Power in Her Hands: The Women Political Leaders of Rural West Bengal

Sita Natua, a 48-year-old lady from Dakshin Raipur, West Bengal got married at a tender age of 18. Before she could adjust in the new household, she was already bearing her first child. A mother of three children (two sons aged 30 and 27 years and 1 daughter, aged 28 years), Sita’s life has always been under her husband’s shadow. “I am a woman. People thought what can I do? They underestimated me. I didn’t have any importance in the family or society,” recalls Sita.

Sita’s story was no different than the millions of rural women of the country. But things changed for good. She took control of not just her life, but of many other women of her village. She became a political leader and positively influenced many women. Working as a Convenor of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare Sub Committee in the Gram Panchayat, Sita has come a long way.

“Today, when I address the crowd and talk about development, they applaud me. I feel very different now. In my family, my children recognise that I hold a respectable position in the society and so they are concerned about their behaviour too,” Sita said.

She has gained a respectable position when it comes to political leadership. She now aims to achieve a higher office in the political sphere. Her next target is to contest elections. She says even if she doesn’t get a ticket, she will remain connected with the party and work towards winning the election some day. “There are so many incomplete tasks that I want to finish once I come in the power,” she said with a confidence in her eyes. “My target is to strengthen the SHGs and link them to the government programmes,” she added.

Sita has been actively working to address issues like early marriage, illegal alcohol and domestic violence in her locality.

The positive impact of her hard work is clearly visible. She claims that earlier when men were in charge, there was no regularity in monitoring the work. Sita makes sure she performs her duties diligently. She makes regular home visits to check school dropouts, she even installed tube well and toilets in a school. In addition, she got an ambulance for pregnant women, which has reduced the number of babies delivered at home.

There were times when issues like violence against women and liquor dens were handled by SHG women in their own capacity. These small actions were not enough to resolve such massive issues. Now with more exposure and women coming ahead in the political space, these issues are brought to the Gram Panchayat and are resolved in a more systematic way.

However, coming this far was not easy. Especially for ladies like Sita, who were never taken seriously.

“I was terrified. I could not understand much about the GP. I used to attend the GP meetings because deep down I wanted to learn and get more information,” said Sita.

Gathering courage to become a leader is not the only issue for these women. Bigger struggles lie within the family. Mostly husbands take the decision on behalf of their wives.

“The husbands come to the GP, understand issues in their own capacity and decide or change decisions. How can women protest against their own family members? The first 1-2 years were very difficult for me,” Sita said.

Sita got more confident with each passing day. She did not let these hurdles stop her from being the changemaker she wanted to be. And soon, the positive change was visible.

“The more visible you become, the more support you will get from the party. I experienced this. Taunting by people has also decreased, now people say good things about me. I have become quite popular,” she said.

“Stop letting men take decisions on our behalf”

Kashmira Bibi is another leader who has been bringing a positive change in her locality by her active participation in the politics. This 33-year-old fearless lady from Thiba Gram Panchayat, Birbhum is the Convenor of Women and Child Welfare sub committee. A grade nine pass out, Kashmira has been able to resolve the delayed and deep-rooted issues of her village. She has built good contacts and networks with the government officials.

“The first 2 years were very problematic. I lacked confidence, kept thinking who will support me. My biggest fear was how will I maintain the respect of the chair and was constantly scared of making a mistake. Today, people tell me that I am helping them. My popularity has increased, people show respect. My family too has started giving me more respect,” Kashmira said.

Kashmira has intervened in the serious cases of domestic violence and brought the much needed justice to the women. In spite of not being educated much, Kashmira has been able to perform her duties in a very organized and sharp way. She regularly visited Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres and prepared a list of problems. She then presented this list in the GP and followed up with the ICDS every two months to track the progress. Many of the issues identified by her found a place in the GP Annual Action Plan.

While working towards the issues of domestic violence, Kashmira faced many issues, including harassment and verbal abuse. But this did not deter her. She took the matter to the police station and fought for the right thing.

