Rajasthan is the largest state of the Republic of India by area. It encompasses most of the area of the large, inhospitable Great Indian Desert (Thar Desert), which has an edge paralleling the Sutlej-Indus river valley along its border with Pakistan. The state is bordered by Pakistan to the west, Gujarat to the southwest, Madhya Pradesh to the southeast, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to the northeast and Punjab to the north.
Jaipur is the capital and the largest city of the state.
Population: 56.47 million (2001 Census, estimated at more than 58 million now)
Literacy Rate: 60.4 (Male 75.7; Female 43.9)
Sex Ratio: 921
The democratic context is that the 73rd Constitutional Amendment was passed in India in 1992. The Amendment gave formal constitutional recognition to rural local self-governance units – called Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Most significantly, it reserved 33.3% per cent of seats for women in the three tiers in Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) as well as extended reservation to scheduled caste and scheduled tribes. In the State of Rajasthan, reservation for women has been increased to 50and this will enable an even larger number of women to step out as elected leaders for the first time and engage in grassroots democracy.
The challenges are that the though the Constitutional Amendment has ensured that an estimated one million Indian women hold public office at grassroots level, yet their active “participation” is limited. There are numerous challenges facing the true political empowerment of women, especially women from marginalized groups. Elected women in Rajasthan are still plagued by traditional and repressive societal structures such as gender discrimination (sex ratio 921), caste dynamics, low literacy rates of women (43.85%), poor health, low mobility and undernourishment amongst others. With limited education and exposure, elected through reserved seats, women often end up as ‘proxies’ for their male family members. State Governments give minimal training and male-dominated Panchayats ignore and reprimand elected women.
For The Hunger Project, upholding the 73rd Constitutional Amendment is truly engendering democracy, since traditionally women have never been allowed to actively participate in democratic processes as voters and elected representatives. The problem being addressed is centered on gender inequality and ensuring that the marginalized are active and informed participants in grassroots democracy.
Women’s active participation in the political processes has been a powerful way to articulate their rights as citizens. The social impact of this participation process, not only has had tangible advantages in terms of a direct transfer of capacities and initiatives but also has influenced on equal access to education, superior utilization of resources and enforcement of a more accountable, transparent and responsive administration.
Yet, most women contesting and wining Panchayat elections are first time public office holders. Mostly non literate with little or no exposure to public decision making processes, the elected women representatives, especially marginalized women in different states face numerous challenges in their journey from being elected to being an effective elected leader. Elected women are still plagued by traditional and repressive societal structures such as gender discrimination, caste dynamics, low-literacy rates, lack of mobility, lack of access to productive resources, poor health and undernourishment.
Although elected women have increasingly advocated for both financial and political decentralization, lack of commitment towards decentralization by State governments has affected the leadership of women in the Panchayats.
With new women being elected to Panchayats every five years and with frequent alterations in the rules and procedures with regard to Panchayats, women leaders find it difficult to cope with the government machinery. The need for capacity building of elected PRI representatives and officials working on local governance process has been emphasised in many state and national forums. The real challenge in implementing a capacity building programme is the sheer size of numbers and multi-dimensional nature of the various issues and skills that need addressing. Mere structured training programmes cannot adequately build the capacities. As a vast majority of PRI representatives are first time entrants into the area of governance and many of them are from the disadvantaged sections like women, tribals and dalits, they require continuous support, guidance and counselling to effectively perform their new role.
For most Government officials, the concept of devolution is still not understood and therefore not practiced. Decentralisation and devolution require different ways of working, and that requires as much training to re-orient attitudes and perspective such that the officials can enable effective local government functioning, especially that of the elected women.
It is therefore critical that organized capacity building initiatives for elected women is undertaken if they are expected to function effectively. On the contrary in most states, elected representatives are fortunate if they receive even three days of input by the end of their five-year term. Most training’s of the State Institute of Rural Development (SIRD) are co – educational trainings where women’s needs, interests and voice take a back seat.