Historically, women have been regarded as constituting a weaker section. They have often been treated as “second grade citizens”. They have been pictured and presented as “home – makers” who is good in household chores. This image of women has been changing everywhere.
Extension of the voting right to women in Britain and America in the beginning of the 20th century brought about a series of changes in the status of women especially in the western world. Many of their disabilities and inequalities came to an end in due course. The quest for equality was pursued consistently by the Western women.
On the contrary, women of Asia and Africa were not able to secure equal status and opportunities even after 1950s. Women continued to suffer from one or the other kind of disability. Their exploitation was also continued.
They were given unequal treatment on the basis of sex. This development was termed as “gender discrimination”. The United Nations also through its various meetings and pronouncements was giving call to its member-nations to remove as early as possible, the ugly practice of “gender discrimination”.
“Welfare” to “Development”:
Due to the efforts of the UNO the issue of empowerment of women became an international issue. The UN declared the Year 1975 as the International Women’s Year. Further, the U.N. Declaration of 1975 compelled the national governments to shift their emphasis on women’s programmes from welfare to development. The Declaration prescribed for the all-round development of women.
In continuation of the UN Declaration of 1975, the “Third Women’s World Congress” [or conference] was held at Nairobi [Kenya] in 1985. A document released on this occasion recommended efforts towards empowerment of women. “In this document, the question of women political participation was highlighted and it was recommended that 35% of the total seats should be reserved for women.
It was also recommended that some posts should be reserved for women at the block and village level bureaucracy. On the economic front, a number of income generating schemes were introduced for women. In addition to that provisions were also made to certain proportion of women as beneficiaries in all the developmental schemes like the IRDP, JRY, TRYCEM, and so on.
The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing [China] in 1995 in which representatives from 189 nations including India had taken part. The Conference recognised some 12 serious areas such as – women and poverty, health, economic position, media and rights, environment, girl child, human rights and women, institutional arrangement for women’s development, women in decision – taking process, education and training for job, etc. in order to strengthen women. The Conference unanimously passed a resolution on “gender equality”.
Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly was also convened in the year 2000 in New York to assess the progress of the programmes held in the direction of establishing gender equality.
The topic of the conference was “Women 2000: Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century.” Only the NGOs, [Non-Governmental Organisations] had to take part in it. The basic purpose of the conference was to convince the member nations regarding the need for empowering women and to take appropriate steps in that direction.
On the basis of the proceedings of the world conference on women, the Government of India prepared a National Document concerning the development of women. The document lays down various strategies for women’s development. The Government also declared the year 2001 as the
Strategies for Women’s Development:
The national document which the Government of India had prepared with the intention of promoting women’s development highlights the importance of three strategies which are mentioned below.
(i) Obtaining Greater Political Participation of Women:
The document recommends that 33% of the seats should be reserved for women in order to get the effective participation of women in politics. It was also recommended that some power positions [posts] should be reserved for women at the block and village level bureaucracy.
(ii) Income Generating Schemes for Women:
On the economic front, a number of incomes- generating schemes were to be introduced to women as per the provisions of this document. It was insisted that sufficient provisions were to be made in all the rural developmental programmes [such as, IRDP: Integrated Rural Developmental Programme; JRY: Jawahar Rozgar Yojana; TRYSEM: Training of Rural Youth and Self-Employment, etc.] enabling a certain proportion of women to become their beneficiaries.
(iii) Increasing Female Literacy Level:
On the social front, it was recommended to obtain proper co-ordination between governmental and non-government institutions to increase considerably the literacy level of women. It was hoped that with the help of literacy, women would be able to lead a life of self-reliance.
‘The 73 Constitution Amendment Act 1993’ was undertaken mainly to give constitutional status to the “The Panchayat Raj System” and to introduce it in India on a uniform basis. Another purpose behind the Act was to assure the empowerment of women.
The framers of the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act believed that “social and economic status of women could not be improved much without political power. The females in the village need to be given some political power. They should have their share in the decisions made about the development of their villages. The new Panchayat Raj is a part of the effort to empower the women at least at the village level”
The 73rd Constitution Amendment Act has made an effort to give some special powers to women in all the three tiers of Panchayat Raj. As per this Act, 1/3 of the seats are reserved for women in addition to the reservation for SCs and STs. It was, indeed, a very bold step towards the empowerment of women.
Rural women who have been working as farm labourers, cleaning the utensils, washing clothes, sweeping the court-yard, fetching drinking water from a distance, cooking food and serving the same to all, labouring in the fields, etc., are now able to exercise some amount of political power on par with men. They now have the role to play in matters of decision making that affect village affairs. “The provisions of Act for the women are in no way less than a revolution.” [Doshi and Jain]
The 73rd Constitution Amendment Act came into force in April 1993. The Act has not brought about miraculous changes as expected. Though it has created some awareness among women it suffers from many drawbacks. Some of them may be noted as below.
Since female literacy rate is very poor in our villages, female members at different tiers of Panchayat Raj are not able to assert themselves. On the contrary, they are forced to work according to the wishes of the male members.
2. Non-Availability of Women:
It is very difficult to find out adequate number of females to work as members of the Panchayat Raj Committee. Either we will have to make a compromise with less qualified and totally ignorant women or be content with inadequate number of women.
3. Corrupt Leadership and Bureaucracy:
Our leadership is highly selfish and our bureaucracy is totally corrupt. In this situation, it is very difficult for the women to work and to achieve progress.
4. Bias towards Elites and Middle Class:
The Act focuses its attention on women and weaker sections of the society no doubt. Women who are better off in one way or another alone can take the proper benefit of this Act. It means the creamy layer of the disadvantaged groups would corner most of the benefits of the Act. As a result, the weakest of the weak, the poorest of the poor would continue to suffer in the pattern of the Panchayat Raj also.