With the elections just around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to talk about the importance of enabling more women to take up positions of leadership. If we want to see a more productive society, we must ensure that everyone gets a seat at the table.
A woman's place in India.
The Constitution of India guarantees equal rights to all citizens of India. However, women are traditionally discriminated against and excluded from political and family related decision making processes. Despite carrying out the majority of the work on a daily basis to support their families, their opinions are rarely acknowledged and their familial rights are limited.
Instead of going to school, girls are forced to work to help their families. Nearly 25% of girls are married off before the age of 15 and very often, against their will. (2) In a society that treats women as second-grade citizens and inferior to men, women continue to be uneducated and economically dependent on men.
So in 1993, India brought out an amendment in its constitution that mandated that in selected villages, the village council leader positions will be reserved for women. Although this did not immediately mean villagers accepted the idea of women in positions of power, it started a societal shift which recognised that women could be effective leaders. (1)
And through partnership with The Hunger Project, many brave women are taking up this responsibility and making big strides towards bettering their communities. These stories from our village partners in India show why our work is so critical.
Navli Kumari is the ninth child of a tribal family living in Rajasthan, India. Her parents did their best to make sure she received a proper education, a rarity in tribal society in India. She studied in her village school until standard five, and moved to the city with her father, as this was the only way she could continue her education, becoming the first girl in her village to study until standard ten.
Tragedy struck the young girl when first, her father passed away, followed by her mother just two years later. When her father passed, she had to discontinue her studies. She thought about applying for her father’s job, but the people of her village had other plans.
Her fellow villagers wanted her to run for the ward elections and become a representative for the village. Up until that point, past elected officials had not been able to properly articulate the needs of their people to the government, and so any benefits provided by the government would never reach the village.
Their hope was that since Navli was educated and was a part of their community, she could successfully contest the ward panchayat elections and bring about the changes their village needed. She agreed.
Navli won the elections and became a ward member at the age of twenty-one. Her journey was not an easy one and was filled with many obstacles, but her emerging leadership skills served her well and slowly yet surely, she was able to bring about a positive change in her village.
Watch Navli's journey.
United we stand.
In 2017, Sheelavanthi was a third term elected female representative from the Isuru Gram Panchayat in Karnataka, India. She made it her mission to make sure that those without land got proper rights to land, as stated by the various plans floated by the government.
Sheelavanthi’s journey started from humble beginnings. When she was very young, her father was cheated out of the little land that he owned. He tried very hard to recover his lost land, but he was never able to get it back. That experience lit a fire in Shellavanthi’s heart, one which has stayed with her to this day.
Originally, she had no interest in politics. Nonetheless, she soon realised that in order to make positive changes in the community, you need to be in a position of power, and so she decided to join the local Panchayat. With the help of the cultural group she was a part of at the time, she began her election campaign and won.
During her journey she learnt what she could do to help her community and began working hard for her people to give them a better future. She was able to create the necessary land reforms while an elected representative of her village, realising her dreams.
Watch Sheelavanthi's journey.
When Pushpa Devi first ran for elections to be part of the School Management Committee of her community, in a small village in the northern Indian state of Bihar, even her children weren’t sure she would win. She had never been out of the house, how was she going to win an election? But she believed she would win with the help of her integrity. And win she did, and in doing so, she became the first woman to be elected as the Secretary of the School Management Committee.
Pushpa realised early on that in order to create significant change you needed to be in a powerful position. She ran for elections because she wanted to change the system and bring quality education to the children in her village. She encourages people to broaden their minds and look at things from different perspectives in order to reach an understanding and find better solutions. She firmly believes that education is the key to solving the country’s problems and works to ensure that women can demand equal rights without fear.
She has helped many girls in her community get the education they need so they can work towards a better future.
Watch Pushpa's journey.
Shaking up the status quo.
Leadership is a steadfast belief in the power of change and the ability to facilitate the change to make this world a better place.
In the village of Godipokhari, Odisha, when one of the female workers of the local Anganwadi (a government creche centre) contracted HIV/AIDS, many people formed various misconceptions about her and the village people had the Anganwadi forcefully shut down.
