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Gender Equality in Local Governance in Kerala

Women's entry into governance through reservations is expected to be part of a long-term process of fostering gender equality. In this context, it is imperative to explore the issue of the accountability of male representatives. This article offers an analysis of a workshop held in Thiruvananthapuram, exclusively for newly elected male representatives. It shows that gender-just outcomes would require much more than a minimal transfer of resources to women or opposition to offences against women.


Gender Equality in Local Governance in Kerala

Praveena Kodoth, U S Mishra

and programmes. Over time, “gender training” has become something of a byword in initiating gender-sensitive governance. It has been institutionalised as part of the routine training programmes for elected local government representatives (Bhaskaran et al 2006: 14; KILA 2010). However,

Women’s entry into governance through reservations is expected to be part of a long-term process of fostering gender equality. In this context, it is imperative to explore the issue of the accountability of male representatives. This article offers an analysis of a workshop held in Thiruvananthapuram, exclusively for newly elected male representatives. It shows that gender-just outcomes would require much more than a minimal transfer of resources to women or opposition to offences against women.

We are grateful to V Santhakumar, who

coordinated the workshop, for suggesting and facilitating this note and K Narayanan Nair for his interest and encouragement. We would like to thank Rini, who carried out the data entry and analysis with care.

Praveena Kodoth ( and U S Mishra ( are at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

omen’s representation in local government has increased substantially since reservations were introduced in Kerala in 1996. A number of studies have taken stock of how women representatives have fared, the barriers they face and the strategies they have d evised in the face of a restrictive gender norm (Radha and Roy Choudhury 2002; Muraleedharan 2003; Vijayan and Sandhya 2004; Chathukulam and John 2000; Eapen and Thomas 2005; Bhaskaran et al 2006; Anitha et al 2008; GOK 2009; Suresh 2009). They show that a patri archal social/family organisation and an entrenched sexist political culture raise significant barriers for women representatives. They are constrained by restrictions on their mobility, owing to moral policing, and have less disposable time owing to their responsibility for housework (GOK 2009). They are also confronted with an outright resistance when they exercise authority that is perceived to be in excess of normative feminine (or caste) codes (Muraleedharan 2003; Anitha et al 2008: 61-62). Thus the entrenched order of mainstream politics continues to define gendered terms upon which women may participate in local governance. In turn, women representatives have negotiated gender codes by defining their role in a continuum with their normative gender identities – claiming, for instance, to nurture their wards as they would their families (Anitha et al 2008).

Women’s entry into governance through reservations is expected to be a part of a longer term process of fostering gender equality. In this context, gender training efforts are expected to provide crucial educational input to foster change, whether through reforming attitudes in general, and perspectives on governance in particular or in building capability for the design and implementation of projects

september 17, 2011

such as it is conceptualised, there is a grave risk of domestication of “gender”, by obscuring the issue of power.

  • (a) The focus of gender interventions, understood to be predominantly on women, could be a severe limitation in planning for gender just outcomes (including attitudinal changes) that would require attention to boys and girls, men and women.
  • (b) The targeting of “needs” (of women) by classifying them into practical and strategic needs in formulating project i nterventions assumes that the critical edge of gender works through the nature of the need rather than through the perspective used to deliver to any identified needs.1
  • (c) Gender is conceptualised in a binary relation to sex such that sex, unlike gender, is seen as fixed, constant and not open to change. This manner of conceptualisation provides a comforting bulwark of fundamental difference between men and women stretching seamlessly from infancy to old age and provides a potential justification for advancing protectionism (barely veiled discrimination) towards women.
  • Such an approach to gender is severely limiting. Further, as women are the focus of gender interventions, it seems obvious that women representatives will be the channels of change, better equipped as they seem to be to deliver to women’s needs.2 Thus, women representatives are expected to act simultaneously as representatives, responsible to their electorate to meet the “general” needs of governance and as women representatives with a special responsibility to address the interests of women.3 The unstated assumption that women will bear this dual responsibility serves to blur the accountability of male representatives to gender equality and to leave it unexamined. The increased representation of women along with the additional reservations of half of the key positions of standing committee chairpersons (previously not subject to reservations) provides a new set

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    of opportunities/challenges. Previously, reservations had been “managed” by ensuring, for instance, that wherever the president’s post was occupied by a woman, not only the vice-president, but also, all or most standing committee chairpersons would be male (Devika and Thampi 2010: 184). In the current situation, the same strategies are unlikely to be effective. The overall increase in the reservation quota could bring pressure on panchayats to call on the resources of their women representatives more intensively, where they did not do so previously.

