PATNA, India (TrustLaw) - Authorities in east India have ordered the arrest of men who are found to be exploiting their elected wives' positions, in a bid to end the practice of "rule by proxy" which plagues many rural councils in the largely patriarchal country.
The "rule by proxy" culture – in which women may be elected as representatives in local councils and committees, but their husbands still call the shots - is common across much of conservative rural India.
Officials in India's Bihar region said there were increasing incidents of unelected men, the husbands of elected female officials, who were attending government meetings and intervening in local governance issues.
"We have ordered arrest and jailing of all those trying to attend official meetings on behalf of their elected wives," said Bihar’s Rural Works Minister Bhim Singh.
"Now we hope our action will help the government check the rule by proxy at the local level."
Officials say cases of men exploiting their wives’ elected authority have increased since 2006, when Bihar decreed that half of the total number of village council seats should be reserved for women.
As a result, 130,500 seats in local councils in Bihar are now held by women, even though social activists say the majority are actually controlled by their politically-ambitious husbands.
Bihar's former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who was forced to resign from his position after he was implicated in a multi-million dollar corruption scam in 1997, is often cited as an example of the "rule by proxy" practice.
Before he was jailed, Yadav got his wife, Rabri Devi, elected as chief minister of the state, despite the fact that she had no experience in politics. He was accused by social activists of still controlling power in Bihar even from behind bars, a charge he denies.
Activists welcomed the new decree by the Bihar authorities, adding it was essential that all attempts to exploit gender-sensitive steps should be clamped down on.
"Corruption in government offices can come down only if the women representatives are allowed to act independently," said Shahina Parveen, coordinator of the Hunger Project charity.
"But the fact of the matter is that they are hardly allowed to take decisions of their own, rather, they get to act as pawns."
While India is the world’s largest democracy, even at a national level, only 10 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and Rajya Sabha (upper house) of parliament are occupied by women.
Despite 16 years of protests, rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes, activists say male legislators have blatantly blocked a bill at national level aimed at giving women more voice by reserving one third of seats for them.
(Editing by Nita Bhalla)