An Anganwadi is the lifeline of every village. Without it, children have no place to stay or learn while their parents work, and pregnant women don’t receive the health benefits they are entitled to. Rangalata Mohanta, vice president of Jamunaposi panchayat in Keonjhar district, Odisha, knew about HIV/AIDS from her training and her health studies. She counselled the local women about the disease, but they were still apprehensive.
When it was clear that the message wasn’t getting through, she reached out to the government health officials and brought them over to better explain the disease. After that, the local women let the Anganwadi reopen, allowing children to learn again and bringing back a space where women could get the health care they deserved.
This is just one example of the good Rangalata has brought to the village. Within two years of her tenure, she was able to ensure the construction of new roads, toilets and electricity connections in the village. She was able to make sure that the local elders got their pensions, which they had not received for over a decade.
She is not afraid to try new things and gets happiness from making the village a happier place to live in. She works hard towards equal rights for all and fights against stigma and caste discrimination. A spirited and empathetic leader, she is using her public position to fight female stigma and caste discrimination, and to ensure equal rights for all.
Watch Rangalata's journey.
Forest, water and land advocate.
In the mountains of Uttarakhand India, the air is like medicine. But storms and rains bring with it floods and landslides every monsoon.
Currently Uttarakhand is the only state in India where village communities will come together to protect and nurture their forests. Why? Because the forests are their lifeline, especially for the women. They use the wood for fires and building houses, they use the dry leaves as cattle fodder. For Kaulshalya Bisht and her fellow women, the land, river and forests are of utmost importance. And so, 30 women formed a collective and decided to revive the Van Panchayat elections, a practice which had not been upheld in Tana Sajoli Panchayat for 15 years. She and her team of women patrol the forest and don’t let anyone cut the trees, and together they also planted 100,000 trees.
Kaulshalya is the President of Tana Sajoli Panchayat. Before, people were afraid of coming to the village because the men would gamble and were rowdy and aggressive. Kaushalya was the head of a women’s group at the time, and thanks to her efforts, she was able to get gambling banned in the village. Her husband encouraged her to contest the panchayat elections, but sadly, he passed away right before the election. Kaulshalya was devastated and heartbroken, and it was her fellow women who supported her when she needed them most and gave her the motivation to find the courage she needed to carry on. Even after she won, people doubted her abilities, as a single woman, but she proved them wrong.
She connected her fellow villagers to employment schemes, had solar lights installed and helped the handicapped enroll for disability pensions. Her journey has been fraught with obstacles, including people who intimidate her by filing RTI’s (Right to Information act) to stop her work and delay her new schemes. But she knew what she was doing was honest and that she had nothing to fear. In her own words, “when women come together, they bring you hope. Their support is the source of my courage.”
Watch Kaushalya's journey.
So what's the takeaway?
Poverty and a lack of information and education represent substantial barriers to women being able to choose their path in life and deprives them of the opportunity to reach their full potential. This not only disadvantages women, but everyone. We have seen time and again, that when women are empowered to lead, they can bring about incredible change in their community. When women are empowered, everyone benefits and society becomes more productive.
In 13 countries across South Asia, Africa and Latin America, The Hunger Project fosters leadership skills among women in society who have been denied the opportunity, freedom and voice in decision making, both within the family and in society. The Hunger Project aims to instill confidence and self-respect among women so they can become leaders within their communities, giving them the power for social transformation at grass-roots level.
Ensuring everyone's voices are heard.
As we exercise our right to have a say on the future of New Zealand in the upcoming elections, it is a good time to reflect on the importance of this basic fundamental right. Having the right to vote enables each of our voices to be heard and gives us the ability to help enact change.
That’s why we are empowering women to leverage their leadership positions in India, so that they can ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, mobilise their communities into action and eradicate hunger and poverty.
Will you help us empower more women to become transformative leaders so they can create lasting change in their communities?
(1) Perceptions of Female Leaders in India | The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). (2020). Retrieved 27 July 2020, from https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/perceptions-female-leaders-india.
(2) The situation of women in India - Humanium. Humanium. (2020). Retrieved 11 August 2020, from https://www.humanium.org/en/situation-women-india/.