Some Indian villages prefer to put women in power
India’s parliament erupted at a proposal last month to reserve one-third of seats for women. But village-level quotas putting women in power have won many supporters.
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“Everything is running smoothly under our sarpanch; it’s good she’s a woman,” says Meena Devi, a housewife.Skip to next paragraph
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To any questions involving numbers or finance, however, she appeals for answers to her elder son. This is unsurprising: before becoming village chief, the grandmother’s chief role in life was as a mother and wife to her farmer husband, who took care of the household finances.
Within a few miles of her village, there are more examples of the successes and failures of the reservation system.
“We never see our sarpanch: she does what her husband tells her to do,” says Jai Narayan, a landlord in the nearby village of Thotwal, whose female chief came to power on a reserved seat.
But across the fields in Teent, the achievements of another female sarpanch are impressively obvious.
Maya Yadav ran for village chief five years ago at the behest of large numbers of supporters. She proudly lists her achievements since taking office: getting more girls into school, decreasing the size of dowries, encouraging parents to welcome baby girls into their families.
Though it is impossible to verify her claims, more than a dozen villagers attest to them.
“I’ve decided now that women are much better than men at these things,” says Jagaram, a construction worker who goes by one name as he walks through the village. “She’s even got us all new toilets.”
One study by Esther Duflo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, found that panchayats led by women provided more public services from wells to roads and that they were more likely to invest in public services valued by women, in particular, water facilities.
It also found that in West Bengal villages that had female chiefs, the proportion of women attending panchayat meetings had risen by three percent in two years.
A wide range of studies, including one commissioned by the central government’s Panchayati Raj Ministry, suggest that the quotas have not, as detractors of the reservation bill fear, benefited upper castes at the expense of more impoverished groups. Female village leaders are as likely as their male counterparts to hail from lower castes.
So far, there is little statistical evidence to suggest reservations have encouraged more women to run against men for open seats.
But even the smallest examples encourage proponents of reservations for women.
Take Ms. Yadav, who says she would never have considered standing for sarpanch had there not been a seat reserved for a woman.
Reserved seats are determined by a system of random rotation, and this summer, her position will cease to be reserved.
But Yadav will stand, she says, almost certainly against a man. “I expect to get a lot of votes,” she says.
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