The direct political participation of Dalit Women in the local Governance (or Panchayati Raj) is a Human Right in itself. But this political participation demands accountability from the State and the non-State actors to guarantee and respect these women’s equal political voice and development.
An analysis was made to determine how Dalit Women are enabled to claim their rights to political participation in local governance and the extent to which this participation is an effective tool for empowerment and realization of Human Right for excluded social groups. The research has been carried out in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu on 200 Dalit Women, and it was aimed at answering 3 main questions:
1. Are Dalit Women able to access panchayat posts, exercise political power and authority?
2. What factors and structures facilitate or inhibit Dalit Women’s access participation and impact in Panchayati Raj?
3. What is the role of the various State institutions in preventing and responding to obstructions against Dalit women in Panchayati Raj?
Access to the Panchayati Raj
Only 1/3 of 200 Dalit Women are able to act with dependence and freedom to win Panchayat elections. On the one hand, 85% are pushed by their husbands or the dominant castes, they become proxy politics.
This method is aimed at creating a legitimate political space for primarily dominant caste men and dalit men to exploit Dalit Women, and at getting the control through them. Dominant caste and dalit men help them to be elected and then take the control, menacing and threatening them. Moreover since these women have a livelihood dependency and a lack of sufficient financial resources for the election expenses, they accept the situation.
On the other hand, 12, 5% are discouraged from filing nominations (allegations, property destructions) and 14, 5% are forced or pushed to withdraw their nominations.
Finally, during the election process, Dalit women regularly face illegal practices: threatening, harassing or preventing the candidates or other Dalit from voting or entering the election booths.
Participation of Dalit Women in the Panchayat
3/4 of Dalit Women in the Panchayat are proxies (mostly for their husband) and they faced strong oppositions while attempting to work for the benefit of their community. Only 1/3 of 119 Dalit women elected president are able to discharge official responsibilities with freedom and independence.
Dalit Women are either not taken seriously. Indeed, when women are raising issues during the Panchayat meetings, it is rarely discussed or approved.
• Active obstruction and disabling factors for participation
There is a clear obstruction to Dalit Development. The Panchayat does not prioritize Dalit development needs and the dominant castes refuse to share the knowledge that could enhance women’s responsibilities and capabilities.
- 23% of Dalit Women are restricted by others from active participation in Panchayat council meetings.
Examples: Blocking the approval of development projects, delaying release, misappropriating development funds.
- Less than 1/3 of the women came from families with prior experience in Panchayat governance
- 37% of women president reported direct obstruction while undertaking their responsibilities.
- 90% of the Dalit Women elected representatives felt as treated differently from others, even when it deals with the utensil to eat, or glass and cups.
Only 18, 5% of Dalit Women president felt that they had a significant say in the distribution of development schemes. However they are most of the time only in charge of small projects for basic amenities (roads for example).
Moreover, another factor which disables Dalit Women to participate in the Panchayat is the influence of dominant caste people. Indeed, they are everywhere, they have contacts in the police, banks, district Panchayat, state assembly… And when women are chased away, no actions are taken, everyone refuse to provide them assistance. Often the Government officials are complicit in reinforcing dominant caste male power by adopting the role of neutral facilitators regarding Dalit Women’s political participation.
• A social impact on Dalit Women
Hopefully, some changes are happening, mostly at personal and family levels (more self confidence, improvement of leadership skills, more shared responsibilities for children, greater decision making power in family affairs), and overall they gain a greater freedom of speech.
However Dalit low status in the society doesn’t change, they are respected as president but not as Dalit Women.
The government of India should:
- Devolve greater functions funds and functionaries to Panchayat, institute quotas of Dalit in the local and district police forces and establish a specific office in each district acting as a support mechanism for Dalit
Give Gram Sabhas a greater power to monitor the functioning of Panchayat and decide on budgets and allocations of funds and other resources.
Concerning the economic development:
- Develop national perspective plans with explicit short and long term goals for the overall development of Dalit Women within fixed time bound targets and allocate separate funding for these plans
- Enforce land reforms
- Establish small fund to provide limited basic financial support for election costs
- Establish a minimum salary system for all Panchayat President posts and members’ post at the higher tiers.
Monitoring and accountability mechanism:
- Government official in charge of the Panchayati Raj should follow the work progress and check the accounts
- District collectors should organize monthly meetings with all the village panchayat president
- Organization of training programs for women
- Implementation of strict government rules to eradicate the presence of proxy candidates
- Every 5 years, evaluate the performance of the Panchayat institutions
Capacitation and support measures:
- Trainings for Dalit Women, form and strengthen the actual networks of Dalit Women Panchayat
- Widespread social education campaign through media
There are major weaknesses in the current interpretations and implementation of reservation in Panchayat Raj which reduce the ability of panchayat to fulfill core objectives of equitable development and social justice.
So, reforms must recognize that the political participation of Dalit Women can’t be viewed in isolation.
Creative ways must be explored, with Dalit Women and non Dalit Women, Dalit men, to capitalize on the success stories of Dalit women’s political leadership.
Efforts must lead to a supportive environment for these women’s political participation in order to transform access and control to and over resources and benefits in the society, promote human rights culture that itself demands a responsible governance and equality for all.