The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003

Laws notwithstanding, women still weak
Ashu Pasricha

Gender Related Problems of Women, Women’s Empowerment and Panchayati Raj
by Neena Joseph. Himalaya Publishing House, New Delhi. Pages 218. Rs 450.

OVER the past few years, there has been an emerging consensus across political parties and ideological divisions on the necessity of decentralisation for fulfilling democratic aspirations of the Indian people. Despite differences in points of departure underlying this "consensus", it is a good time to go over the debate on decentralisation that preceded this consensus.

It is clear that the only alternative to a decentralised and genuinely democratic political system in a country like India is the gradual dissipation, erosion and ultimate disintegration of the states as well as the nation. There have already been many signs of this — the power of the regional satraps has increased, parochial tendencies of region and caste are very much on the upsurge, at lower levels contractors and wheeler-dealers in money and muscle power are in command. All in all, the authority of the Indian state is getting eroded at all levels.

The corrective to such a state of affairs will need to be conceived in terms that are organic rather than mechanistic. The real case for decentralisation rests not on the claims of territorial rights of juridical entities or political parties but on the comprehension, based on experience, that in a country like India, a centralised polity is incapable of dealing with an unjust social order, that it is inimical to the democratic political process, and that it is inherently unstable.


But a country cannot progress if half its population is enslaved in the kitchen. India, on attaining independence, was among the first few countries to grant universal franchise to women, on a par with men. It was presumed that here rights would automatically translate into the political life of the country. The issue of women’s participation in politics cannot be viewed in isolation from the general position of women in society. Political status refers to the degree of equality and freedom enjoyed by women in society and their involvement in shaping and sharing of power. Political participation is a process, while contesting elections is its highest form. Despite their vast strength, women occupy a secondary position in the political system. With a few exceptions, they have remained outside the domain of power, governance, decision-making bodies and political authority. This is precisely the central theme of the book by Neena Joseph.

The 73rd constitutional amendment providing one-third representation to women in elected bodies as well as reserving one-third of the offices of chairpersons for them will have far-reaching consequences in Indian political and social life. This is indeed a welcome, though delayed, gesture, for we cannot make democracy meaningful in a traditional society like ours without the full involvement of women. But a constitutional provision is only a necessary step, which should be followed by effective measures for women’s uplift in the country. To make women’s participation in society and politics a reality, enormous work remains to be done, given their present socio-economic condition.

In India, women-friendly development remains a myth. The indicators for women’s development present a pathetic picture despite all the rhetoric. It is quite frustrating to see the clock turn back in our country. The glorious traditions of more than a century and a half of the nineteenth century, the Gandhian ideology of women’s emancipation, the guarantees provided by the Constitution of India for gender equality, everything goes in vain, widening the gap between rhetoric and reality.

The book also brings into relief many gender-related problems, including the issue of gross under-representation of women in political leadership and the problems women face in the exercise of leadership at a local level.

Women’s emancipation is put forth as the solution to gender-related problems. Various empowerment models are elaborated and the quintessence of these models is generalised with the message that an eclectic approach is needed to tailor-make an empowerment model suited to the context.

The achievements of several empowered women are described in the book. The complexity of the task involved in empowering the multitude of women is described, the ample opportunity to empower women in panchayats detailed and the moral responsibility of women leaders to work for women’s advancement is underlined. The necessity and legitimacy of reservation of women in the local bodies is argued. The significance of gender sensitisation and the role of training in enhancing the effectiveness of women leaders is highlighted.

The arguments are supported by data. The case studies and observations quoted lead the readers to the reality of gender discrimination in day-to-day life, even at an emotional level. Although women’s empowerment is discussed in the background of Panchayati Raj, the ideas and logic expressed can be extended to any context where there is striving for women’s development and where there is exercise of female leadership.