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Elected Women Representatives in the Panchayati Raj System

Internship project 2010 in Gujarat, India

Participants: Nina Schweizer, Linda Mülli

In cooperation with Mr. Rajesh Bhat, Matrusmruti Trust (MST), Ahmedabad, India

Main contents of the project: In India, the political system called Panchayati Raj, follows the principles of decentralization and participation through local institutions of self government. The 73rd Amendment attached to the Constitution in 1993 not only arranged the devolution of power to lower levels but also established a compulsory reservation of one third of the seats for women. This project addresses the role of women in panchayats, especially the factors that determine the success of female representatives in panchayats in the villages, the smallest unit in the Panchayat Raj system, which forms the basis of India’s decentralized political system. The focus is on women because in India, they form the largest less privileged group and have to withstand social, economical and political constraints. Therefrom, the role and efficiency of the compulsory provision that reserves one third of the seats for women becomes arguable, taking special account of the remaining strong patriarchal system. Then, nine case studies illustrate the situation of Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) in the Panchayati Raj system in the north-western state of Gujarat. The case studies include interviews with 5 current sarpanches, 2 ward members and one ex-sarpanch of a village panchayat. One additional interview is based on experiences of a vice-president in a smaller town. All these women were chosen due to their reputation as successful politicians. At the same time, their active participation in Self Help Groups and other social work let them appear social minded and more reliable.The interviews were held with the help of some guidelines as orientation, allowing enough flexibility to assume spontaneously arisen topics. Besides these half-structured in-depth interviews, techniques of oral history were followed in order to cope with the qualitative information obtained. Due to the language barrier, interpreters helped to translate from local languages to English. The results have revealed success factors of women in the panchayats but also a potential for hurdles. To render the analysis more clear, the factors have been allocated in three thematically divided components: the individual and its social milieu, the political system and finally, the grass-roots organizations. Considered in an overall conclusion, these three components give an evaluative impression of women’s current situation in the panchayats of the rural areas of Gujarat.