Grassroots Leaders and Powerful National Politicians Talk The Same Language

Elected women representatives, whether grassroots leaders or powerful national politicians, talk the same language – the language of development, empowerment and rights. Bhavana Damor, the woman sarpanch (village council head) of Rampur Mewada Gram Panchayat in southern Rajasthan, and Michelle Bachelet, former Chilean president and currently Executive Director, UN Women and Under-Secretary-General, United Nations, are two such leaders who may not share a country, language, culture or even education, but they do share an agenda – of striving to give women their rightful place in society.

Damor’s story is as inspiring as it is rare, considering she hails from the predominantly tribal district of Dungarpur. This high school educated woman owes her entry into local politics to her mother-in-law and, of course, to the provision of reservations for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). When her family members proposed her name for election as sarpanch in the year 2000, she won unopposed because Rampur Mewada in Bichchiwada block was one of the seats reserved for women under the 33 per cent quota at that time. It’s now 50 per cent.

When Damor spoke about her experiences in local governance at the leadership summit of elected women representatives from South Asia, ‘Dialogue for Change: Women Leaders Transform Politics, Policy and Livelihoods’, held in Jaipur recently, she held the attention of everyone in audience including Bachelet, the head of UN Women, which had organised the event. Damor recalled, “One of the first things I did when I became sarpanch was to hold meetings with the villagers, both women and men, to identify the problems that we were up against. The biggest challenge was the lack of education in our region.”

She realised that children were not being able to attend school regularly because of poor road connectivity. “So I initiated the work of building proper roads for which construction material was transported on donkey and camel carts,” she added. Incidentally, the school, anganwadi and panchayat buildings at Rampur Mewada only came up after Damor took charge.

Of the many notable achievements of this three-time sarpanch, the one that is closest to her heart are the steps she took to stop the migration of children to the neighbouring state of Gujarat to work on BT cotton farms, which had uprooted them from their homes, denied them their schooling and severely affected their health. She said, “This was a grave issue before our community. I called the agents and took them to task. Then I brought these child workers into the mainstream by ensuring that they were enrolled in the local school.”

For Damor, ensuring development in a region that usually resists any form of change was not easy. During her over-a-decade-long tenure, she has faced opposition on various fronts. Her re-election for a third term in 2010 when Rampur Mewada was declared an open seat was particularly challenging – but her determination to make a difference remained undeterred. “All the men had ganged up against me. At every election meeting they would say, ‘If a woman wins a third time, it would be a grave insult to the men.’ This negativity brought the women together and I won with a thumping majority,” she recalled proudly.

This never-say-die attitude of a dynamic grassroots leader struck a chord with Bachelet. As she addressed a packed auditorium of elected women representatives from India, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan, besides special guests who had gathered for the day-long summit, Bachelet hailed Damor for her perseverance, “Bhavana Damor from Dungarpur district is serving her third consecutive term as sarpanch. Bhavana faced stiff competition from the male candidates who were determined to win and end female leadership in the council. But she was not deterred. On the contrary, she did what women have always done [in difficult situations, she rolled up her sleeves and kept working – so girls and boys could go to school and women could read and write, so roads were built and villagers could have clean water and sanitation. The women in her village rallied behind her and she won. Bhavana, congratulations!”

South Asia, with a population of 1.7 billion people and 1.5 million villages, has an estimated three million elected representatives. Half, or 1.5 million, of them are women. India, with 1.3 million elected women representatives, has the largest number. According to Bachelet, spirited leaders like Damor are “forces of change” and elected women across the globe can become stronger if women support each other.

When women stand on their own feet, it augurs progress for the entire community. Nothing illustrates this better than the transformation that Sarangi village in Durgarpur district has seen with Phoondi Bai Meda as its sarpanch. This adivasi (tribal) woman and mother of three daughters and a son, started out as a ‘panch’ (village council member) in the gram panchayat. Though her father-in-law was against her contesting the election – he taunted her for having the audacity to consider herself an equal to the menfolk – she had the support of the villagers. Meda won with the highest margin – 65 votes.

In the next elections, Sarangi was declared a reserved seat so Meda became the sarpanch. But then in January 2009, when it was polling time again, she contested from a general seat and defeated six male candidates. She won convincingly with a margin of 170 votes. “I am happy that despite being a tribal I not only stood firm against opposition at home, but also overcame the barrier of illiteracy to be a successful grassroots leader,” said Meda at the summit.

Phoondi, who never went to school herself but made sure that her three daughters received the same level of education as her son, has been working to solve her village’s severest problem – shortage of drinking water. Besides this, the time disbursement of pension for widows has been an important priority for her.

In India, elected women in PRIs have been slowly winning the trust of their people and their growing numbers only go to prove that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals. Appreciating the progress that women are making in the South Asian region Bachelet said, “I am an ardent supporter of temporary special measures such as quotas for ensuring women’s equal participation. South Asian nations have promoted women’s political participation through the system of reserved seats in legislatures and local councils. In that sense the experiment has been successful.”

To enable women to do their work efficiently agencies like UN Women have been providing them with trainings to strengthen their leadership skills. In India, it has collaborated with the government to train nearly 67,000 elected women representatives to become effective leaders at all levels of local governance. Training apart, a Gender Responsive Governance Index to track the progress made by women leaders has also been put in place. Now the virtual centre for excellence stands to increase synergy between elected women, trainers, policymakers and researchers in the South Asian region.

Rampur Mewada surely stands to benefit from this. Damor, whose mission for the future is to achieve universal literacy for women in her village, can do with all the support she can get. She believes that one hour should be set aside on the work sites of the government’s rural employment guarantee programme to hold literacy classes for women. “Once the women of my village are educated I know there will be no stopping them,” she asserted.

Her tenure as sarpanch may end but her involvement with the panchayat will not. She said, “In the future I may or may not hold a position in the panchayat but I will always serve my people.”

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