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The Power of Women’s Voices in India

“India has nearly 1.5 million elected women representatives at the local level—in terms of numbers, this is the highest globally,” says Anne Stenhammer, program director at the South Asia Sub-Regional Office of UN Women. “However, even more important than the numbers is the issue of actual leadership and action on women’s rights.’’

The actual leadership and action is certainly what matters, but it is the fact that one-third of the seats on village councils are reserved for women that creates the opportunities for leaders to emerge.

Many of the women who’ve been elected to village councils have little formal education. But that doesn’t prevent them from championing education for girls. The women understand that it was their own parents’ attitudes that education for girls is not valuable that prevented them from continuing past the early primary grades of school.

Since the reservation policy went into effect and women reached more of a critical mass in the village councils, female members have made it a priority to dispel such prejudices. As one elected representative put it, “I hold meetings with parents, mostly mothers, in small groups and try to explain to them that if they do not educate their daughters, their fate, too, will be sealed like them and the vicious cycle of struggle for survival will continue for generations together. Their daughters will remain shackled by household work.”

When representative Radha Devi visited the secondary school in her village, she found girls carrying buckets of water from the hand pump outside the compound to the kitchen for preparation of the school’s mid-day meal. This seemed odd because the school employed workers for this task—and because while the girls were carrying water, boys were at their desks receiving instruction. The girls told Radha that if they objected or refused, the principal threatened to fail them. She confronted the principal and said in no uncertain terms that he must stop making the girls carry water, or he would be dismissed.

“I realize the importance of education,” said Radha, whose own formal education ended at grade 5. “The government is doing so much for education so it becomes our duty to make sure that nothing comes in the way. There should be no discrimination in schools, and in the last three years since I have been the sarpanch [the village head], I have made sure this doesn’t happen in my village.”

(Photo Credit: UN Women/ Ashutosh Negi)