Melanie Tharamangalam SAKHI (Kerala, India) The 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Indian Constitution, passed in 1993

, devolved a significant amount of power over social sector and development planning to local level governments or panchayats. The constitution mandates a one-third reservation for women in panchayat assemblies and earmarks a portion of panchayat spending for women’s planning. Kerala is the only state in India with a sex ratio that is not female adverse, and is generally considered to have excellent gender development indicators: high literacy rates, high average age of marriage, low maternal mortality rate, no female infanticide. Yet the political participation of women remains abnormally low, violence against women is increasing, and women as a group are poorer and more vulnerable to unemployment and illness than men. The organization I worked for this summer, Sakhi, is a women’s rights NGO based in Trivandrum, Kerala. It functions as an umbrella organization and resource center for a number of smaller NGOs and is carrying out several projects in cooperation with government agencies and other organizations, in addition to running a violence intervention program for victims of domestic violence and

dowry harassment. The Gender and Decentralization project to which I was assigned was conceived of to engender the planning process in panchayat governments in two ways: mainstreaming gender planning in local governance and enhancing the capabilities of elected women representatives in local self-governing institutions. it became clear that the outcome would be mainly policy-oriented. We decided to recast it as a Gender Planning and Development Policy that could be adopted by the panchayat governments and used as a guideline in developing social policy and implementing the constitutionally mandated Women’s Component Plan (WCP). education and economic and political rights. The idea was to create a document along the lines of CEDAW which could be administered at the local level to improve the status of women in local self-governing institutions. however. (which derives entirely from the State government) the document deals mainly with health. In the mid-90s. As the project developed. Specifically. but panchayats continue to grapple with the question of how to effectively use these funds and . One of the key problems with the implementation of the WCP is a lack of clear guidelines as to what constitutes gender planning. My portion of the project was to draft what was initially conceived of as a Bill of Rights for Women in each panchayat. local governments in Kerala routinely diverted WCP funds to local infrastructure projects – roads built with WCP funding would be justified on the grounds that ‘women use roads. Constrained as we were by the jurisdiction of the panchayats.’ A government order was passed in 1997 to prevent this practice. our team worked with two panchayat governments in the villages of Olavanna and Vilayur to assess the status of women in the panchayats and to help create institutional mechanisms to improve the conditions and opportunities for women in these areas.

we presented our report to the Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) in both Vilayur and Olavanna. However. We then traveled back to the field to consult with women’s working groups in that had been set up in each panchayat by the panchayat assemblies with the help of Sakhi volunteers. we had encountered a fair amount of antagonism and opposition over the course of the project. and the opposition party has also promised something similar. elected officials were unwilling to acknowledge gender issues within the panchayat or to concentrate on anything other than popular issues of economic development and local infrastructure. After meeting with the Panchayat Board (the elected members) to discuss the Status of Women Report as well as the draft Gender Policy. . The panchayat government adopted the draft Gender Policy as part of its platform for the upcoming elections. In my first two weeks in India I traveled to various panchayats in Kerala along with my project supervisor to talk with local officials and observe the gender planning and development initiatives happening on the ground. we were able to develop a relationship with the Panchayat President and Board over the course of the project and ultimately the Grama Sabha presentation was extremely successful.engender social sector programming in general. I drafted the initial document which then went through several reincarnations with the help of the social workers at the NGO. Although the panchayat government had agreed to the project and to cooperate with Sakhi in carrying it out. In Vilayur. Based on these trips and on a comprehensive status of women report compiled by Sakhi carried out in the in the months before my arrival. I also spent a significant amount of time in the very well equipped library at Sakhi trying to wrap my head around the various intricacies of panchayat governance.

As a result the elected members became rather uncooperative and refused to acknowledge the validity of some of our findings. but it when I was able to overcome the issue and establish a level of trust and understanding with those I was working with. towards the end of the project we got bogged down in some rather complicated local politics. which I imagine is something that can be said of nearly all human rights internships. and it is still unclear to us whether and to what extent they will be willing to adopt it or work with Sakhi in the future. as happened once or twice during tension-fraught meetings. Personally. discussions with the panchayat over the Status of Women Report and the Gender Policy were ongoing. Being able to acknowledge that there was truth in that allegation was not easy for me. My experience this summer was both rewarding and frustrating. and did a great deal to facilitate our study. in the Olavanna panchayat government officials were initially very enthusiastic and cooperative. and seeing the efforts of people in the field – both elected government members and social workers and human rights lawyers – and their infinite belief in the possibilities for betterment is nothing short of inspiring.Conversely. and a lack of infrastructure to actually achieve these solutions. Unfortunately. At the time I left India. a lack of political will to push for real solutions. it can be disheartening to see institutional mechanisms in place that systematically prevent such betterment. At the same time. it made the discussion that much more fulfilling. I realized this summer that we can change things is not . that dowry was not a problem in the panchayat and that we were deliberately misconstruing the simple social practice of giving gifts at weddings. claiming. it was difficult for me – as a second-generation immigrant who has nonetheless spent roughly half my life in India – to be called an outsider to my face by the elected members. There is a lot of work to be done. for example. Perhaps most importantly.

.just a catch phrase from an after-school special. it actually works. it’s something that real people believe and dedicate their lives to and sometimes.

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