Gender Justice | VOL. 14, ISSUE 82, January-February 2014

Engendering local governance

‘The most stringent test of any exercise in democratic decentralisation is, of course, the actual powers and functions that are devolved to democratic institutions at the local level. We see that it is in only a handful of states—Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal, that significant or complete devolution has been achieved…. and suggest that if women are adequately empowered through a political process, they would have enhanced capabilities for decision making, which, in turn, would be reflected in the quality of participation, impacting performance as well as their personal development’ —Study on EWRs in panchayati raj institutions, 2008, Ministry of Panchayati Raj.

The study of governance focused around ‘…the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development’, —World Bank 1992. However, it was obvious that citizens had no role in determining the governance agenda through a democratic process (N G Jayal, 2003, Locating gender in the governance discourse, UNDP). Thus, such a definition was limited in its approach, and overlooked many aspects of the concept of ‘good governance’. Good governance is no longer simply equated with service reform, but stresses on participation, decentralisation, accountability, and governmental responsiveness emphasising substantive aspects such as quality and multiplicity of actors involved in the process of governance, as important dimensions along with social equity and justice.

The 73rd Amendment Act, 1992, gave recognition to local bodies as institutions of self-governance indicating that people’s participation is sine qua non for realising the goal of self governance. Sweeping changes in the rural landscape were visible as women from all communities competed to become members of executive bodies of the panchayat. Despite India having more elected women representatives (EWRs) than all other countries put together, their participation is still limited due to discrimination, lack of access to information, illiteracy, the double burden faced by women at work and at home, deeply etched inequalities, social stigmas, political barriers and limited efforts to equip elected women leaders with requisite skills (UNDP, 2009, ‘Helping women lead change’). Regardless of being in power, EWRs cannot truly engender governance and fully represent women’s issues without knowledge about the panchayat planning process and resources available. The planning process itself is technical in nature, requiring in-depth comprehension of panchayat activities, conducting situational analysis, prioritising needs, creating a vision document for the panchayat, understanding the resource envelope to conduct resource mapping for panchayat plans, projectising the wish list in the gram sabha into actual projects with budgets and sources of funds, and finally creating panchayat plans. All this requires capacity building, networking, exposures and diverse strategies and support systems in place for effective participation. Thus for women, diverse inputs along with strong social support is the need of the hour.

 

Increasing women’s voice in governance

‘Governments would do well to recognise how the two issues are linked: violence against women acts as a structural barrier to women’s participation in politics and public life. Indeed, women are often placed at increased risk of violence the further they move into public life and politics. The relationship between the two needs to be tackled for either to make any progress’—Destined to Fail? How violence against women is undoing development, ActionAid, 2010.

The relationship between gender and governance has various dimensions, and some key concepts that need mention include the links between public-private spheres, the nature of women’s participation in national politics, the strategies developed for such participation by civil society organisations and the affirmative action played by the state in promoting a gender responsive governance structure in India.

Women’s participation in governance should be viewed in the context of how they are socialised in gendered terms, implying the importance of masculine or feminine roles wherein masculinity is associated with the public, outside space while femininity with the private, domestic realm. This dichotomy, though often transformed by women, implies that to expose oneself outside the domestic space is to risk one’s reputation as she may be faced with violence or sexual assault. Men have also made use of these norms to discourage women’s infiltration in public spaces, and justify their decisions of preventing women from engaging in various types of public or social actions. The association between violence and women’s political participation is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideas due to which women are subdued in accepting responsibilities in public offices. In most places, violence is deliberately used to target, control, penalise and silence women who are active in the public arena and politics.

Women’s participation in political processes encompasses a wide range of actions and strategies. These may include processes that entail

  • occupying public spaces from private – entry into the governing bodies such as voting and voter education and applying for candidacy;
  • change from descriptive representation, to substantive representation – once elected, strengthen their performance through capacity building training programmes for improving in governance related matters, actively raising a ‘voice’ against anti-women issues, regular attendance in meetings, lending support to candidates and groups who carry gender-sensitive agenda, and at times campaigning against groups who have policies that discourage women;
  • personally transformative representation, and a responsive governance structure – an ability to deliver or table women’s issues in formal meetings effectively as officiating members of local governance systems.

All of these diverse activities are vulnerable areas where women face different forms of targeted violence. Additionally, economic dependence can lead to various forms of violence, and its ensuing insecurity acts as a barrier towards active political participation.

The panchayat in Karnataka noted that many members are approached with problems of resolving conflict and violence cases, but most retain gender-biased ideas about resolving it. In Uttarakhand, women have found it difficult to bring issues of violence in the panchayat agenda, despite support from collectives. Panchayat Jagratha Samitis, Kerala, were formed in 2007 to address women’s issues for out-of-court settlement, thus avoiding unnecessary litigations. As more and more countries move towards women’s effective political participation, mechanisms to promote women’s involvement in politics and to ensure their protection from any violence are essential components for moving forward.

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