Women municipal councillors with a mission

Women municipal councillors with a mission


Women municipal councillors with a mission

Information and exposure have liberated many women from rural Karnataka, who have joined politics to bring about a positive change in society, says Pushpa Achanta

Jaya Kakarli, popularly called Jayamma, is a feisty Dalit woman from Gadag district in Karnataka. Aged around 54 years, she is unlettered but that hasn’t stopped her from making her mark in politics. Active in local politics for the last two decades, she has worked hard for her community.  She says, “I began my life as a financially backward agricultural labourer.  But when I did manage to find a way to improve my situation, I realised that one of the few reasons that persons with my background remain in the situation that they are in is because they hesitate to defend themselves or demand their rights. In fact, many of them are not even aware of their rights and entitlements and how to access them.”

When an empowered Jayamma began to talk to people about how to access the benefits that they were entitled to, they requested her to represent them through an elected public position.  Over the years, her stature has only grown, with her husband, six children and the rest of her family always by her side. She says, “I derive great satisfaction from motivating other women. Like my colleague, Madamma, 38, a soft-spoken, barely literate Dalit woman, who is in active public service today.  She is now able to think beyond the home; she is capable of travelling to Bangalore by herself and talking to strangers in public.”

Like Jayamma, Kasturi, 33, is a self-made woman. A municipal councillor today, this pragmatic social worker and mother-of-two began speaking out against injustice very early. At the age of 10 she exposed a male teacher who was sexually abusing girls in her school. Having lost her father as a child, she needed to take up a job as soon as she was old enough in order to contribute to the family income. “I was always interested in sports and won prizes at the local and State level as a school and junior college student.
Fortunately, my family never stopped me from pursuing my interests,” she says.

A career in athletics was what the young woman had in mind initially, but somewhere along the way she realised that politics was her calling. “As an adolescent, I discovered that I could empathise with people in need and even be their leader when necessary. That’s why I decided to join politics. Five years ago, when I ran for the post of councillor, my ward was dominated by candidates from the main opposition party. Yet, I won,” she reveals.

Kasturi works in Sagar, a town in Shimoga district, which has people from diverse religions and is vulnerable to communal tensions. But she has proved her mettle and instilled confidence among the people of her ward as well as the local police, by largely maintaining communal harmony in her area. These days, in addition to assisting people to access their entitlements, Kasturi also makes it a point to share her experiences and knowledge with others.

Karnataka has several politically empowered women like Jayamma and Kasturi, who are doing good work in their communities. But their political journey has not been free of challenges. Apart from a few lucky ones, most have had to overcome hurdles at every step of the way — be it their lack of awareness or the social stigma they experienced.

Coming to their aid have been organisations like the Urban Research Centre (URC), which has been holding awareness sessions on governance structures, politics, gender rights, responsibilities of councillors, among other relevant topics for the last three years. Says Prabha T S, 37, a councillor from Chamrajnagar district, “We found that many of our peers did not know their basic duties. We have benefited immensely from URC’s training programmes and now we encourage other women councillors to participate in the periodic discussions and training that it conducts.”

While Jayamma and Kasturi are well aware of their responsibilities, the professional and private life of an average female councillor is still controlled by male family members. They want to change this scenario radically.

What will help them in this endeavour is the Karnataka Municipalities and Certain Other Laws (Amendment) Bill 2012, once it comes into force. This Bill — An amendment of the Karnataka Municipalities Act 1964 and the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act 1976 — mandates that women occupy 50 per cent of the seats in urban local bodies across the State. Recently, URC had organised a meeting of women councillors to discuss the significance and possible impact of the new law.

Today, M Pramila, a former municipal councillor and graduate in Kannada from Dodballapur, near Bangalore, and Kasturi are eagerly waiting for its implementation, “At present, we feel that our viewpoints are not heard or considered easily. Moreover, our specific concerns are not addressed, even though we try very hard to speak out. Hopefully the new law will change that,” they remark, almost in unison.

This is a problem that most women councillors face, even if they have been members of established political parties for many years. While parties generally accept them as candidates, especially in the wards reserved for women, they do so only to corner more seats, not to empower women. In fact some women councillors also feel that men are constantly attempting to sideline them, especially if they prove to be vocal and efficient.

With fifty per cent reservation in local bodies, the women feel they will finally have a fair chance at being taken seriously. It is a struggle to keep at  — there are not many perks that come with a councillor’s post, and much of the work is voluntary. The municipality does not even provide them with designated office space or remuneration except for a small honorarium that varies from Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 per month, depending on the area that comes under the jurisdiction of the municipality. Further, the councillors are expected to contribute funds for festivals, sports tournaments and other events organised in their area. Women councillors sometimes even have to face gender-based harassment and discrimination from the public, colleagues, the police and other government officials as well.

But women like Saroja, a councillor from Karwar district, are not daunted by the challenges, “Like women in other situations, we have realised that we must stand up and speak out for ourselves. For instance, we have asked for separate seating in the council office and a designated space where we can take some rest and enjoy some privacy.”

Even Sukanya, 47, from Chikmaglur district, is determined to continue her community work. Sukanya has successfully fought for her independence and identity ever since she was a young girl. After becoming the municipal councillor of her ward for the first time around five years ago, she has ensured that the women in her ward — be they from the community or party — are not left behind.  

Information and exposure has liberated these women who are figures of inspiration at the local level. Their maxim, “Let us all unite as women and reach out to each other”, is extremely relevant, no matter how difficult it is to achieve! 

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