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Monday, September 27, 1999 Published at 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK

World: South Asia

Woman power in India's villages

Indian women: Finding their voice

By the BBC's Aasiya Lodhi

It is election time in India once again and there is a prominent woman, Sonia Gandhi, at the forefront of the political campaigning.

Yet for the majority of India's 400m women, the chances of becoming a political leader are still incredibly slim. But one government initiative may now be changing that for good.

[ image: Female political leaders are still quite rare]
Female political leaders are still quite rare
Nearly five years ago, the government brought in legislation reserving seats for women on panchayats - councils which takes decisions on every important decision in village political life.

Once the sole preserve of men, panchayats now have women members and leaders, who are slowly beginning to challenge feudal traditions and change the way the councils run.

In the process they are also learning some important political lessons.

Silent revolution

In the village of Begowal, in Punjab, women gather to discuss their daily problems with the head of their local village council, or panchayat.

[ image: A growing openness in India's countryside]
A growing openness in India's countryside
Every village across India's vast landscape has a panchayat of its own, and most villagers still consult its panel for advice on matters ranging from education, to health, to employment.

Many of these women, however, talk about some very intimate details in their marital and domestic lives.

A few years ago, this kind of openness would have been hard to find in the village council, but now things are changing.

And the main reason is that, for the first time in Begowal's history, the head of the panchayat is a woman.

Barjinder Kaur is a 45 year-old mother of two. She was unanimously elected two years ago to head her 20-member village council after the state government ruled that her job was reserved for a woman.

Power and respect

Ms Kaur's position as the panchayat head, or sarpanch as it is known, has now made her one of the most respected members of the village, and as the head of the council, she has the ultimate say in any decisions it makes.

[ image: It is difficult to change traditional practices]
It is difficult to change traditional practices
Since she was elected, Barjinder has found that the majority of the village's women come to her for help.

"Most days women from the village come to see me at my home in the morning" she told the BBC.

"Mostly they come to see me about fights they_ve had in the home, with their husbands after the men have been drinking.

"At first it seemed as if the government had just made this law just to pay lip service to women_s rights. But now even the illiterate women in our village are becoming more aware - they_re ready to take action on issues," she said.

Barjinder's nephew proudly shows off the new meeting hall the panchayat has built in the village.

[ image:  ]
Unlike many other women who have entered village politics, Barjinder is lucky to have a family which supports her in her new job.

Her husband and children are pleased with her role as sarpanch. And her nephew, Ravinder Singh, says most men in the village don't object to a woman being in charge - as long as the job is well done.

"We're very happy with her as our sarpanch. She's worked really hard for the village, and everyone can see that," he said.

Challenging feudalism

At the Institute of Development and Communication, researchers who have been studying women's participation in village politics in Punjab say their findings show that stories like Barjinder's are still quite rare.

[ image: Indian women are enthusiastic voters]
Indian women are enthusiastic voters
In large parts of rural Punjab, literacy levels for women remain lower than 20%.

Many women are still afraid to challenge practices such as wife beating and dowry deaths.

And, many women's families also oppose their political activities - some have even been the target of violent attacks.

But, Pramod Kumar, the Director of the Institute, says it is also important to remember that, given India's strong feudal conservatism, a crucial first step has been taken.

"Representation into a panchayat itself is a kind of empowerment, in a visible sense of the term - that in a sense, is also breaking a particular kind of taboo," he said.

Grassroots politics

In the previous government, less than 7% of parliamentary seats were won by women.

Syeda Hameed, of the National Commission for Women, says real change at the top will only come with initiatives to create a path for women into politics from the grassroots.

A play has been performed in Begowal village to educate villagers about family planning. It's another project which Barjinder is keen to promote in the few remaining years of her term as sarpanch.

In the next panchayat elections, her seat won't be reserved for a woman, so she'll have to fight for political victory alongside the men.

But, she's determined, along with women villagers all over India, to contest the elections.

And given their level of enthusiasm, and commitment, it's likely they'll soon be building on the successes they've had so far.

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