Bengal village women vote for first time since independence

Bengal village women vote for first time since independence

"It is a great achievement for us that we have been able to make the women voters of Nutondi village in Raghunathpur block-II conscious of their voting rights. And they have turned up for voting in booth number 59 of Para assembly constituency for the first time in independent India," said election official and Para Block Development Officer (BDO) Kaushik Bhattacharya.

There are 691 women voters out of 1,452 electors in Nutondi village.Since independence, none of these women from conservative Muslim families in the village had ever voted.

After the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, when the young BDO came to know that these women have always stayed away from the polling booths, he started making enquiries.

It was found that not only have women from the village never participated in any election since independence, none of them even had electoral photo-identity cards (EPIC). All this while, men in their families took part in the elections.

"There was no social prejudice or any religious diktat barring the women voters from exercising their franchise. It was only a mental segregation which prevented them so long from participating in the democratic exercise. We were waiting for someone who can come forward to break the shackles," Bhattacharya told IANS.

Last year, a meeting was held in the village attended by the religious head, senior men and the government and Election Commission officials to ascertain what prevented the women from voting.

The officials after the meeting concluded that these burqa-clad Muslim women were reluctant to remove the veil in the presence of male election officials to get their photos clicked for the EPIC.

"Also, they were reluctant to vote because the elections are generally conducted by men," said the BDO.

So, the Election Commission (EC) and the state government appointed women officials who went from door to door to take the women voters' photographs and enlisted them in the electoral rolls.

"After repeated attempts, more than 200 out of 691 eligible women registered their names and they were provided EPICs," said Bhattacharya, a 2009 batch Indian Administrative Service officer of the West Bengal cadre.

After the election officials came to know that the women in Nutondi were also hesitant to stand in queue at polling booth with men and cast their votes in front of male polling officers, special arrangements were made for them.

"Earlier, we approached the EC to set up a separate polling booth for the women but it was not approved. So, in a never before initiative women polling personnel were appointed in that booth," said Purulia District Magistrate and District Election Officer Abinindra Singh.

Bhattacahrya is a bit disheartened by the low turnout of women. "We made sincere efforts from morning to bring the women voters to the polling booths. Our happiness would have been total had there been more participation from them," he said.