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Women gain legislative seats in Kashmir

Source: Global Press Institute - Mon, 31 Oct 2011 09:20 AM
Author: Global Press Institute
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PATTAN, KASHMIR, INDIA - Zana Begum, a resident of Buren-Pattan, a locality of Jammu and Kashmir state in India, says her interest drove her to run in the first elections for her area's panchayat, the local village council, in a decade. She ran unopposed earlier this year and gained a seat as a panch, a local government representative. She says her family didn't support her, but she took on the challenge anyway. "I was interested in contesting elections for local governance," she says. "My husband didn't support me. He often told me that our family will be killed due to my contesting of elections. One of my children supported me, and I went forward with elections." Begum, a middle-aged woman, says that after filing her nomination papers, her husband told her not to return home because he was afraid that her candidacy would cause serious repercussions. She says her parents also disapproved of her candidacy. She says she left town close to the vote because she was scared of general militant threats and calls by separatists to boycott the elections. "Even my parental side didn't support me, and I went out of village for 15 days prior to elections," she says. But now that she has been elected, she says her husband supports her in her new role. He also helps her, as it is common here that women's husbands or male family members help them fulfill their professional obligations. "He is forced to go with other panch members, as I have to look after household affairs," she says. "Otherwise, my family will go empty stomach." Since she is illiterate, Begum says that her husband and children guide her in dealing with the issues related to local governance. "I only know how to append my signatures," she says. "Rest I will seek their assistance." Begum says that the panchayat system can help villagers to make sure they receive the services they deserve. "Few days back, I went to a nearby school to cross-check the facilities available," she says. "Apart from lack of management and indiscipline, I found teachers irregular and mostly engaged in knitting and gossiping." She pauses briefly before continuing that the teachers didn't appreciate when she confronted them about their quality of teaching. "I asked one of the concerned employees about cleanliness in school," she says. "She observed silence, and later in evening, her mother-in-law turned up to my house asking me who I was to question her daughter-in-law." But Begum says it's her responsibility to make sure that village youth receive a better education than her generation did. "Being a panch member, I feel it my duty to question and check if at all our children are getting due facilities," she says. "They've a right to secure future and shouldn't suffer the way we did." Local government representatives welcome increased participation from women here, but they say they prefer literate to illiterate candidates. But women who won seats in the election and women voters say that equal gender representation is more important than literacy. Women say top issues for them include availability of water, transportation and medical services. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, are organizing trainings to strengthen the reinstitution of the panchayat system and the inclusion of women in it. Each panchayat has five panches and a head, the sarpanch. A halqa panchyat is a basic unit representing a village or group of villages. Together they make up the panchayat raj, which refers to the entire system. Jammu and Kashmir state has been contested by neighboring India and Pakistan ever since their independence. Militancy erupted in the state in 1989. Elections were held in the trouble-torn state after a gap of 10 years without any panchayats. Despite militant threats and calls by separatists to boycott the elections, candidates ran in the elections and citizens voted. More women ran than in the past, as the state government had announced earlier this year that 33 percent of the seats would be reserved for women in the panchayat polls. Ghulam Nabi Bhat, the sarpanch of the panchayat that Begum recently joined, says that including women in local government is important. "It is a good decision to give reservation to women in panchayat elections," he says. "This will encourage them, and they'll learn the skills." He says that conflict here throughout the past few decades made the local elections a risk and likely discouraged more literate women from running. "We contested elections on risk," he says. "Had there been no element of fear, illiterate women wouldn't have got a chance to contest." Ghulam Mohammad Mir, president of the village welfare committee, an informal, nonelected committee formed by villagers to look after the development of the village, says he wishes more educated women ran. "We would prefer an educated woman, but due to fear, psychosis, women didn't come forward that way," he says. "After elections were over, many women repent for not contesting." Mohammad Dilawar, one of Begum's fellow panches, says that more literate women should have run in the elections. "Literate women can go a long way, as she can plead the cases well," he says. "It is of no use to have illiterate women as panches." But