Nearly 13,000 gram panchayats in Maharashtra went in for elections earlier this month amid the coronavirus outbreak. Besides the pandemic, the elections this time also stood out for a peculiar reason — women emerging as 'leaders' to govern the masses.
According to The Times of India, one such incident took place in Nanded district's Bhaswadi village where 55-year-old Sumanbai Nurude, a widow, contested the gram panchayat elections and won.
Nurude lost her husband thirty years ago and was sent back to her parents' village with her two daughters. She had faced innumerable challenges as a single woman in the male-dominated Marathwada region and hence wanted to do something to raise awareness on the ones facing social stigma and resolve their problems.
"I was surprised when I was declared winner. It is hard for a single woman to come so far. But now that I have got the opportunity, I will work to raise the issues of women and focus on helping more single women," Nurude said.
Villages in this region have several single women who are either widowed or have remained single due to caste or health issues. Many have been abandoned by their husbands as they could not conceive or had given birth to a girl child. These women dared to move against the patriarchal structure and caste norms, but only a few were able to make a significant mark.
Nurude shared that she had been trying to avail the benefits of a government scheme that provided subsidies to widows to build homes but failed to get her application cleared.
"There are many women like me who don't want to be a burden on anyone and would like to earn and live alone with their children. These schemes are meant for us, but few manage to get their benefits," she said.
32-year-old Kaushalya Kalsule from Beed district had to surmount the odds to contest elections. She, however, lost the elections by just three votes.
Sharing her experience, Kalsule said that initially, she had to convince her mother to come on board with her decision to contest the elections. Once her mother agreed, Kalsule started receiving threats from the men in her village on her candidature.
"While other candidates were luring voters with non-vegetarian meals, I couldn't even offer women tea from my house as we had limited sugar," she said.
"But I am not dejected, I will continue to attend meetings and ask questions and will contest in the next elections," she added.
Bridging The Gap
Coro India is one of the few non-governmental organisations working in the area of uplifting the marginalised communities through inculcating grass-root level leadership.
Ram Shelke, the Marathwada representative from the organisation, works as a facilitator with Ekal Mahila Sangathana. Started in 2014, the Sangathana now has over 19,000 women under its wings working towards an independent and empowered life.
"A total of 194 women connected to our organisation contested the elections and 68 won. this is such a proud moment for us. Most of these women wouldn't even attend gram sabha meetings initially. We encouraged them to attend these and raise their complaints. When these women would start asking questions, the men would ignore them," said Shelke.
Such incidents prompted Shelke and his team to start training these women to educate and to help them contest the gram panchayat polls. A mock election drill was also conducted to instil confidence in them.
Hinting at a lack of data, the representative further said they are planning to work with the members of the panchayat samitis to ensure that details of all single women from these villages are registered.
"Unless a record is created, how will you ensure that the policies reach them," said Shelke.
Latur Gets All-Woman Panchayat
Latur is one of the largest cities of the Marathwada region and its Anandwadi village handed over the governance baton to an all-woman panchayat.
The Indian Express reported that the six candidates were elected unopposed in the panchayat elections held recently. Although the village is home to a mere 635 people, mostly farmers, it has in the past five years witnessed a dramatic improvement after having Bhagyashree Chame as its sarpanch.
Reports highlighted that measures to improve cleanliness, a campaign against superstitions, setting up of sanitary napkin dispenser, ensuring women are included in festivities, awareness on organ donation and changing the nameplates of all 112 houses to bear the name of their women occupants took place during the sarpanch's tenure.
"I often cite this village as an example. The property cards in the village are all in the name of women, they have started their flour mill, women and men work equally hard in their farms," says Nilangekar, a BJP legislator. He mentioned that the women panchayat members are not proxy candidates for the men in their families.
"Leadership at the grass-root level takes time to emerge. But giving women power is important," said another government official, reported the paper.
The goodwill earned by such hardworking members also helps in creating a sense of community among the villagers and to pitch in for support when needed. Calls for donations for the renovation of gram panchayat office and to donate for the schemes have met with success.
One of the schemes the funds have helped organise is the 'Kanyadaan Yojana' which was launched to ensure no one "thinks of their daughters as a burden". In the past five years, villagers have reportedly shared expenses for five weddings. A board at the entrance to the panchayat also says that the village doesn't give or receive dowry.