India is an interesting story when it comes to women and positions of power. Ranked 108th out of 188 countries in annual statistics on the number of women MPs, another view sees the World Economic Forum ranking it the 9th highest achieving country worldwide inaction to close the gender gap in overall political participation.
One of these women is Lakshmi Priya Nayak. Her route to being elected Sarpanch (chairperson) of Panchayat Bhagabanapur, her provincial forest constituency in Odisha state, has not been easy and nor is there plain sailing ahead. But her success is a both a product and driver of women’s engagement, and there is much hope for the future.
The Indian Government enshrined a quota in law in 1994 that designates 33% of provincial government positions to women. The first generation of these women leaders came into power in 1997.
Lakshmi Priya received an education and completed her matriculation, but could not continue her study further due to early marriage. She adjusted to the life of a wife by supporting her husband, and their two children, by managing a grocery shop in her village.
But this was not enough. She decided to organise women within her community to form a self help group, with the intention of launching cooperative business activities and a savings and credit scheme that would bolster the incomes of their wider families.
Lakshmi Priya was a popular leader among the women of the self-help group, to the extent that in the next election, the members proposed her as a candidate for the post of Sarpanch in the Panchayat – a role that she was initially reluctant to stand for.
With the support of her sisters in the self-help group - alongside that of her husband, in-laws and parents - she grew in confidence and went on to beat five other candidates to win the election.
Two years into her tenure, Lakshmi Priya has realised a number of infrastructure projects including the building of roads and ponds. Her greatest aim, however, is to connect all the homes in her Panchayat to a piped water supply.
Lakshmi Priya feels that her involvement in the women’s self help group was a key to her winning the election, and it also means she has abroad network of support.
Since she became involved in grassroots democracy, the number of women participating in hamlet parliamentary meetings has steadily increased. Lakshmi Priya has also used her role to encourage women to raise awareness of the government health facilities’ availability to their family members.
The vivid change caused by the dramatic introduction of provincial parliamentary reservations requires a period of adjustment. VSO research has highlighted that many women leaders have struggled to become truly autonomous from male family members.
Now, almost twenty years on, women leaders are gaining confidence. Some, like Lakshmi Priya are becoming more visible as public leaders by supervising midday meals and standing more on their own feet through the support of women’s collectives.
It is hoped that with greater visibility, the heightened position of women in local politics will become normalised to the degree that every woman can imagine herself as a leader.