“When you believe, you refuse to give in,” says Anindita Majumdar, summing up her tireless struggle for female empowerment in politics. Changing the standard of democratic leadership in the Panchayat system, a key element of local governance since Indian independence, seemed impossible. But Anindita believed in her dream.

“Some well-known activists discouraged me and said that it will be impossible to work directly on this issue. This was some 4 years ago. I became associated with two rural based organizations – Loka Kalyan Parishad and Joygopalpur Gram Vikas Kendra – trying to implement a partnership project entitled ‘Capacity Building and Advocacy for a local participatory self-governance for poverty reduction through Information, Education and Communication’. The experience gained, revealed that it is possible to engage women in governance”, says Majumdar.

Currently, the Indian constitution reserves up to 50 percent of its seats for women at various levels of electoral office. This agenda to empower women through inclusion in politics has been central, but as the mandate moves to grassroots institutions such as Panchayat, the women representatives are often reduced to acting as intermediaries for their male counterparts or else, unaware of their own abilities or opportunities to effect changes, they are completely ineffective. That is where Majumdar’s work comes in.

“Even after 23 years of gender quota in practice, women in politics continue to be marginalized as men dominate and monopolize the decision-making institutions and processes. In one of the workshops, one important male opinion leader whose wife was a representative in a reserved seat said, ‘we purposely chose women who we know will lack confidence and are compliant’. Hence, I felt that this environment provided a huge scope to experiment and see where the interventions led us”, she remembers.

Hundreds of Indian women with brown skin wearing long and colorful sarees (typical dresses of their culture). Most are seated and, in the foreground, some are standing. They seem to be attending an outdoor performance or rally.

Campaign against illegal alcoholic drinks carried out by the Nari Jagran Committee, which was organized to tackle gender issues within the Panchayat system (Anindita Majumdar/Personal Archive)

As in many other parts of the world, Indian women face social barriers that impede their effective participation in politics. Double working hours, lack of support in raising children, lack of formal education, the prevalence of gender-based violence within the family (and outside of it) are all significant obstacles. Majumdar aims to change this. “The work aims to shift the pattern of democratic leadership by unlocking the potential of elected women representatives (EWR) of India’s vast Panchayat system, encouraging men to re-look at the notion for power sharing and ’supporting’ women and empowering the women voters to engage in the political processes,”Majumdar says.

The work to make gender equality an inextricable feature of local democracy is based primarily on four principles: Self-empowerment, and the creation of empathic environments, support networks and constituent structures. “Through advocacy and mentorship programs, this work not only builds the capacity of women to lead, but also builds a large support base for them through activated SHGs (Mobilized Women’s Groups). These women become informed voters and gain an awareness of what they’re entitled to from the local governing body,” says Majumdar.

There are seven Indian women wearing long and colorful sarees (typical dresses of their culture) standing on a makeshift wooden podium covered by a canvas roof. In the foreground, women and children, their backs to the camera, face the podium, sitting and watching. In the background are several houses and huts made of clay, some with thatched roofs.

The Nari Jagran Committee organizes and conducts a program to raise awareness of women’s rights (Anindita Majumdar/Personal Archive)

For Majumdar, working with male members of the Village Council, and with the community and political parties in general, is critical to gaining support in the quest for women’s leadership and representation, thereby creating a cultural and political ecosystem that not only supports but creates new female leaders. Women’s participation in governance has already helped to raise issues that concern them, such as the need for day-care centers, committees against gender-based violence, support for malnourished children, health and gender awareness programs, and other relevant issues.

An important strategy in training these leaders is to build women’s capacity to lead, but also to create a large base of support for them through self-help groups, male members of the panchayat who support the female leadership, and the community at large. Only then, according to Majumdar, will a cultural and political ecosystem emerge that not only supports but creates new women leaders.

“Women have huge potential to lead differently and effectively but such potential is difficult to realise without challenging the inherent patriarchy in the governance system,” she says.

A long, arduous, but possible journey for those who believe.

Anindita Majumdar is an Ashoka fellow. Ashoka is a worldwide organization present in 84 countries and leads a movement in which any individual can be responsible for positive social transformation.