India in Focus

India in Focus

From the Village Street to the Prime Minister’s Office

With over one billion people, India is now the world's most populous democracy. In 1947, India put an end to a century of colonial rule when it gained its independence from Brtitain. Women played integral parts in this struggle, successfully tying "Freedom for India" with "Freedom for Women." In the 60 years since independence, women have entered politics at every level of authority.

Mamta Borgoyary, Winrock International, India
In 1966, with the appointment of Indira Gandhi, India became one of the first countries in the world governed by a female prime minister. Today, numerous women hold office as members of parliament and state governors. In 2007, Pratibha Patil was elected India's first female president with the support of Sonia Gandhi, daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi and leader of one of India's largest political parties.

Women are entering the political system at the local level as well. In 1992, India amended its constitution to add gender quotas to all locally elected positions. Village councils, or panchayats, now must reserve one third of their seats for women. Currently, over one million women hold elected office in panchayats and over two million have held these positions to date. In 2005, the Women's Reservation Bill was passed, providing a similar one-third quota for women in Parliament and the State Assembly.

Although the number of women in various levels of political activity has risen considerably, women are still under-represented in governance and decision-making positions, and they face cultural and practical barriers to exercising power in these roles. A large percentage of Indian men and women still believe that women, simply, shouldn't hold leadership positions. When they do, they are sometimes seen as mere proxies for their husbands. Women who step forward and assert themselves as leaders are silenced, threatened and sometimes killed.

While some Indian women choose to make change through formal politics, others feel that working outside or against "the system" is the only way to bring about change. Vibrant grass-roots women's movements have stridently campaigned for statehood in regions such as Kashmir and Manipur, as well as for human and environmental rights.

Whether working inside or outside the system, India's women are leading a widespread social transformation: from the village street all the way up to the highest levels of political office. In 60 years, India's women have helped create a thriving democracy and serve as a model of true civic participation.

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