations are able to rally massive numbers of elected women annually to demand change at the policy level.
Year 4 - Changing Policies/Delivering Results
By year four, with plans and federations in place, The Hunger Project focuses on ensuring that panchayats have successfully implemented their plans and that lives have truly improved on a sustainable basis. In addition, where leaders have run up against major legal obstacles, this is a year when women are powerful enough to demand policy changes and sometimes even engage in public-interest litigation. For example, in Bihar in 2004, The Hunger Project mobilized 2,000 women to protest the failure of the state government to implement key provisions of the 73rd amendment, and then followed up with successful litigation for change.
Year 5 - Increasing Women's Participation in Elections
In the run-up to elections, The Hunger Project carries out massive campaigns to encourage the participation of women both as independently minded voters and as candidates. As the reserved seats rotate to different areas each term, new women are encouraged to step forward to run for those seats. In addition, women who have already served are encouraged to stand for reelection against men in unreserved seats.
Implementation via Partnership
India is enormously diverse - with 16 official languages and hundreds of dialects. In addition, since the Freedom Movement days of Mahatma Gandhi, India has been blessed with the existence of more than 35,000 local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with highly committed leadership.
To implement the Panchayati Raj Campaign, The Hunger Project partners with nearly 50 of the best of these local NGOs across 10 states of India. Hunger Project state and national staff have trained more than 800 staff trainers of these organizations to lead the Women's Leadership Workshop and provide ongoing empowerment to women leaders. These organizations make up a national alliance that advocates for change at the state and national levels.