Rural women get a better deal with women panchayat leaders

“For the first six months, I could not get my head around my duties. All I knew was that I was elected and I had a post,” says Pasupathi, a class V dropout, now president of Pullaneri village in Madurai district. “Today, I’ve come to this city all by myself.” From boarding a bus to an unknown city to preventing child marriage and promoting women’s education in her village, Pasupathi has learnt much on the job. If the dozen women village panchayat leaders present at a meeting in Tiruchi are anything to go by, empowerment of women leaders at the bottom rung of local governance can make life for rural women better. The women from hamlets in Dharmapuri, Tirupur, Erode, Pudukottai, Cuddalore, and Madurai districts are being trained in local leadership by the Hunger Project, an initiative that works with women at the grass roots. While the women leaders acknowledge the importance of dealing with civic issues like water shortage, good roads, and regularisation of ration shops, women’s issues clearly are high on their priorities.

“I’m determined to do something which no male village president had done before,” says Dhanuskodi, president of a village in Pudukottai district. “In the last one year, I’ve focussed on education. It does not mean only ensuring classrooms and teachers but also toilets to ensure that girls do not dropout.” Schools, anganwadis, and palwadis figure high in to-do lists of these leaders. Be it creating awareness of female foeticide, preventing child marriage, or encouraging the nourishment of adolescent girls, these women have taken up the role of spearheading the need for women’s education, employment, and the right to life.

“In villages, women always know who is going to marry, who plans to elope, or who does not want a child. As elected leaders, we only need to act responsibly upon what we know,” says Lakshmi, a ward member, Melakuyilkudi near Madurai. Parameshwari from Tirupur adds, “Women feel we are more accessible and so they readily talk to us, be it about a broken water pipe or a family issue.”

Child marriage

Marriage of underage girls is a common practice that local women leaders are trying to change, says Muniyamma, a ward member, Anjali panchayat, Dharmapuri. “We talk about the consequences of early marriage at meeting in our village. We explain that the girl’s uterus is not fit for child bearing yet and it may lead to various complications.” Nagamma, president of a village in Dharmapuri, has a compelling argument to convince her people. “I cite my own daughter as an example. I got her married before she was 16 and she has three children now. She is malnourished and cannot go to work.” Pasupathi, president of Pullaneri in Madurai district, is tactful.

“The village panchayat president usually gets invited to weddings. We try to find out about the age of brides from other villages and counsel the family to drop the marriage, if the girl is underage. It is no easy task,” she says.

Killing foetuses

“There is no female infanticide in our villages today, as families who do not want girl child prefer to kill the foetus,” admits Sudha, a ward member, Nattamangalam, Madurai district. As these families travel to cities and towns, it poses a challenge to the local leaders. But Lakshmi, a ward member at Melakuyilkodi near Madurai says, “We ensure that the anganwadis keep a track of pregnant women. If they do not turn up for the monthly check-up, we know something is amiss. That is how we zero in on such cases.” Gayathri, coordinator, Hunger Project, Tamil Nadu, acknowledges that there is a long way to go. One of the women admits, “As I have little education to speak of, I still struggle with being assertive about the funds due to us. But I hope to get through that.”