Like many others in the region, Sunita Sain, 40, a resident of Udaipuria village in Rajasthan, is a housewife and has never ventured out of the boundaries of the village. In a male-dominated patriarchal society, which Sunita is a part of, only male members of the family have a voice. But it all changed when Sunita participated in the Mahila Gram Sabha in the Gram Panchayat in 2018. It was for the first time that Sunita was participating in a public meeting in the village and was sharing her suggestions and problems related to women.
“I had never even visited the village panchayat before, but I wondered for how long I can just do domestic work!” argued Sunita. In the meeting, she brought up two issues— to set up a sanitary napkin machine and to open a government library in the village for girls.
Sunita said the sanitary napkin machine was necessary because sometimes the girls have to leave school owing to their periods and there is no system to get sanitary napkins in any government school.
Subsequently, Udaipuria Gram Panchayat, which came under the Govindgarh Panchayat Samiti of Jaipur district, got a proposal approved from the state government with a budget of Rs 30,000.
Many such stories of change are being seen in several Gram Panchayats of Govindgarh Panchayat Samiti. Women are coming out of the homes and are keeping their issues in front of the panchayat and demanding a solution.
Coming out of the house to attend panchayat meetings is a big step for women in a feudal-minded society like Rajasthan. “First we did not know what the powers of panchayats are? If all the women of Rajasthan want, then through panchayat, they can solve all the problems of their village,” Sunita said while adding that few men have some problems, but if the women have courage, they become silent after a while.
Power to create change
Forty-five Gram Panchayats come under the jurisdiction of Govindgarh Panchayat Samiti. Out of these, 37 Gram Panchayats organised Mahila Gram Sabhas with the help of some civil society groups. The Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), a social organisation, went from village to village and conducted awareness programmes on women's rights and their role in the panchayat. Gradually women started coming to the meetings of the Gram Sabhas.
In order to solve problems related to the health of women and children, 37 Gram Panchayats of Panchayat Samitis have been allocated Rs 10,65,809 through Mahila Sabhas and many issues related to women and children have been included in the Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP).
These issues include separate toilets for women, sanitary napkin vending machines with napkin disposal system, vaccination, library in the village for girls, road lights in villages for women's safety.
Earlier, women were not allowed to go out of the house and they were considered worth cultivation or the work of the household. But now women raise all their issues in the panchayat meeting, informed Mohan Lal Bunkar, the Sarpanch of Nangal Kalan Gram Panchayat.
He added that women in the rural areas women are becoming aware of their rights and are raising issues related to immunisation, education, sterilisation and pregnancy. “In my gram panchayat, about Rs 2 lakh has been allocated for health problems of women. Soon this amount will be given to the panchayat and sanitary napkin machines will be installed in the village,” he said.
Debasish Biswas, a senior programme officer of PRIA, said they made women Sarpanchs take up issues related to women and children in the GPDP through meeting conducted at the local level.
Asha Sharma, 45, a resident of Dhodsar Gram Panchayat, is a teacher by profession. The women of the Gram Panchayat were quite upset with the Primary Health Centre (PHC)—operating out of a building of Dhodsar Gram Panchayat—in the village. Patients coming to the single-room establishment would walk in during the delivery of a child. Often women would have to go to Chomu town—situated about 25 kilometres away—owing to the lack of facilities in the village’s PHC.
In 2013, a resident of the village had constructed a separate building for the hospital, but for five years the hospital had been running from the Gram Panchayat premises. In December 2018, Asha brought it up with the Mahila Gram Sabha and they took cognizance of the issue and demanded that the PHC be transferred to the new building. The Gram Panchayat started working on a priority basis and started operating from the new building from January 2019. Now there is a separate room for the women of the village and the other room is for general patients.
Mohammed Hussain, the village development officer of Govindgarh Gram Panchayat, said there has been a tremendous social change in the past year in the Panchayat Samiti’s villages. Since the arrival of Mahila Gram Sabha, the mindset of the people of the village has also changed towards women and their health issues, he stated.
“Thousands of women have broken the unscrupulous traditions imprisoned in the houses and this is going to lead to many developmental works in the area,” he added.
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