Thursday, December 16, 2010

Women's reservation in Panchayats

Of all the 13 women members in the Bidar Zilla Panchayat, Vice President Meenakshi Sangram is the only one who answers her phone. Voters’ experience with other women members has been different.
When people dialed the number of other women members, it was their husbands who picked up the phone and spoke, without letting the women handle the issue.

``Men think I am aggressive and dominant. But I just want to say I like to make my presence felt,’’ says Ms Sangram. The Congress leader who has ambitions of being the ZP president, is fighting the polls again from Kamal Nagar in Aurad taluk.

But she seems to be an exception. Usually, male relatives tend to sideline women members in rural and urban local bodies. When The Hindu spoke to women ticket aspirants from various parties, it was invariably the men who wanted to comment. ``You tell me what kind of a reaction you are looking for. I will call you back with the comment,’’ said a JD(S) ticket aspirant’s son, without passing on the phone to the lady.

This has led to a widespread opinion that increasing women’s seats in Panchayats does not help the cause of women as their male relatives are the ones who actually rule. Some people also say not enough women are politically inclined to seek tickets.

``Women are just pawns in the hands of politically ambitious men,’’ says BJP district president Subhash Kallur. ``For example, yesterday we were discussing about the claims by three leaders for a seat reserved for women, and we ended up discussing about their husbands. No one in the party office even knew the names of women candidates. It is the same in every party,’’ he said.

``Increasing women’s reservation is an ambitious move. But it will take time before the benefits are visible,’’ says Khaji Arshed Ali, Congress MLC and Editor of the Hindi Daily Bidar Ki Awaaz.

``Presently, the Panchayat elections are just another of the battles between men. They use the names of women for elections as women’s reservation is mandated by law,’’ he said. He feels it will be some time before women learn the ropes of politics and governance and don’t yield to pressures by men at home.

``We have been telling men to leave the women members alone and let them take decisions. But men don’t want to give up so soon,’’ says JD(S) leader and MLA Bandeppa Kashempur.

But women leaders and activists disagree.

``Who are saying there are no women candidates? The men are saying it. That is because they refuse to look around,’’ says NGO activist Kavita hushare. ``In Bidar district alone, women are successfully running many NGOs and all SHGs. Then why are men assuming women can not run Panchayats? Women can definitely do that if they are allowed to,’’ she says.

Congress leader Draupadi Dandin sees this as a conspiracy by men to retain power.
``Just as MLAs and IAS officers don’t want to empower Zilla Panchayats, men don’t want to empower women,’’ she said. ``Therefore, even if you increase women’s reservation to 100 per cent, it will not help women. What is needed is a change of heart among men,’’ she said.

``The arguments that women would be less corrupt than men or that they could be better administrators and managers are true. But then, these qualities can be exhibited only when women are allowed to function independently. Which man wants to do that?’’, says Shakuntala Beldale, BJP state women’s wing president.

JD(S) leader and former ZP president Rajashree Shrikanth Swamy says reservation should stay for some decades till the system settles down. ``Men should get accustomed to the fact that women can take decisions affecting their lives and that it is a natural process. Till then, reservation should stay,’’ she said. She says the 50 per cent quota for women is justified. ``If half the voters are women, why can’t half the elected representatives be women?,’’ she said.
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