Since India’s independence, the Panchayat system has served as the building block of local governance in villages. Despite the mandate that this body must elect women to half its seats, the role of women in local governance has been relegated to being mere figure-heads, without the power to effect change. Anindita is challenging the inherent patriarchy in the governance system to activate women’s participation in decision-making to make local governance truly representatives of the interests of their voters.
The New Idea
Anindita Majumdar is shifting the pattern of democratic and truly representative leadership by unlocking the potential of elected women representatives of India’s vast PRI (Panchayati Raj Insitutions) system. On one hand, she is empowering elected women Panchayat leaders to govern well, by learning how to take public consensus, budgeting, doing monitoring and being accountable to the public, which is increasing the credibility of women leaders to the voters. On the other hand, she is preparing the political machinery to receive women leaders and support their political careers, by investing in women’s leadership within political parties to increase their own chances of winning elections.
Anindita is working with a variety of stakeholders in the community, from local self help groups, to political parties, voters, and both men and women, to illuminate the role that gender plays in democratic governance. She actively does this through the lens of gender to make the systems institutionally reflective of and conducive to this shifting power dynamic. Through her advocacy and mentorship programs, Anindita not only builds the capacity of women to lead, but also builds a large support base for these women leaders through activated self-help groups, male Panchayat members, members of political parties and the community at large. By doing so, Anindita is building a cultural and political ecosystem that not only supports, but creates new women leaders.
Anindita has chosen to start her work in West Bengal because there is stable government in place that is predicted to be in power for at least the next 5 years. Thus providing her with a sufficient window of time to affect change in the state. Going forward, she plans to replicate her work in other states, starting with those where the ruling party in West Bengal has alliances. This is done so that the party can convince their allies that investing in women leadership led to better governance and a winning party.
Women’s equality has continued to grow in prominence as the national conversation and political and sociological agendas, have been ‘put into effect’ by well-drafted aspects of India’s constitutional mandate.
The Indian Constitution currently reserves up to 50 percent of its seats for women at various levels of electoral office; women’s political participation as a route to gender-equity has been a well-received strategy. As of 2011, the President of India, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha were all women.
While the agenda of women’s empowerment through inclusion in politics and governance has been central, by the time this mandate trickles down to the grassroots institutions like the Panchayat, women representatives are often reduced to proxies for their male counterparts or are completely ineffective because they are unaware of their own capacities or opportunities to effect change. In the cases where they do hold public office, their leadership style is “masculine”, and the issues they work on are those that male members of the community care about more, rather than issues that affect society as a whole, like domestic violence, child malnutrition. According to a survey conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (along with the UN Women 70% of the GP members of one district said that no women-related discussions were raised in most GP meets. When they were
raised, most of the issues prioritised were either in the context of practical gender needs or available schemes. All other issues were raised by less than 10% of both male and female members. Less than 10% office members reported the issues that the women from their community had raised issues specific to domestic violence in these meetings.
On one hand Anindita is creating a supply of strong women leaders who can enter the Panchayat Raj Institution and govern well, and on the other, she is creating a demand for women leaders by showing political parties the benefit of investing in women leadership, and how they can create political careers for women within their party to increase their party’s chances of winning.
In order to create a strong base of capable women leaders for the Panchayat, Anindita is doing three things– self-empowerment of women, creating an empathetic environment for them to thrive in, and creating support networks for them.
Anindita works with women elected representatives of the Gram Panchayat offices (village level office of PRI) and community leaders on primarily four things: understandings of gender (in relation to themselves and the society), their capacities and opportunities to contribute to social development, leadership and the practical aspects of political participation. Initially, she conducts focus group discussions with these women to understand how they’re currently placed as women in their society, and what their mental, emotional and physical conditioning has been in regards to this. Once the women start gaining confidence and understand their feminine strength as leaders, they are trained in the governance system, like calling Gram Sabha (village community meetings) and gaining public consensus on priority issues for the village to address, creating budgets, accessing state funds, implementing the work like building roads, menstrual hygiene classes for adolescent girls, and doing bimonthly monitoring meetings with voters. Anindita’s local team also continues offering mentorship and support in advocacy efforts to these women decision-makers, in the initial parts of their transformative journey.
Secondly, she works with leaders of Self Help Groups, clusters and sub-clusters to create a supportive base for elected women leaders. Anindita leverages the existing SHG networks to form pools of collective support by activating their understanding of gender equality as voters. She provides these leaders with similar modules that the elected representatives have used, (the tools and language to ingrain an understanding of gender conceptually and politically), and has them work on these with self-help groups within the community. She enables them to activate a working understanding of gender equity and female representation of the citizen’s side of the democracy, making the community members actual support systems (collective power) for the women elected representatives. These women become informed voters, gaining awareness of what they’re entitled to from the local governing body. They also become active implementers of a number of developmental projects—that the women Panchayat leaders initiate--because of their increased interest in participation. Furthermore, in doing so a gender-sensitive aspect is brought into each project that is implemented (for example, menstrual sanitation in health).
