"Exhibiting You" - Story

When a Woman Campaigns, Women Win

By: Sara D.
Other authors: Anuradha Pande
Submitted: 10/14/2008

In addition to monthly meetings, members participate in regional and state level meetings and workshops held outside of their villages. The federation’s focus is centered on ecological security and socio-economic action on issues such as gender and caste disparity, education, alcoholism and domestic violence, through cooperative decision-making.

Over the last several years, it has expanded its activities to include motivating and training members to contest for elections on both local (panchayat) and state level seats.

While the women exert a great deal of power as active community members working collectively for equality and justice, they recognize that in order to ensure promotion of their social, economic and political rights, and secure institutional changes and policy reforms, they must also work from positions of power that only elected public decision makers hold.
Nominating a WomanDisillusioned by the current politics of muscle and money power with which elections are fought and won, the women want to restart and revitalize democratic processes that will facilitate the selection of able and honest people as their representatives.
They are also keen to have rural women elected in decision-making positions so they can devise new government programmes that reach the rural poor, particularly widows, deserted women, and other female-headed households.

Taking action, the federation members consensually nominated Hema Negi of Shilling village at a regional meeting in 2006 to contest for a state assembly seat in the February, 2007 statewide elections.

The meeting also concluded that Hema being a poor woman would not spend any money of her own on the campaign and the members of UMP shall collect donations from villages to print posters and cover transportation and other expenses during canvassing.
Creating the CampaignThe “Basket” symbol, chosen rather carefully by members of the federation to represent Hema’s campaign, attracted a lot of attention in the villages. Women especially, connected with it, because a basket is familiar; used almost everyday at home in the kitchen to put in chapattis, to collect the waste from cowsheds, to carry manure to the fields and bring back vegetables. Even babies sleep comfortably in a basket. As a woman said:

"A basket is a part of our lives. When a baby is born, he/she is put in a basket, auspicious things are put in it during weddings, and when we die, things are again carried in a basket to the cremation grounds.”
Men Respond with both Criticisms and SupportHowever, the campaign was negatively received by men and government functionaries who said:

"This is politics… not a field for women…you need money and daaru (liquor) to win the elections.”

The campaign progressed a little further reaching up to a point where communities began to debate on the “appropriateness” of a poor, rural, “unexperienced” woman trying to spread roots in the political arena.

Despite these reactions, some men boldly came forward with their support for Hema. During one of the campaign meetings at Bhikiyasain, listening to the women talk, a retired policeman approached us and donated money from his own savings. He said:

“This is the first time in my life, I have seen rural women talk so confidently in public places…I was in the police department and am aware of the exploitation that the women and the poor people have to face…yours is a genuine group…and I can see that you people work very hard…contact me any time, if you need any help.”
A Campaign Under AttackUpon seeing the widespread attention UMP was receiving in the campaign of Hema Negi, the major political parties, the government functionaries and the powerful rural elite began to pose the federation as a group of women against alcoholism.
“If Hema wins,” they said, “these women will ban trading of liquor. Are there men in villages who do not want alcohol? Why do you succumb to women’s choices? Are there no men in the hills that a woman has to come to this (political) field?”

The words amplified through a network of loudspeakers at rallies of the major political parties, and echoed throughout the mountains, with the men gathered in attendance loudly applauding and cheering.

The issue acquired a new dimension at the household level. Social pressure on women increased with the progression of the campaign, especially around early February.
Rumours Fly to Deter Women VotersHundreds of women reported that their husbands and father-in-laws had asked them to follow the “family tradition” and cast their vote in favour of parties that they assumed would win the elections. “You vote for the party you like, I will vote for the woman I like,” many of them told their husbands and others in the family.

Despite this colossal pressure at home, women continued working in villages, collecting donations from communities, often walking 10-15 kilometers a day visiting villages, meeting people to raise awareness, clarify doubts, remove confusions, to sustain the campaign and promote a sense of solidarity.

The rumour that the electronic voting machine gave you an electric shock if you voted for a candidate not from your family/village was addressed. Another rumour prevailed for weeks, that menstruating women should not touch the machine, as it would open its eyes and flash light like a deity, which would see that they were “impure” and then curse their families.

Beyond these common rumours, one spread in communities of remote villages that polling officers possessed the power to know immediately if you had not voted for a particular party. Women were told by party workers to behave because the polling officers could tell this to the influential men of the village and their families will suffer--“no yojana (development programme) will be given to your village.”
In other villages, the families were told that if they do not vote for a particular party, they would not be entitled to receive daily-wages in various infrastructure and employment schemes implemented by panchayats [village governing body].
The Women Remain as United as EverOn 15th Februrary, 2007, six days before the polling, around a thousand women marched through the bazaar in Bhikiyasain to attend Hema Negi’s campaign rally. Their movements were different from the days when they came to the market to shop. The usual fears of walking through the market had subsided by a sense of collective freedom and solidarity.

Geeta Devi, a UMP member and campaign organizer, rallied the crowd, stating:
“Men and affluent women have been governing this country…they are the decision makers…we are dependent on them…Why? They make programs without consulting us and money is spent…it doesn’t reach us but they become more affluent, more powerful.”

The assembly had been successful from the point of meeting women’s aspirations. Influential political party workers responded to it by telling (and threatening) UMP that the actual game will be played on the night before the polling day of 21st February.

According to them, that night was the katal ki raat (symbolically implying that they would buy the votes on that night). “Politics is just a new game for you…all this is fine…we know that you people work hard but you cannot win a seat just like that…you need money and tactics to buy the vote,” warned one of the party workers.
A Loss for the Campaign, But a Victory for WomenSure enough, the next three days bared witness to a remarkable change in the campaign atmosphere. The leaders of the large political parties made applauding promises, fleets of vehicles began to run on the roads, and as a poor man said:

“There is plenty of food…not ordinary food…its murga and daaru (meat and liquor)…if I am playing my cards well, I will be the polling booth agent and earn even more.”

The counting was held in early March at Almora and the results were announced on the same day. Hema was much ahead of many party candidates but had lost the seat. The votes she got corroborated with the number of women members of the UMP in the constituency, plus some additional votes from men.

Despite the fears expressed earlier by the campaign coordinators that the involvement and active participation of rural women in such a political endeavor might lead to the complete shattering of the women’s unions, women remained united and have since then become much stronger.

Their strength is increasing not only because women from the neighbouring villages are contacting them with the intention of joining the federation, but also because having gone through this work, they feel more confident of themselves to become politically active.

On the other positive note, the elected male candidate is visiting the villages, requesting women’s unions to inform him about their concerns and to advise how he could help.

This initiative of Uttarakhand Mahila Parishad ensured representation of rural women in the political sphere by integrating processes that made women acquire new political and advocacy roles.

It has also inspired more women to contest elections. The recent panchayat elections held across the state at the beginning of September, 2008, resulted in additional UMP members attaining the seats of gram pradhan (village chief), ward members, and block development committee members.

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