Around 563 million people voted to usher in Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in the world’s largest democracy in spring 2014. In some ways, India has taken progressive steps to ensure women are well-represented in its government. A 1993 amendment to the constitution reserved one-third of seats in local government councils, called panchayats, for women. But only 63 women (the highest number to date) were elected to Lok Sabha this year – 11 per cent of representatives in the lower house of Parliament – and a bill to guarantee representation quotas for women in higher levels of government has repeatedly failed to find sufficient support. International news as of late has been rife with reports of women and girls being raped in India and the struggles of this population to obtain justice. It is clear that there is a long way to go toward advancing gender equality in India.
Enter The Hunger Project. Since 2000, this international NGO – which is comprised of many different projects in a variety of countries – has been working with female leaders of panchayats to mobilize women and empower them to create positive, sustainable change in their communities. To date, the organization has worked with more than 80,000 women to help them address hunger issues in the Panchayati Raj Campaign.
The work begins in the time leading up to the election. Attention is focused on encouraging women to reach for positions of elected leadership and mobilizing women to vote. The initiative continues to work with women over the full five years of their elected period. Year 1 focuses on capacity-building, skill development and awareness. Elected female representatives are encouraged to participate in a three-day workshop that enables them to improve their leadership abilities. Women receive education about human rights and their powers and responsibilities as elected leaders. It also helps them to develop a vision of what they want to accomplish and connects them with resource people and government officials in their area who can work with them along this path. Women can request to work on specific skills, finances, as one example, in a follow-up workshop three months later.
The Hunger Project also helps women organize into self-help support groups that mobilize women to attend mandatory panchayat meetings and help them make progress on women’s issues.
Year 2 involves the creation of bottom-up plans for the villages to meet basic needs, taking into account existing resources and barriers to create feasible action plans. Capacity-building workshops on government programs are offered. Through door-knocking campaigns, meetings, posters, street plays and other mobilization efforts, all women are also strongly encouraged to take place in Gram Sabha meetings. These meetings are opportunities for constituents to hold their Panchayats to task and to discuss community-based issues. These campaigns improve attendance of women at the meetings and enable them to participate more effectively.
In year 3, The Hunger Project works across constituent boundaries to create federations of women at the various levels of government. Leaders can work together to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and subsequently have more impact in their work, including on issues related to social and gender justice.
Plans created in the year following the election are revisited in year 4. Are the plans still sustainable? What impact have they had and do they continue to improve lives? This kind of self-reflection is important for creating change that is meaningful and in tune with constituents’ needs. In the last year, things come full circle, and preparation for the next election period begins.
The participation of women in political systems is immensely important for sustainable development and addressing issues of violence against women. It is evident that The Hunger Project embraces this, not acting as a voice for women in India, but providing them with the tools and knowledge to speak for themselves and their communities.