Bhubaneshwar, India — A single, Dalit woman from the tribal Gajpati district in Odisha, Sochara Karzi has made great strides since her appointment as a sarpanch (head of village council). She has ensured that almost 4000 farmers got free maize seeds, 200 people received jobs cards under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 500 acres of land were planted with mango trees, 3000 people gained access to fresh drinking water and 200 people received pension under the government’s old age pension scheme.
Leadership by women like Karzi is made possible because 33 percent of seats have been reserved for women in village-level local governments in all the states of India. Recently the State Government has enacted a law reserving at least 50 percent of the seats for women. Although women like Karzi are coming forward to participate in political affairs at all levels of governance, they face many challenges. There is an imperative to reform unsupportive laws, reduce the threat of violence against women in politics, address lack of economic empowerment, and change the patriarchal attitudes and culture which discourage them from contesting elections.
In response to these challenges, UN Women signed an agreement with the Government of Odisha in July to strengthen equal political participation of women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (local decision-making councils) of Odisha.
The project “Promoting Women’s Political Leadership and Governance” will be implemented in the districts of Gajapati and Dhenkanal. Signing the agreement, Mr. Maheshwar Mohanty, Minister, Panchayati Raj Department, Government of Odisha, underscored the importance of training elected women representatives. “Till now the State Institute for Rural Development (SIRD) has trained 94,000 women, and in the forthcoming elections next year we need to see the impact of this training, as it helps in changing behaviors and attitudes,” he said.
The Odisha Government’s Department of Panchayati Raj and UN Women will work together to ensure that women candidates, after having won local elections, are aware of their power and rights. This will help to make public policy and resource allocation responsive to women’s rights.
“Currently, the SIRD has 100 trainers,” said Mr Pradeep Kumar Jena, Commissioner and Secretary, Panchayati Raj Department, Government of Odisha. “Through the programme, we wish to introduce gender issues in the trainings being imparted across the state. The programme will also help to upgrade the capacity of these State Institutes.”
Through the project, “motivators” will encourage women to attend village council meetings and discuss their concerns. “Undoubtedly, these discussions will bring forth solutions that improve the quality of life of women,” said Ms. Sushma Kapoor, UN Women’s acting Regional Programme Director. “The powers of Panchayati Raj Institutions will be used to make government agencies more accountable.”
UN Women, with its partners, assists women in village councils and encourages them to become more vocal as leaders in Panchayats (local governance councils). This in turn helps them assert themselves on a variety of issues like violence against women, and local budgets and plans.
Leading by example, Karzi does just that.
“Becoming a woman sarpanch (head of village council) has built my confidence to talk up, to work, to get things done and discuss issues with officials from all over,” asserts Karzi.