As a result of a 1993 constitutional amendment that set aside 1/3 of all panchayat seats and village chiefs’ positions for women, almost 1 million women have now been elected to village governing boards. Some of these women come from the country’s lowest castes, causing an uproar among the country’s upper-caste Brahmins.
A government-funded study conducted by the Center for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi purports that fully two-thirds of the newly-empowered women leaders are actively learning about governing and exercising their powers by allocating resources for schools, distributing government aid for housing, and making decision about village infrastructure and development. The remaining third act as mere “public faces” while their husbands make the decisions.
Women leaders, and especially those from poorer classes, face great opposition. Alam Singh, a Brahmin farmer who headed his village before a lower-case woman was set to replace him, described his successor as “stupid” and “illiterate,” explaining “The government has turned power upside down.”
Government officials have stated that women panchayats are having enjoying the greatest success in areas where there is greater wealth and literacy, and where women have already raised their status. Karnataka, a southern state that in the 1980s initiated a quota system to give village women a voice in government, is one such example. Kerala, where 9 of 10 women are literature, is another example of success.