Visiting the Women & Panchayati Raj Campaign - Part 1

By John Coonrod and Supriya Banavalikar

We're currently on a trip to 7 states of India, seeing the progress in The Hunger Project's campaign to empower grassroots women leaders to be key change agents for the end of hunger.

One of the top priorities for this trip has been the first pilot test of the new "Ending Hunger in India" Briefing - a workshop designed to call forth a cadre of influential leadership who understand and advocate The Hunger Project's analysis and strategy. The workshop was held at our national office in New Delhi on India's independence day - August 15th - with 18 representatives from diverse organizations. At the conclusion of the workshop, a flag-hoisting ceremony was held on the roof of The Hunger Project office led by 96-year-old General Dubey and 4-year old Aditi - representing a century of India.

The heart of our strategy in India is leadership training and ongoing empowerment for thousands of women elected to local village councils known as panchayats. These trainings are organized in partnership with dozens of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who know the local languages and conditions.

Bhanu and Ravi Rebbapragada of Samata with our staff colleague V.K Madhavan.

We're currently launching the campaign in the state of Andhra Pradesh, and a first stop on the trip was to meet the leaders of our first partner organization in the state, Samata. Samata works with tribal people in coastal districts. They won a landmark Supreme Court decision against mining companies that were violating the rights of the local people.

The second stop was the Belgaum district of Karnataka - a 12-hour overnight train ride from the state capital of Bangalore.

In Belgaum and 4 other districts, The Hunger Project has carried out its largest training campaign. Nearly 1,000 of the 1,300 elected women in the Belgaum district - and 500 women in each of 4 other surrounding districts - were trained last year. The campaign overall is carried out in coordination with SEARCH - a prominent NGO in the state - who in turn involves many other local NGOs.

Beginning last May, these 3,000 women were trained in an intensive series of 5-day trainings which included our Women's Leadership Workshop with additional information on the rules and procedures for the panchayats.

This year, an empowerment structure has been set up which provides 1-day trainings each month for groups of 30 elected women representatives from 10 panchayats ("hobli" level) - in addition to quarterly meetings at the block and district level.

SEARCH coordinator Rajani (left) with four elected women leaders and her colleague Sudhamani (center, with black bag).

Three women from each of 10 panchayats (a grouping of panchayats known as a "hobli") come together one day each month for a 1-day additional training. The workshops provide the women with much-needed solidarity and give them a chance to air and resolve issues that arise.

We met with women leaders from 6 different panchayats. One major activity of panchayats is to provide "food for work" during droughts. A drought has plagued the area for three years.

One of the participants in the hobli-level meeting was Gangama. In the meeting, she shared some of the enormous strain that women who serve on panchayats experience while meeting the challenges of their family life as well as the responsibilities of their elected position.

 Gangama's husband is alcoholic and abusive. He ran into trouble with the villagers, who sought to have him arrested and jailed. Gangama negotiated to keep him out of jail, yet the strain was so great she was close to suicide until our local coordinator intervened with her.

Each coordinator in the campaign is equipped with a cell phone, and all trained women have the number and can call whenever they need. Within this one Hobli of 30 women, two suicides have already been prevented in addition to the resolution of hundreds of less-desperate challenges.

Kashiva Sangoli is a former elected representative who is now also serving as one or our district coordinators who ongoingly support other elected women. When she stood for elections in 1995 people in the community would say bad things about her. But because she was committed to making a difference, in spite of the verbal humiliation and threats to kill her, she continued to do her work. During her 5-year term, she resolved the water problem in her panchayat, had roads constructed, brought electricity to her village, created a water supply for times of drought and formed two self-help groups.

The chairperson of the panchayat was upset by her popularity and wanted credit for all the work she was doing.

Today the women in her panchayat are proud of her and listen to her advice. Their mindsets have changed and they are in awe that she's not submissive. As a direct inspiration, one of the women from her village stood for election in 2000, and is now vice-president of her panchayat.


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