Is representation of women in development real?

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The question of women in development has today evolved into a more holistic and inclusive approach of one called ‘gender and development’. In a developing world, ‘gender and development’ provides wide scope for inclusion of marginalised women and, importantly, for securing the rights of women, third gender and other groups which have faced neglect in a patriarchal world.

In this context, it is equally important to understand that while gender and development aims to include, in reality the debate is more often than not reduced to political and economic reservations. While statistics might show an increase in the number of women candidates being elected, who actually holds the power? A deeper understanding of the gendered aspect of politics at the local level, absolute and relative, is necessary to determine: Is representation of and for women a reality?

In the context of 50 per cent reservation (of seats) for women in elections to gram panchayats, (India’s local self-governance institution), it is heartening that seats reserved for women are contested and won by women from the very villages they seek to represent. This is viewed as quite an opportunity for women to participate in decision making processes. But it is disheartening to see and experience the ground reality: in majority of cases, women sarpanches have absolutely no power or say over matters of governance or in panchayat meetings. They are represented, more often than not, by their husbands, brothers or brothers-in-law and in a few cases by the caste heads (who are again male). It is interesting, and consequently distressing to social change agents working at the grassroots, how this is now ‘accepted’ as norm in these communities. The sarpanch is a male and can only be a male, even if a woman has been elected. Even more shocking is how the ‘self-appointed’ male representative(s) of women sarpanches do not allow these women to participate in public forums and meetings. Reservation in the context of the current panchayati raj system has been reduced to a guise for men to gain political power without actually having to contest the election.

Real power for women elected representatives is not yet within reach. It will take more time and effort for everyone to understand that only those elected by the people have (and should have) power. If we continue to be more inclusive of elected women in the decision making process, and ensure their participation, at least along with male representatives as a start, only then will the contribution of one half of the population be more meaningful and their needs be better represented.

This requires elected women representatives everywhere to take the first step in proactively participating and wielding authority. It also requires men to play an active role in making this a reality. Male members who tend to represent their wives/sisters need to understand that it is not only their wife/sister who they are pushing aside. They are stepping on and preventing the inclusion of all women in their community. Reservation of 50 per cent means representation of the problems and issues of 50 per cent of the population, i.e., the women. Men who recognise this are not ceding power to women, but rather are supporting equal opportunity for women to participate.

Someday soon, the ‘other half’ will truly participate in the processes of decision making, which will lead to an inclusive and holistic step towards gender and development. Voices will be heard, women will be seen, and it will soon be a norm for women to represent themselves, for the benefit of both men and women.

 

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