Women in Madhya Pradesh are able to stand up for their basic rights thanks to the gram sabhas (village meetings) organized by UN Women
Mother of three children and a home-maker for more than a decade, few in her sleepy village would have imagined that she would be planning bridges and schools today. But that is Vandana Bahadur Maida’s life in Khankhandvi, in the populous state of Madhya Pradesh, India. Despite family opposition and cultural norms that define a woman’s place in society, she was elected Head of the village council, the first woman Sarpanch. Her election was path-breaking for the village and also for Vandana’s family—as she superseded her own husband who used to be a member of the village council but never the elected leader.
In India, quotas have spurred one of the greatest successes globally for women's empowerment and grass-roots democracy. Just a decade ago, women comprised less than 5 per cent of elected leaders in village councils. Today more than 40 per cent of local council leaders are women, bringing the number of women leaders at the rural level to more than a million.
Vandana, belongs to the Bhil tribe. Through her determination, Vandana has given woman a voice in this remote part of Jhabua district, around 170km west of Indore and nearly 250 km from capital Bhopal.
Mixing firmness with mollycoddling, she had made the men see reason and assured them that their demand for electricity, more hand-pumps and ponds would be fulfilled.
While the other villagers go about their daily lives, working the farms, running to fetch water or take a reprieve from the hot summer sun in the afternoons, articulate and determined Vandana plans how to bring long-lasting change to her community. She is raising the awareness of her village council about government schemes that can support sanitation, health and education efforts for her village. With a strong record of results, today she is seen as a leader who delivers on promises. Her council has built a village pond to counter the chronic water shortage that her community used to face, as well as the first school, so that the village children are not compelled to drop out of school the way Vandana had to, after class 8 [8th grade].
When she was a child her ambition was to work for the development of the community and to contribute for it within my capacity. My dream was to do something for improving education. Fortunately, I got the chance to participate in the panchayat elections and I won with a good margin and finally I got the opportunity to work for the advancement of my community.
In 2013, the United Nations acknowledged Vandana's contributions in the fields of education, women empowerment and sanitation by featuring her in a women's calendar. Vandana remark that, "Khalkhandvi today has toilets in 75% houses of the 379 houses”.
Women soon started matching the men in strength at the meetings of the gram sabha, which represents three villages – Khalkhandvi, Karpatya and Guradiya – with a population of more than 26,000 people.
Also, she turned her attention to education and built additional rooms in the cramped primary school. And now, she is fighting to get a higher secondary school.
The gram sabhas, organized as part of a UN Women programme, have re-defined the manner in which half a million women are engaging in local governance. As a result of UN Women’s efforts, more women are participating in gram sabhas across 16 districts in five states. “To date, 1,87,264 women have attended 1,301 mahila sabhas (women’s meetings). According to our data, women constitute nearly 62 percent of participants in gram sabhas and 64 per cent in ward sabhas,” says Sushma Kapoor, Officer-in Charge, UN Women.
And now with a woman sarpanch (village council head), the other women talk freely to her letting them know of the main problems and they get along very well.
Vandana say that “Based on their experience of the gram sabhas (public village meetings), women now speak openly and demand urgent action. “Earlier, in the Gram Sabha meetings, there were only men in attendance and they used to ask about the relevance of women and they also never shared the details of the meeting. Now, women come and ask for services. They want roads built in the grazing area as the path is very muddy. The women have also asked for a bridge to be built over the naala (drainage) during the monsoons as the children and people have trouble walking in that area”.