In rural India, many important characteristics, such as equity and inclusiveness, have been ignored for many decades (Mosse, 2018). Even though women constitute nearly half of the total population in India, they are often excluded from local participation and public representation (Kumar, Dhamija, & Dhamija, 2016).
The Indian Constitution provides for the principle of gender equality in its preamble, and women’s equality is provided as a fundamental right. The constitution places obligations on the state to foster the same as part of its fundamental duty and to provide a definitive direction through well-thought-out policies and directions. However, there is still a long way to go even after more than seventy years of independence. Each day, the media is full of stories of atrocities against women. These issues are concentrated more in areas and communities that still accept the age-old concept of male superiority. The social and economic structure in rural India has not changed much over the years. Underemployment, casteism, and lack of education have a major role to play in the marginalization of women, particularly in rural areas.
The gender disparity, especially in rural India, is a glaring and grim reminder of the still rampant problem of gender discrimination. Women still have issues concerning financial exclusion and the lack of education opportunities, medical care, sanitation facilities, and more.
To address the issue of women’s equality and uplift their social status, the Government of India has made a concerted effort by way of laws, plans, and programs in various spheres, with the realization that the way forward is to shift the focus from welfare to development. Thus women’s empowerment has gained recognition as the core issue in uplifting the status of women.
The National Policy laid out the following goals and Women Empowerment objectives for 2001-
(i) Creating an environment through positive economic and social policies for the full development of women to enable them to realize their full potential;
(ii) The de-jure and de-facto enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom by women on equal basis with men in all spheres – political, economic, social, cultural, and civil;
(iii) Equal access to participation and decision-making of women in the social, political, and economic life of the nation;
(iv) Equal access of women to healthcare, quality education at all levels, career and vocational guidance, employment, equal remuneration, occupational health and safety, social security and public office, etc.
(v) Strengthening legal systems aimed at the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women;
(vi) Changing societal attitudes and community practices by active participation and involvement of both men and women;
(vii) Mainstreaming a gender perspective in the development process;
(viii) Elimination of discrimination and all forms of violence against women and the girl child; and
(ix) Building and strengthening partnerships with civil society, particularly women’s organizations.
The collective role of women elected representatives (WER) is a powerful instrument for local participation
A collaborative model of strengthening local participation of women was developed by S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation), in which women-elected representatives (WERs) of diverse institutions are trained and encouraged to collectively tackle problems of the village.
Sehgal Foundation teams have seen that the collective action of women representatives is an effective tool to solve problems related to the functioning of village-level institutions and also streamlining the delivery of government schemes in villages. The sustainable work done under this unique model has helped in overcoming problems of the villages of Nuh district in Haryana. The WLS (Women Leadership School) model developed by the S M Sehgal Foundation is now recognized as a powerful tool with the capacity to make a cumulative and radical change across 662,000 villages of India and the ability to harness the cumulative resources of neglected rural women.
The WLS uses a training guide that was developed for women leaders to follow and guide others to overcome challenges of patriarchy, upgradation of skills and information, and guide them in activities and projects that are undertaken at the village level. This guide is designed to facilitate WLS sessions, where trainers can organize capacity-building sessions to foster leadership qualities in women. An interactive twelve-session program uses group discussions, case study-based learning to inculcate bonding, improve leadership skills, and manage power dynamics. Women Leadership Schools have the capacity to lead transformative change in how governance processes and gender issues are looked at in India.
Also Read – Women’s Empowerment: A Means or An End?
S M Sehgal Foundation’s Women Leadership Schools lead by example
To train women representatives in the villages of Nuh, S M Sehgal Foundation undertook training exercises for more than 400 elected representatives from twenty villages of different village-level institutions including the gram panchayat, school management committee (SMC), village health and sanitation committee (VHSNC), and Anganwadi workers. The representatives were trained about the functions of these institutions with a structured curriculum. The program encouraged these women representatives to take up leadership roles through collective action for the overall development of villages. The results have contributed significantly to tackling local issues at the village level. In addition, a feeling of inclusion and self-esteem was inculcated–the first step in breaking the patriarchal divide.
These women are now aware of schemes such as pensions (old-age, widow, handicapped, and deserted women), the public distribution system, Ayushman Bharat Yojana, labor card registration, Aapki Beti Hamari Beti, and many others. They are also informed about the work of village-level institutions like VHSNC, SMC, and PRI, and their role as members. Armed with this knowledge, women are taking more action at the village level. Often in a group, they go to different offices and meet officials and address the problems of the village.
Some initiatives taken by these women at the village level are discussed in detail.
AN INITIATIVE OF VILLAGE CLEANLINESS
Lack of wastewater disposal facilities was a common problem in the Gurnawat village. Dirty water was flowing onto the roads, due to inadequate wastewater disposal facilities, making the roads filthy. Women elected representatives (WERs) took the initiative to create wastewater disposal facilities. They approached the sarpanch of the village, Dayawati, and explained the problem villagers were facing on a regular basis due to the unclean surroundings. The sarpanch was cooperative, met the secretary, and heard the women. Funds for the construction of nine soak pits were sanctioned within just a month. Right after the sanctioning of funds, a meeting was held among the WER to identify the areas to construct soak pits in the village. Pregnant women and children faced difficulties accessing the Anganwadi center as the roads were full of filthy water. However, since the construction of a soak pit in close proximity to the center, accessibility has been smooth.
