Rising up against the caste and social barriers, women in Govindgarh block of Jaipur district have come forward to join the democratic process at the grassroots by contesting in large numbers for the panchayat elections, polling for the first phase of which will be held across Rajasthan on Wednesday.

Women with little political experience, getting benefit of the 50 per cent reservation announced for them by the State Government last year, have taken on the male bastion in an impressive manner here. Women’s groups have enthusiastically joined the election campaign while appealing to the voters to elect women candidates and see the difference.

The significant change in the outlook of women, who were earlier confined to their homes in the dusty villages in the region, has been brought about by a pre-election voters’ gender awareness campaign launched by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a group promoting participatory governance at the grassroots.

As part of the campaign undertaken with the support of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since New Year’s Day after comprehensive training programmes, PRIA has drawn the attention of both the contestants and the voters to the gender discrimination practices such as sex selection, child marriage, dowry and violence against women, besides apprising women of the laws governing panchayats.

Krishna Pareek, 40, contesting for Sarpanch in Nangal Koju village, told The Hindu that the campaign had helped the women in the region understand the structure, procedures and responsibilities of panchayats. Women have taken exception to the present Sarpanch not organising gram sabhas regularly and getting the works done around his house alone.

“I have deliberately refrained from seeking support from any political party. Political leaders in fact spoil the atmosphere and incite violence to create divisions among people,” said Ms. Pareek, who is eighth standard pass-out. She affirmed that all communities among the 4,527 voters in the village would support her.

PRIA State coordinator Krishan Tyagi said the new-found confidence among women had motivated them to break the shackles of caste and bring grassroots democracy to action by supporting the deserving candidates cutting across the communities in the block, 45 km from Jaipur. In Anatpura village for instance, women have joined hands to unanimously field a Dalit woman for contesting as a ward member.

Jana Devi, coming from an impoverished Dalit family, is confident of making it to the panchayat samiti. “Brahmins, Rajputs and Jats have all reposed faith in my leadership and shown their tremendous respect,” she said while attending a meeting of the women’s self-help group in the village.

The lone woman among 10 candidates for the post of Sarpanch at Govindgarh , Thirty-five-year-old Rekha Kumawat said that men in the village were trying to prevail upon her not to contest. The outspoken woman activist rejected men’s claim that women should contest only at the seats reserved for them.

“Men generally do not like women who break the tradition and try to assert themselves,” said Ms. Kumawat. Women’s networks supported by PRIA in the region situated not far from the State Capital are busy strengthening the position of the fair sex in the Panchayati Raj and removing hurdles before them.

The networks supporting the PRIA’s campaign have handed out pledge forms to the candidates and conducted local mobilisation activities such as corner meetings, padyatras, public meetings with contestants, wall writings, display of banners on vehicles and puppetry shows.

Mr. Tyagi said the campaign had succeeded in bringing women’s leadership to the mainstream as well as enhancing the skills of candidates and voters to address the gender issues and include them in the election mandate. Women in Govindgarh block seem to have sincerely put the concept of inclusive democracy into practice in the run-up to the panchayat polls.