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.

Manish Swarup/AP
India's President Pratibha Patil (c.) pictured here at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, April 1, became the first women to hold this post in 2007. Some Indian villages prefer to put women in power.

India’s government caused an uproar in parliament last month when it voted to introduce a new quota system to reserve at least a third of seats in national, state, and local governments for women.

Critics argued that the quota would allow male politicians to promote female relatives to do their bidding, and that it could advance wealthy, upper-caste women at the expense of poorer lower castes.

But its supporters pointed to the success of a similar quota introduced into India’s village-level governments – called panchayats – in 1993. Under this system, every five years, more than a million women are voted into one-third of seats reserved for them.

Though academic and anecdotal evidence show that some women serve on panchayats as proxies for their husbands, overall, they also find that the quota is empowering women – and not just women who have come to power – by providing better services and a little female inspiration.

“The power of small but symbolic changes should not be underestimated,” says B.S. Baviskar, a senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences in Delhi and an expert on panchayats.

Women lag behind

At the highest levels, India has become accustomed to seeing women in power. Years before such a milestone was reached in the West, Indira Gandhi became India’s first female prime minister. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia, today heads the Congress party that leads the coalition government. India’s president, Pratibha Patil, became the first women to hold this post in 2007.

But the lofty status of these few icons belies the real situation of female politicians in India: Fewer than 11 percent of members of the country’s parliament are women.

And the inequality between men and women in political life is a reflection of a gulf that exists in practically every sphere of life in India. Though increasing numbers of urban middle-class women are going to work and holding senior positions in business, nationally, the position of Indian women is grim.

Women lag behind men in literacy – 54 percent can read and write compared with 75 percent of men – and income: Women earn less than one-third of men’s wages on average. Because women have little power, and in many cases are still expected to bring with them a dowry when they marry, parents prefer sons. Millions of baby girls are aborted every year, which has led to a ratio of 933 women per 1,000 men in India.

Gradual improvement

In rural India, which is by any measure more patriarchal and conservative than urban India, the promotion of women to public positions of power constitutes nothing short of a revolution.

The state of Haryana, though relatively prosperous, is one of the most backward in the country in terms of female empowerment. It has the most skewed gender ratio in India, with 861 women per 1,000 men. Here, even Hindu women tend to cover their heads with veils in public.

Virander Singh, who in 2005 became sarpanch – or chief – of her tiny village, Puniska, in Haryana, exemplifies the slow change that reservations can bring.

Sitting on a charpoy, or string-strung bed, in the lobby of her house, which doubles as her office, she describes the improvements she has made to the village’s water supply, rebuilding and improving water pumps so villagers have easier access to drinking water.

“Everything is running smoothly under our sarpanch; it’s good she’s a woman,” says Meena Devi, a housewife.

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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