“We live in a patriarchal society where boundaries are set for us, we feel there is no choice. With women finding the courage and with 5 women together, these boundaries can be pushed,” she said.

She feels more women should come up and take part in the politics at the grassroots level. She says that women should stop letting men take decisions on their behalf when it comes to politics in rural areas.

“It is not enough to have a weapon, you have to use it.”

Dayamoy Das has been doing impressive work as Panchayat Samiti Member in Labpur Block, Birbhum. He is one of those rare men who have been fighting to give women their due powers. He has been actively working in politics for past 20 years. His experience has taught him many crucial things to survive in the field.

“It is not enough to have a weapon, you have to use it and the continuous usage will give it sharpness. Gender quota is like that-it exists officially, but without political will, it will not work. Is there a fear that men will lose their power? Our Chief Minister is a woman. Does that mean that women in the state are wielding power? Social work from positions of power needs to be done by rising above gender politics,” said Dayamoy.

How did it all begin?

Anindita Majumdar

The positive transformation was triggered by Kolkata based Anindita Majumdar, who has been actively working to improve and strengthen the participation of elected women representatives of India’s Gram Panchayat System.

After working with women undertrials and pursuing a career in the development sector for 16 years, Anindita realised that women did not have any role at the lowest level of the governance. Anindita started working with Loka Kalyan Parishad, a voluntary organizaton to bring a positive change in the lives of the lesser privileged community. There, she kickstarted the initiative to change the way women are treated at the lower level of governance.

“I always felt it is important to include women as voters, work directly with them and also men who were trying to control women,” Anindita said. She created a model to question the existing patriarchal power.

She started training women leaders to become more confident and better decision makers. Various capacity building and skill development programmes were introduced to empower women leaders. These programmes not only gave these women the right direction, but also helped in bringing their feminine qualities of the governance.

Anindita is not just addressing the women, but also men to assure women’s active participation in the governance. She has created a unique module to help men re-look their role. Often men “support” these women electives in a way that makes her completely dependent on him. Often the husband takes the decision on behalf of the female representative, making her purposeless as a public leader.

“Majority of the times women’s duties are restricted to look after the house and children. They would just sign on paper, but the actual decision was taken by the men. This is why we started a training program for both men and women,” said Anindita.

A Nari Jagran Committee was also set up to tackle the gender-based issues. The women of this committee are trained in laws, rights, gender issues and other aspects of governance. These committees are led by the women convenors who lead various initiatives to spread awareness and take action on various cases and conflicts.

The impact

“Earlier, when we entered these rural political spaces, men were always seen controlling these women. After the intervention, a clear shift in the attitude of women was visible. They started questioning these men. They told them ‘why should we always seek your permission before speaking and doing anything?’ This was a huge change,” said Anindita.

Gradually, women who were even reluctant to speak their mind started taking their own decisions. They started travelling alone and actively utilised their powers. They began regularly attending Gram Panchayat meetings and now some of the GPs have begun to make gender-responsive budgeting a reality.

In nine months of her work, Anindita has been able to work with 15 GP offices. About 52 percent of the total women elected representatives took initiatives to organize forums for citizens to voice their concerns. This was a great positive change as earlier, these forums would not take place at all. There is also a change in a larger narrative on the ground where various projects have been restructured and reframed with a gender focus. A local theatre group has also been formed to spread awareness about various issues.

“These women were not very resourceful, they were not educated, they were economically totally dependent and had small children. No one was mentoring them. This is where we played a key role,” said Anindita.

But the journey is long and it is still the beginning. The main challenge is to change the mindset of both men and women. In one of the workshops, one male opinion leader whose wife was a representative in a reserved seat said, “We purposely choose women who we know will lack confidence and are compliant.”

With the deep-rooted issues like male dominance in rural areas, it definitely is a rough journey ahead. But initiatives like these have proven to be successful and have potential to be replicated. Anindita has taken this initiative a step ahead through her newly formed organization EquiDiversity Foundation.

To know more about her incredible efforts and to collaborate, contact Anindita at -equidiversity@gmail.com.

Photos: Anindita Majumdar

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