India's Barefoot Revolution

January 06, 2011

What would it be like if women ran the world? In some parts of India, it’s already happening

If all revolutions begin in unlikely locations, few could be as unpromising as Borda. It’s a poor village in the poorest district of one of the poorest states in India. Only the blasting from a nearby quarry disturbs the feudal scene of ploughing with bullocks and washing in the river.

But something in Borda is different. Unlike other villages in the Western part of Odisha, the town is clean and well kept. There are water pumps and toilets. Shops are busy and there is a new college offering degree-level education. Borda has become the almost unimaginable in India: a functioning village providing basic public services, including sanitation, healthcare and education. How come? Because Borda is a town run by women.

Sangita Naika is painting a welcome to the gods on the step outside her home. She takes drops from a bowl of rice-batter paste and finger paints an intricate pattern designed to entice prosperity inside. This is the festival of Su-dasha Vrat, when women welcome the goddess Lakshmi into their homes and pray for good fortune for their husbands. But Naika no longer relies only on her husband’s good fortune.

As leader of her village council, the panchayat, she is one of the million women across India at the forefront of a “barefoot revolution”, a movement where women are, in many cases, risking their lives to transform their villages and change their country.

Most of the women are beneficiaries of a process that began in 1992, when the Indian Constitution formally recognised local self-governance through village councils (Panchayati Rajs), and reserved at least a third of those elected seats for women. It has been gradual, but women once forbidden from leaving their homes by their husbands or banned from sitting on a chair because of their caste now realise that they can stand for election and change the way that their villages are run. Their success in tackling a system of corruption that siphons off resources and controls the lists of those eligible for financial assistance has brought them many supporters — but also many enemies.

Last month, Rahul Gandhi, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi, told a meeting of the Indian National Congress Party that the legislation introduced by his father had brought more Indian women into elected office than everywhere else in the world combined. Now the quota for women members of the panchayat has risen to at least 50 per cent, with the Congress Party supporting a Bill to reserve a similar proportion of seats for women at national level. Women in panchayats have been threatened with intimidation and violence. A report on elections in the state of Bihar in 2006 revealed that 12 women seeking office had been murdered. Another candidate refused to give way to coercion, only to see her three children killed.

“When the Bill for reserved seats for women came to the upper house, people jumped on their chairs and tore it up,” says Rita Sarin, an architect of the barefoot revolution and perhaps the person most responsible for its success.
She does not underestimate the dangers that women face in challenging a system of corruption so entrenched that Congress President Sonia Gandhi recently described it as a “poison” that threatened the survival of the nation.

India was newly independent when Sarin was born, but the country remained bound by a rigid caste system, and women were silent and worthless. Her family, from the Kshatriya caste, were traditionally warriors, but latterly employed as civil servants. As a member of a group second only in the hierarchy to Brahmins, Sarin was supposed to stand far enough away from a person of a lower caste that even their shadows could not touch. She remembers, aged 7, tackling her grandmother about why she was fed only the small scraps of food left over from the boys and men. Inequality still angers her: “We kill our girls, we still offer sex selection. There are abortions. Look at the male-to-female sex ratio.”

Sarin entered and exited a three- month marriage in her youth — “My husband was horrified to discover my views” — before setting out on a career that took her from working with women in prison to a long stint with the Swedish International Development and Co-operation Agency. Against the advice of many of her colleagues, she gave up her job to take over the Hunger Project in India, a global charity that works to empower starving people. A hunger-free India could only be brought about, Sarin believed, through the participation of its women.

At the Hunger Project, Sarin set about writing a “road map” for turning shy and uncertain women into political operators. Transforming women dismissed as inconsequential tokens into advocates for their communities was not easy. Most are from the poorest backgrounds, now called marginalised, but formerly known as untouchables. In the beginning, they couldn’t read. One woman chaired a meeting and said only two words: “Thank you.”