According to the villagers, the construction of soak pits helped in the reduction of filth on the roads. Although there was a soak well in the school for wastewater disposal, it was not enough for the school and was perpetually overflowing with dirty water over the entire school campus. The school teacher said that five soak pits constructed in the primary and middle school have solved the disposal problem and also controlled mosquito breeding to a great extent, and the area now seems neat and clean.
HAND PUMP INSTALLED IN THE SCHOOL
Water is a necessity for life. Primary schools in Utton village didn’t even have the basic amenities. A bore well in one of the schools had been dysfunctional for the past four years. Children carried water bottles from home. The cook at school found it difficult to fetch water for cooking and cleaning the utensils. Hence, the water to cook the mid-day meals was arranged by the families living close to the school.
This challenge was discussed in a WER session with the school teachers, where they learned that the school had no funds to install a hand pump. In the next few days, there were meetings and discussions between all WER members, the sarpanch, and the school authorities regarding the issues faced by the students due to the unavailability of drinking water at the school. The sarpanch assured that the school would be provided with adequate funds for the construction of a hand pump. A hand pump was installed in the school in June 2019, with the assistance of the school teachers. Now the teachers and students are content due to the free access to clean drinking water from the hand pump. The parents of the students also realized that it was primarily due to the initiative of women’s groups in the village that the water problem in the school was solved.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF SUB HEALTH CENTER
In village Kharkhari, due to the lack of local-level health facilities, villagers had to walk all through blocks for small health needs and for vaccination purposes. Discussions with women representatives revealed that to operate all the services, including an Anganwadi worker, ASHA, and ANM, the Anganwadi center in the village was too small. Hence, pregnant women and small children had to go to Taoru village to avail the services. The sarpanch understood the problem of the village and proposed the construction of a sub-health center in the village in 2016. However, permission was not granted. After the constitution of WER in 2019, initiating the construction of a sub-health center was the first common problem raised by the women representatives.
These women representatives approached the sarpanch once again on behalf of the WER, drafted an application with the signature of all the elected representatives, and submitted it to the sarpanch. One acre of the panchayat land was then allotted by the sarpanch for the construction of the sub-health center. The research team of S M Sehgal Foundation met the sarpanch to discuss the proceedings. The quality work of WER for village development, especially the initiative undertaken by women representatives for the construction of sub health centers in the village, was much appreciated by the sarpanch.
Also Read – Enriching Women’s Healthcare Toward Equity & Empowerment
S M Sehgal Foundation is leading the way in rural transformation through inclusive development
S M Sehgal Foundation is a rural development NGO that has been working to improve the lives of rural communities in India for more than twenty years. Led by a vision that every person deserves to lead a more secure, prosperous, and dignified life, it has embarked on a mission to strengthen community-led development initiatives to achieve positive social, economic, and environmental change across rural India.
S M Sehgal Foundation creates an ecosystem of programs to address rural India’s most pressing needs of water management, agriculture development, local participation and sustainability, school transformation and outreach for development. Thus, S M Sehgal Foundation works with local communities across rural India to understand and alleviate their problems. Inclusion and gender participation across the entire community is of paramount importance in every effort. To achieve all-around development for marginalized communities, S M Sehgal Foundation supports gender parity by ensuring inclusivity in all its programs.
The Indian Constitution emphasizes the principle of gender equality in its preamble and enshrines women’s equality as a fundamental right. It places obligations on the state to promote gender equality as part of its fundamental duty and through well-designed policies.
Despite constitutional provisions, gender disparities persist in rural areas due to deeply rooted beliefs in male superiority, lack of changes in the social and economic structure, underemployment, caste-based discrimination, and limited access to education opportunities and healthcare.
Women in rural India face multiple challenges, including financial exclusion, limited access to education opportunities, inadequate medical care, lack of sanitation facilities, and more, all of which contribute to their marginalization.
The Government of India has made concerted efforts through laws, plans, and programs to address women’s empowerment and gender equality. The focus has shifted from welfare to development, recognizing women’s empowerment as a core issue in improving their social status and reducing gender discrimination.
The National Policy for the Empowerment of Women in 2001 set out clear goals and principles to make life better for women in India –
- Helping Women Achieve Their Best: The policy aimed to create an environment where women can grow and reach their full potential.
- Equal Rights for Women: It wanted women to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as men in all aspects of life – be it politics, jobs, culture, or civil matters.
- Women in Decision-Making: The policy wanted women to have a say in important decisions about society, politics, and the economy.
- Equal Opportunities: Women should have the same chances as men in healthcare, education, jobs, pay, safety, and public roles.
- Legal Protection: Laws should be strong to stop any unfair treatment of women.
- Changing Society’s View: It wanted to change how society thinks about women and the way it acts towards them. Both men and women should be part of this change.
- Including Women’s Views in Development: The policy asked for a focus on women’s needs and views in the development of the country.
- No Discrimination or Violence: Women should not face discrimination or violence, and these problems should be tackled.
- Working Together: The policy said everyone, including women’s groups, should work together to make these goals a reality.