In a twist to the privilege granted by the PRI Act, the State Government of Orissa has inserted a clause which makes it mandatory for EWRs to have written and oral knowledge of Oriya. Now, for a state which has a total female literacy rate of 50.97 percent and with some indigenous community dominated districts like Kalahandi, Nuapada, Navarangpur, Malkangiri and Koraput which average just about 24.53 percent literacy rate, it becomes important first to analyze and rectify the reasons behind such a dismal rate of illiteracy before imposing regulations. This is a major constraint, discouraging women from joining the electoral process, and also gives their opponents a ruse to disqualify those who have managed to win on popular support. Apart from causing considerable mental, financial and physical strain on elected women leaders who do not have the necessary wherewithal to hold out against such challenges; this clause has also stopped many potential leaders in their tracks.
Another flaw in the Orissa State’s PRI Act is the two-child norm prerequisite for PRI representatives. Meant for everyone contesting PRI elections, this norm has particularly affected the women- across caste and class – as instances of divorce and desertion, character assassination and health fatalities/adverse effects due to forced abortions have increased. This highlights the plight of women candidates due to this law.
Also, the poor and marginalized youth, who have been denied a golden opportunity to participate in the governance of their own areas, are left out of the electoral process altogether, thereby depriving themselves and the society at large of the many talents and creative inputs they can bring to local administrations. This norm also affects children adversely; there has been a rise in female infanticide, abortions, and forced adoptions just before the PRI elections. Denial of immunization services, balwadi and anganwadi services to the third child amounts to a mockery of the rights to citizens as enshrined by the Constitution.
De-reservation of Women’s Seats
A distressing fact that became known recently was the Election Commission’s rather quiet de-reserving of vacant women’s scheduled caste/scheduled tribe (SC/ST) seats into broadly unreserved ones and declaring re-election in those seats. This further hampered many of women’s chances of getting into the electoral arena, as they now had to contend with powerful men in their areas. It is indeed surprising that what is given by one hand is being taken by the other. Instead of converting the SC/ST (women) seats into Reserved Women seats, and giving all women a fair chance of increasing their representation, the authorities have tried to subvert the rights granted to them by the Constitution. The media have been roped in to campaign against this.
Violence against Elected women leaders
The 73rd amendment accorded rights of representation to women in the PRI set-up, creating a historic opportunity for the most marginalized section of the society to chart their own development. Nevertheless, the reality at the ground level is a different story altogether. In spite of three PRI elections after the PRI Act was enacted, a suitable environment has not been created nor provided for women to exercise their democratic rights fearlessly. Instances of mental and physical violence, and even murder, by patriarchal forces still hostile to women’s empowerment followed nomination and elections. To add to their woes, law enforcement agencies (who are still predominantly masculine) do not keep an unbiased view; depriving women of justice.
Non-Cooperation of Male Panchayat Secretary and Executive Officer towards Elected Women Leaders
There are two kinds of functionaries at the panchayat level: the elected representatives, like ward member, Sarpanch, Palli Sabha member; and the appointees of the government: the Executive Officer and the Secretary. It is increasingly being noticed that male Executive Officers and Secretary are harassing elected women leaders. Siding with previous incumbents, who were mostly men, these government officers are not cooperating or informing the elected women leaders about important panchayat matters. Misbehaviors towards these mostly illiterate and poor women, who are not informed about meetings nor allowed to participate, have become the order of the day. Even in matters of the panchayat, interference by these male officers has resulted in deprivation of the poor to benefit the rich and the influential. Therefore, there has been a demand for the appointment of women as Executive Officers and Secretary, at least in women-headed panchayats, so that running their panchayats will be trouble-free.
District Level Issue-Based Workshop
Though women have gained a foothold in the local decision making systems through the PRI Act, they are yet to be accepted as leaders by the society. Consequently, EWRs face a lot of problems and hardship while attempting to discharge their duties. To highlight these very problems on a larger canvas and to find solutions to these collectively, ‘issue based’ workshops are held at the district level. Some of the pressing problems faced by EWRs such as:
- Government Policy on TCN
- Election conditionality of education qualification
- Non-cooperation by govt. officials and male colleagues
- Sidelined during decision making
- Work orders and Palli sabha carried out without informing ward members
- Very low financial incentives etc.
Such issue based workshops are held annually by all partners in their respective areas to help the EWRs find answers to these questions. The topics range from federation building as viable support systems for the EWRs to women related problems in the Panchayats. One such workshop held in Dhenkanal was also attended by an Investor group from Sweden and Netherlands in 2008.