Rafiqa Bano, Dilawar's daughter-in-law, says that even illiterate women should be given a chance. "They've worked a lot over it, and we should support them," she says. "They can deliver better results if supported well by family and community." Other newly elected woman panches agree. Hasina Akther is another woman who won election as a panch in Buren-Pattan with Begum. "Our purpose of contesting election is that masses should be benefited in various aspects," she says. "Panchayats can play a vital role in development of a village and empowering womenfolk. Developing village in terms of infrastructure is our objective." She says her family supported her candidacy. "Family support is essential," she says. "My husband supported me. Due to reservation for women, I could contest. Otherwise, my husband would have contested." Moments after her win, her family distributed halwa, a sweet dish. There were two female candidates running for panch in her village. Akther, who is also illiterate, says that the sarpanch helps guides them. Road development, fences for playgrounds, and availability of water, transportation and electricity top her agenda. A few kilometers away lives Tahira Akther, who is not related to Hasina Akther, in a different village in Pattan. Running unopposed in the elections, she too is now a panch on her area's panchayat. She says her father-in-law motivated her to run in the elections. "This was a government order to have woman candidate as panch," she says. "My father-in-law asked many in village to contest, but they denied." Her father-in-law generally looks after the panchayat affairs on her behalf. "But I have to personally attend official panchayat meetings," she says. She says she plans to highlight various issues concerning women in her area of jurisdiction. These include domestic violence, awareness about various economic development schemes offered by the government and problems women face on a day-to-day basis. Local women in her village say they are looking forward to the government addressing their problems thanks to the newly elected women representatives. "It is good to have woman candidate, as she can better understand problems faced by women," says Khazeerah Begum, a local from Tahira Akther's village. "Women face lot of injustice, and usually decisions are male-centric. So role of female panch is imperative." Her fellow villager, Shahzada Begum, a common last name here, says women representatives will encourage other women to become more involved as well. "We can easily approach a female panch and explain our difficulties and requirements," she says. A couple of kilometers away lives Zareefa Begum, who ran for panch but lost. She says her father-in-law asked her to run. "Personally, I wasn't interested in contesting," she says. "Since my father-in-law insisted, I went ahead. But I did no campaigning at all." She says that many people asked her daughter, who is a graduate of the University of Kashmir, to run in the election, but she declined. Begum, who keeps herself busy doing handicrafts, says her main focus if she had won would have been improving access to water, which causes innumerable problems for women in the area. "We've to travel long distances to fetch water," she says. "Our day starts with collection of water. Once it is over, only then we can go to our fields to work. Then we've to feed cattle. It is a situation wherein we don't have water to quench our thirst. How can we think about other developmental works? My aim of contesting panchayat elections was to find a remedy to all these problems." She says that their village also needs a dispensary. "We've to go to Pattan, about three kilometers from here, if we are in need of medical assistance," she says. "Since there is no transport facility in the village, so we have to hire a tonga [horse cart] or have to first arrange a vehicle from Pattan, which wastes lot of time." With the start of panchayat raj institutions in valley, some NGOs have started a campaign to strengthen them so that their impact is felt on the ground. Indo-Global Social Service Society, an NGO that focuses on gender and leadership building at the community level, has organized sensitization programs for sarpanches and panches about the panchayat raj system and later plans to offer trainings about micro-planning. "The decentralization process of governance in Kashmir valley has not taken a proper shape despite enactment of legislation by state assembly in 1989," says Yasir Qureshi, an officer at the organization. "Now that panchayat elections have been successfully conducted and elected representatives are in place, it would be imperative to capacitate members of local panchayats towards essence of governance and development." Qureshi says that the organization proposes one- to two-day training workshops for halqa panchayat members. He says they have the funding to train 50 participants each year. He says the workshops will focus on poverty alleviation, human resource development, self-governance, devolution of powers to panchayats by different departments of state, micro-planning, women's empowerment, gender issues, social auditing, and the powers, functions and resources of local government. "This will help them develop a right perspective behind exercise of having local governance institutions and initiate development works in their respective villages," he says.

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