But Sarin persisted. When the women’s individual decisions were disregarded by men on the panchayats, Sarin set about organising women’s federations. When the media ignored the very existence of elected women, she founded a prize for best reporting of women in government. The women of the panchayats used to be laughed off as “rubber stamps”, proxies who were told how to vote by their husbands. No one calls them that any more.

When the chief medical officer for the Borda district failed to appoint a local doctor to the village, Sangita Naika organised a 5,000-strong mass demonstration: “We were desperate for gynaecology and child specialists. We didn’t even have a GP.” One morning, Naika marched the women of Borda along the dusty road into town and they sat down. For hours the women sat there, blocking traffic. It was a shocking spectacle in an area where women rarely leave their homes. Eventually, the chief medical officer arrived to listen. Now Borda has a doctor.

Naika has served on her panchayat since 2002, and in that time she has organised demonstrations, mass mobilisations and petitions. Under her watchful eye those eligible for financial assistance are added to the official lists, and receive payments. (Previously, payments disappeared into the hands of the families who controlled the lists.) “Men used to dismiss me and tell people not to vote for me, saying ‘What can a woman do?’” Naika says. “In the beginning I was apprehensive about going out and meeting people, especially men working for the local administration. But those fears have fallen away. Women take up the work of the villages, men take up drinking. That is the difference between men’s leadership and women’s leadership.”

The women of the panchayats agree that, in the 60 years since India’s independence, men’s leadership has been lamentable and their interest in securing basic services for their communities virtually non-existent.
India is a country where, according to UN figures, only a quarter of girls are in school. Naika says: “I’d be happy if the Government reserved all seats for women. Women are much better at governance, and men could get on with earning their livelihoods.” Recently, she flew to Delhi to meet other elected women and petition Sonia Gandhi.

“It was a very big day for me,” Naika says, “To get on a plane for the first time. The women I met had a big effect on me. One said her husband made her sleep in the cowshed because of her work. I’ll never forget that.”

The barefoot revolution’s success will not be whether it changes women’s lives, though that might be remarkable in itself. Achievement will be measured in how far those women can change India. “The burn-out rate is high,” says Sarin. “We’re constantly tested.”

On the day that the Indian Upper House passed the Bill for the women’s quota, Sarin’s office was flooded with messages from the women of the panchayats. One read: “Prepare a new training module for women MPs. You are soon going to see us in Parliament.”

Rita Sarin will be speaking at World Hunger Day in London on January 9. World Hunger Day is organised by the Hunger Project and features a concert with Dionne Warwick, Elaine Paige and Natalie Cole. Details at worldhungerday.org.uk

Comments (5)

Posted by: Tim Holder over 3 years ago

Thank you Karen…this is an amazing article and, I hope, will help to open the eyes of many to the incredible strength of the women of India. Perhaps you might consider a trip to Africa next?

Posted by: vanda ignjacevic over 3 years ago

I wish this article can be read by the whole women population, to learn that what sometimes seems impossible can actually occur!!!
Thank you for uncovering the achievements of indian women that succeeded in bettering their life and the people around them. It gives hope to so many nations in the world where corruption, false democracy, greed, lies, and sexism is embodied.

Posted by: S Shetty over 3 years ago

Thank you Karen for this inspiring article. Just shows how much can be achieved through sheer courage and determination, nothing can stand in the way of human will power. It gives hope to all oppressed around the world.

Posted by: Brigitte Paulissen over 3 years ago

Karen, thank you for your article. I met Rita Sarin in 2007, when I visited Inda with investors of THP Sweden en The Netherlands, where we also met THE woman of India who stand up en walk THE barfoot revolution. In Holland I talk about them en sing the song, I have made for them: Hold On. The way these womann live and take their challanges inspires me everything day. Warm greetings and let’s never stop story-telling about these woman. Brigitte

Posted by: Lidewij Boggia over 3 years ago

Thank you for this article, it helps us in Holland to inform our members of Worldcoach (in Dutch: Wereldcoach). Coaches in Holland support coaches in this project in India. Lidewij Boggia

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