In the past hundred years, since 15000 women marched through the New York city demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights, the hue of International women’s day has changed greatly. From breast beating about women’s right it has become a day of festivities. It has become another Mothers ‘day or Valentine day for most men to gift flowers, sweets and gifts to the women in their lives. For media it is another opportunity to harness revenue through advertisements and sponsorships. In this milieu, the real story is missed.
The real story is that, far away from the limelight and fanfare women are quietly but surely, empowering themselves whenever they get an opportunity. To sense that you have to keep your ears to the ground.
Panchayati Raj Institutions born out of the 73rd amendment to the constitution, a decade ago, has ensured one third of the seats in the grass root governance to women, through a mandated reservation. It means, no longer women have to wait for being given the bits and pieces of power by a gender biased patriarchal society, as a charity or out of sympathy, thanks to the vision of Rajiv Gandhi. Even if it has not turned gender relations and mindsets on its head, there cannot be two opinions that it brought in a prospect for feminisation of governance.
The agenda of women in office are far different from the agenda of men. They are more keen in building toilets in their villages rather than building Mandirs or Masjids. Having suffered for so many decades due to lack of safe drinking water, post natal health facilities, and immunization for their children, their priorities are naturally health, hygiene, nutrition, and sanitation and environmental protection. Many of them are beneficiaries of literacy, and hence are keen to improve upon the educational facilities available for their children. As modern woman they are yearning for mobility and that desire makes them demand road, bridges and other infrastructure. These women have demonstrated that the problems of the women can be better understood, articulated and remedial measures will be taken only by the women.
It is not without logic, the United Nations’ millennium Summit commits the member countries “to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable”
At the personal level, the very position she occupies, supported by a legal provision, helps her to redeem her self-esteem. Glowing with this self-esteem, today, many women leaders are refusing to be cowed down by feudal power centres or bureaucratic pressures. True in some cases it has led to confrontations but in many places it has brought in conciliation to emerging women power.
These new generation rural women leaders, who hardly moved out of their villages before, now have to interact with block level and district officials, out of necessity. This opens them up to vistas of information. More often they seek to know beyond their defined responsibilities. In an era where information is power, this acquired knowledge gives them the cutting edge. An informed woman not only metamorphoses herself but also transforms her home first and the village ultimately.
In search of a sure winner, political parties, approach these women leaders who have already carved their niche among the community through their work. This politicisation may make some of us weary and even cynical. But the flip side of this process is; it would, on a long run, provide a foothold for women in the higher echelons of politics. This is bound to raise the ambitions of our women, which if channelised and harnessed effectively, it could transform into a bundle of positive energy for the country.
The empowerment of women through Panchayati Raj has triggered another change in the mindset of the younger generation in the villages. They now see a different role model in their mothers, sisters, and other female relatives who are leaders in the grass root governance. The young girls in the villages now know that there could be life beyond the destined roles of mothers, sisters and daughters in law.
Hence, women’s empowerment is happening right here, but of course it is modest and unhurried. It has ample reasons to ‘celebrate’ International Women’s Day (IWD). International Women’s Days need no longer be patronizing and an excuse for our condescending attitude towards our women.
The New Indian Express March 8 2006