Through these workshops, Anindita is training SHG groups, women community leaders and elected representatives to lead strategic structural changes within the institutional structures and practices of PRIs. These women have brought about changes in how budgets are planned, prioritised and allocated, to reflect more gender-sensitive budgeting and planning within all departments. They have also voiced issues that haven’t actively been raised before, such as domestic violence, creating new committees within the GP system to deal with such issues.
Anindita also sees these women (both community leaders and self-help group members), as the supply chain for more future women leaders to emerge during Panchayat seat rotations, their political empowerment readying them for when the time comes.
To prepare the political machinery to receive these women leaders, Anindita works with male elected representatives and male-opinion leaders, having them accept and even actively seek out women
leadership and representation. She conducts workshop and training sessions on leadership styles, on the effect patriarchy has had on the male and female genders and the role gender-equitable governance could play in catalysing social development. For example, one session asks men to think of their earliest memory in which they understood that they were male, and to think about what this earliest memory could be for women. This activity makes them realise that their early memories, like being told not to cry, are just as negative for the women as most related to being told not to go out on their own. Both genders are victims of patriarchy, and it is also in the interest of men to create a gender equitable society.
In order to spread this method of gender-equitable governance, Anindita and her team advocate with the administrative officers (government employees) and political party leaders so that their model can be included within their operational plans for PRI elected representatives. From awareness created by both her team and Panchayat staff, Gram Panchayats register for capacity development and awareness workshops and mentorship posts. Anindita’s team hands over the responsibility of finding participants to these GP staff or heads. She has found that all tiers of the Panchayat systems, have been interested in utilising her intervention and have therefore been proactive in summoning participants. They’ve found that activating these women has resulted in a catalytic effect on development projects within the village, with 30% more budget being utilised by the Panchayats for development projects, almost double the funds channelized towards addressing women’s issues. Political parties have noticed this and that their voter base has been strengthened by the increasing development in the villages, and are interested in engaging with the agenda of women’s active political participation.
Anindita used the results of the latest Panchayat elections, where the women leaders she had worked with outperformed male leaders from both all parties, convincing the leading party in West Bengal to invest in building leadership through women at the Panchayat level, and thus making their own party more “winnable.”
Statistical impact metrics by Anindita’s team have shown Anindita’s work to be increase political participation in women. In the 9 months that she’s been working with 15 Gram Panchayat offices, 52% of the total women elected representatives took initiatives to organize Gram Sansad Sabhas (constitutional forums for citizens to voice their issues), as opposed to the common scenario where these GSSs don’t take place at all. In these, more than 60% women voters participated and submitted plans for development, bring gender issues in the forefront, as opposed to a time when women wouldn't even turn up to such events. Budgets, departmental structures and development projects have been reframed and redrawn with a gender-focus. There is also a change in the larger narrative on ground – with women (and their increased confidence and skill) at all PRI levels (representatives elected by local communities, for the three different levels of PRI decision making) showing stakeholders at all levels, that gender inclusive decision-making results in lasting social development, instead of simply peripheral infrastructural development.
Anindita sees this work scaling through the active uptake and propagation of her model by the different stakeholders in it. For instance, community members and leaders (elected representatives, conveners and informal) have initiated the idea of sharing their awareness and learning with GPs outside the scope of Anindita’s work. Political party leaders have expressed interest in using her intervention to scale it in other GPs through their own members elected there, to increase their electoral chances and their party’s contribution to the community’s development.
Anindita grew up with a sister, and no male siblings. She never experienced any direct discrimination from her parents – but whenever she and her sister did something that made them proud – their mother would tell them that she was pleased because they’d done something as wonderfully as boys would. She watched her sister conforming to pre-set gender roles, that sparked the rebel in her. The aspiring and eager child that she was, encouraged her to be more like a boy, associating her growing
physical and emotional strength to that of a boy’s. However, much to her disappointment in the longer run no matter how hard she tried, she realised that she simply wasn’t being a good enough boy. She decided that she would explore her strength not from an external direction – that of society’s and her family’s, but from her own self. She directed her understanding internally, and she got increasingly comfortable and stronger in her own skin – that of a woman.
She initially worked as a case worker and offered legal aid for inmates in correction homes and then in Ashoka Fellow Anuradha Kapoor’s organisation Swayam. Having worked there for 12years, she realised the futility in legal aid – offering help that would silence the symptoms but failed to keep the problem from repeating, or actually being solved. Also, at her time in Swayam, she found that there were groups within the community, that were powerful within themselves – but didn’t know where to proceed beyond that. Anindita was of the understanding that all the work around the gender space, wouldn’t actually amount to anything for the long term unless the core issue itself were to be addressed. She understood this core issue to be how decision making for society took place – governance. Hence she found herself engrossed in the newly emerging conversation around the country at that time, of gender-based reservation quotas – and down the line, working towards creating a gender equitable society through gender-equitable governance.