In a few days from now, women could account for 52 per cent of all local bodies.

They are tailors, farmers, accountants, legal clerks, homemakers, vendors and activists. There are M.Com degree holders alongside poor women from deprived backgrounds. Together, they make up the most highly educated women candidates fighting local body elections anywhere in the country. There are nearly 40,000 of them contesting the polls across more than 1,200 local bodies in Kerala including 978 panchayats. And there will be at least 10,000 women in office on October 27 thanks to a 50 per cent reservation of seats for them in the state's local bodies.

Active participation

Unlike in some states, hundreds of seats won't be left uncontested. No scores of ‘unopposed' candidates. Each ward will see vigorous fights. Many of the women in the fray are officially classified as poor and are very active in ‘Kudumbashree' — the state government's extraordinary anti-poverty programme. ‘Kudumbashree', which the women here refer to as CDS (community development society) is where much of the energy and the drive in these polls is coming from. Over 11,000 candidates have a CDS background. There are even women candidates in some general seats. Days from now, women could account for 52 per cent of all local body representatives.

Adat in Thrissur is a United Democratic Front (UDF)-led local body that was selected as the ‘best panchayat' by the LDF government. Stella Jojo, the articulate UDF (Congress) candidate and a first-time contestant here, was once selected the “Best Chairperson of Kudumbashree in Thrissur district.” She says the 50 per cent reservation is “a great step forward. And women are demanding their share.”

In another ward, Priya Prasannan is an M.Com graduate and LDF (CPI-M) candidate. Her husband has taken time off from his job in Qatar to help organise her poll campaign. “Family support,” she says, “is an important thing if someone like me, with three children, is to contest an election.” She is clear that “daily wages are the main issue here. And further, women can handle questions of controlling alcohol better.”

In Nenmanikara panchayat, V.T. Vijayalakshmi, a tailor and panchayat secretary of the All-India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), is in the fray. For her “Equality is the main issue. Some men may fear a loss of power. And within ourselves, our diffidence is partly psychological. But we have the confidence now.” Her colleague Sindhu Subramaniam, a ground-level banker — she is president of the Vanitha Cooperative Thrift Society — is fighting from another ward. Sindhu, like Vijayalakshmi, finished her SSLC. She then qualified as a ‘Hindi Vidhwan.' She feels the reservation-based polls “are a matter of pride for Kerala. In the past, women have been confined to just home and children. Now, the public sphere is so very much bigger.”

What it is

All of them are agreed on a few things: That men do not consult women on any vital matters. That women will do better in local government “since they identify with the family more easily — and in the village panchayat level, you are dealing with families.” That women are, as Vijayalakshmi puts it, “on the whole less corrupt and more accessible.” And that ‘Kudumbashree' has been a turning point for the women of Kerala. Stella Jojo says it is “the entry point to public life.” Sindhu Subramaniam feels CDS “gave women confidence and solidarity. It brought them together to discuss serious subjects. Vitally, it gave them their first exposure to the banking sector.”

The Kudumbashree (The Kerala State Poverty Eradication Mission) which, organisationally, federates the different neighbourhood groups has a larger than life presence in these polls. Over 3.7 million women in Kerala are part of this network of women's groups in Kerala . (Kerala does not refer to them as ‘self-help' groups. For one thing that philosophy is seen as narrow and isolating. For another, the programme blends state support and dynamic community action. And pushes a vision of a collective and societal drive towards betterment).

Prof. Ananya Mukherjee of York University, Toronto, points to the innovative approach to food security of these groups. “Some 2,50,000 Kudumbashree women throughout Kerala have come together to form farming collectives which jointly lease land, cultivate it, use the produce to meet their consumption needs and sell the surplus to local markets. “This,” she points out, “increases the participation of women in agriculture ... (and) ensures that women, as producers, have control over the production, distribution and consumption of food.” They have reached deep within communities. Both Stella Jojo and Vijayalakshmi assert: “We do not fear the campaigning. People approach us in CDS more easily than they do their local representative. We are more credible because of ‘Kudumbashree'.”

However, if you are a CDS chairperson in a panchayat, then you must resign that post to contest an election. “Chairperson gets an honorarium of Rs. 2,000 from government,” points out Stella Jojo. So she resigned to contest. As have 246 other CDS chairpersons across Kerala. The poll bug has bitten deep.

The State's record

Kerala's record of representation for women in several spheres is not a happy one. There are just seven women in the Kerala legislature out of 140 members. There are presently no women Lok Sabha MPs from the state. There are very few women, perhaps just one or two, at the top levels of leadership of any of the political parties. There have been two women appointed as vice chancellors of universities this past decade after having none for years. All indicators of a strong negative bias.

So what stops the elected women from again being handed trivial chores within the panchayats? In one estimate, women earlier chaired just two per cent of the Finance Standing Committees in Kerala's 978 panchayats. “This time,” says N. Ramakantan, Director of the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA), “if the president of the Panchayat is a male, then the vice-president is a woman and vice versa. The vice-president is the ex-officio chairperson of the Finance Standing Committee. So a woman will be either panchayat president or vice-president and thus chairperson of that standing committee.”

There is male disquiet across the political spectrum over the coming changes. Adat Panchayat President Anil Akkara declares himself for the 50 per cent reservation for women. However, he worries over the effects of “the rotation. A seat should stay in one category for three terms. Otherwise there is no continuity.”

In Guruvayoor municipality, the amiable K.A. Sreedharan, candidate of the UDF (Congress) says he is “not insecure at all. But 50 per cent reservation might give us several representatives who cannot function well.” He giggles sheepishly when asked how well he thinks the state legislature, where male dominance is 95 per cent, functions. The change has just barely begun.