Crossing the Threshold: Opportunities and Challenges to Women’s Leadership in Rural Governance

Simi Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Ritika Gupta, Anshula Mehta

Almost three decades after one-third of the Panchayat seats were reserved for women, rural women’s participation in politics and governance still faces many challenges. To address the issues and reflect on the successes of the women’s movement in India, the Gender Impact Studies Centre at the IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized a lecture on “Crossing the Threshold: Opportunities and Challenges to Women’s Leadership in Rural Governance”, as part of its series on The State of Gender Equality #GenderGaps.


Reservation for Women

Prof Vibhuti Patel Former Professor, TISS, Mumbai started the session by highlighting the importance and relevance of the Panchayati Raj system and how women have played and continue to play an integral role in relief efforts during the pandemic.


She pointed out that reducing the voting age to 18 and reservation for women in
the Panchayat led to a large number of women entering politics as both voters and representatives which gave them the space to raise their voices for their concerns along with local development issues.

While political parties do pay lip service to women’s issues, they have not included demands for 33% reservation for women in the Parliament in their manifestos or significantly increased the number of women at higher levels of party work. She emphasized the efforts women have taken over the years while dealing with threats and personal risks to achieve social reform through politics.

Elected Women Representatives


Dr Nagmani Rao Retired Associate Professor, Karve Institute of Social Service, Pune began her presentation by talking about the importance of feminist transformative politics and the instances that sparked her interest in women’s struggles like the Women’s panel in Indole in 1984, the pre-reservation era.

Women do participate in mass political movements but do not engage with political parties in the same capacity as men- Dr. Nagmani Rao

Dr. Rao’s field observations regarding the economic profiles of Panchayat leaders reflected the multiple forms of subordination that play a role in politics from gender to caste. While reservations had encouraged women’s participation to an extent, caste strongholds were maintained at the Panchayat level.

These subordinations played out even in seemingly innocuous details like the
seating arrangements at meetings where women would not occupy the front rows. Dr Rao found that family structures and the lack of access to and control over resources impeded their ability to participate in politics.

Her research on Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) showed a mixed picture- the attendance of women increased by being elected but their presence did not ensure participation and leadership. It was noted that a large proportion of EWRs entered politics due to encouragement or outright “pushing” by family and elders.

They received only partial support from their families in their political work. EWRs focused their work on schemes for marginalized sections and gave priority to basic services like water, health, sanitation, and education. Obstacles like:

  • unpaid care work and an increased burden,
  • socio-cultural norms of mobility and sexual vulnerability,
  • domination of and dependence on men,
  • fear of taunts on their characters, and
  • low self-confidence affected EWRs’ ability to participate in politics.

Dr Rao also stressed some challenges in a reservation such as the token presence of women, single term tenures, intersectional barriers of caste, class, and patriarchy, and an absence of support networks. Without addressing these issues, the reservation would serve a limited purpose.

She spoke about the importance of training women to empower them and free them from internalized subordination while also pointing out that the absorption, recall, and utilization of most present training methods were limited and needed work.

To conclude, Dr Rao noted that the inclusion rhetoric had seeped in but the sense of loss of power amongst the elite and their lack of confidence in the reserved category candidates remained. Socio-political changes have not kept up with the changes in the socio-cultural environment, and women’s agency, as well as the intersectionality insubordination, need to be focused upon to create
transformative changes.

The way forward will have to include community-level interventions, early and sustained engagement of feminist movements in the lives of women, as well as institutional and policy interventions, to measure and incentivize inclusivity.

Training, research, documentation, and advocacy can all play their part to
overcome the challenges and increase rural women’s political participation- Dr. Nagmani Rao

Power Centres


Ms Vidya Kulkarni Feminist Documentary Filmmaker and Photographer raised two points that affected women’s participation-

  1. The power centres in politics are becoming stronger and more centralized, as is evident from instances of posts being auctioned, which further sidelines women, and
  2. Training programmes which work at the state level and are associated with the government often have to cut down on content to suit the higher scale they work on. This leads them to simplify the material taught.
  3. Perspective building and an understanding of gender politics take a back seat while the emphasis is placed on confidence and capacity building. Ms Kulkarni identified this as a major reason for women not being able to remain in politics for long.

Personal vs Political

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Shri Bhim Sarkar, Head, Resource and Support Centre for Development, Mumbai remarked that state support was needed to encourage women as they often would enter, get overburdened from having to handle both home and political work, and then leave.

He pointed out that political parties did not have internal reservation policies and that society to have not accepted reservations completely.

Proxies are assumed to be so prevalent that women’s contributions are actively undermined. He emphasized the vernacular dissemination of training material and involving experienced people, especially women who had participated in politics, in the content development of what is taught in training.


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Prof Pamela Singh Head, Department of Social Work, Provost, International Students House for Women and Social Work Hostel, Delhi University spoke about how India’s policy of 33% reservation at the Panchayat level had served as a role model in the subcontinent and the importance of primary data and methodology in social work and research.

She also spoke of the new forms of violence against women that had emerged as a backlash against reservation policies which cause fear and reluctance in women and how meetings in some places were knowingly conducted at odd hours or distant locations to deter the elected women from participating.

Gender Justice

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Dr Medha Kotwal Lele Founder member, Aalochana(feminist documentation centre), Pune talked about the work done by Aalochana in gender training and gender justice to change women’s perception about themselves and deconstruct patriarchy.

She invoked Ambedkar’s ideas of how deconstructing patriarchy and giving women agency and control over their sexuality would move society towards questioning endogamy and deconstructing caste as well.

She also stressed that it was important to build connections between rural women and urban centres to empower them and maintain the flow of knowledge required to help them transform politics.

Concluding Remarks

Dr Rao talked about the importance of networks in breaking down the masculine atmosphere in politics and creating a supportive environment linked to feminist ideologies and said that we must ensure women occupy not just the role of consultants but also cross the threshold and work to shape policies.

Prof Vibhuti called for gender-responsive budgeting and used an example to illustrate how the use of residual funds for women’s causes could be of great significance. She re-emphasized the need for women’s reservation, the demand that men with criminal histories of violence against women not be given party tickets and the prevention of unparliamentarily language being used against women. She remarked that 5000 years of oppression cannot be undone by 30 years of reservation. The discussants agreed that the time for action was now.

Acknowledgement: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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