    Some distinctions that mark the position of women representatives in Kerala at present may be worth noting. The support of family members, particularly the husband, seems critical to the ability of women to survive in governance across India. However, even in states such as Maharashtra or Karnataka, with relatively longer experience of reservation, husbands or caste leaders (they may be leaders of the woman’s caste or of the dominant caste, which may select a lower caste woman as a compromise candidate) of women sarpanches are involved in carrying out official work to greater considerable extents (Baviskar 2009: 24, 28, 32; Patil 2009: 339; Bhargava and Subha 2009: 185; Chandrashekar 2009: 256-59). In Kerala, it is the party in question that expects to assume de facto control, more so when women are new entrants into governance (Devika and Thampi 2010: 182-83). Previously, party grip on the standing committees ensured power over a woman president. A majority of women panchayat presidents interviewed by Devika and Thampi and chosen for their popularity and survival in local governance for over a term, claimed to be from “party families”, families long affiliated to political parties. These women internalised adherence to party norms a ffecting everything from broad policy i ssues to the nitty-gritty of everyday work in panchayats. The “party family” phenomenon may blur the distinction between party and family as the source of patronage for w omen, but by its nature may be less available to women from the social margins.

    The structural constraints that women face in governance (from family and politics) and their relative inexperience in politics compared to male representatives make it

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    unlikely that women will be able to take on entrenched patriarchal power directly, even where they may see the need to do so, especially when male representatives see their interests in keeping entrenched structures in place. Thus, it is imperative to explore the issue of the a ccountability of male representatives. Towards this, a more direct focus could be useful on male representatives than has been made so far. As an initial step, the Research Unit of Local Self-Governments (RULSG), Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum organised a two-day workshop between 22 and 23 January 2011 e xclusively for newly elected male representatives on ways of initiating gender justice through local governance. The workshop generated information about participants’ gender attitudes through structured formats – questionnaire, gender assessment and group discussions – and open-ended discussions. We elicited and engaged with their views on the challenges and opportunities presented by the new situation.

    Profile of Participants

    Of the 40 candidates selected from 453 a pplications received, 29 attended the workshop. They comprised 16 presidents, one vice-president, 11 panchayat members (two standing committee chairpersons) and one municipal counsellor (standing committee chairperson). We selected all the presidents who had applied with the view that they would have greater influence. From those districts where no president had applied, we selected members using the age criterion. Thus, we had representatives from all but one district (Ernakulam). Needless to say, this is not a representative sample from which we may draw generalisations about male representatives. The profile provided here is only expected to put in perspective the information generated during the workshop. There were representatives from the major political parties – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), Communist Party of India (CPI), Indian National Congress (INC), Muslim League and Kerala Congress. The social and demographic profile of the participants’ shows diversity in terms of age (between 22 and 70 years) and social background. Over half of the participants were from the Other Backward Classes

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    (OBCs) followed by forward castes (FC) (27%) and scheduled castes (SC) (14%). In terms of education, 38% had education up to high school followed by 24% with a graduate degree and 20% with postgraduate or professional education. The majority of participants were married (80%), over half had no other employment and three were retired employees.

    Gender Perceptions

    The participants readily admitted gender discrimination with respect to a set of i ssues that is now an important part of gender interventions of the local selfgoverments (LSGs). These include dowry, violence against women, barriers to women’s employment and even men’s lack of responsibility for reproductive work. However, this admission did not extend to the issues that threaten to disrupt the gender norm (or to question patriarchy) in fundamental ways. With few exceptions, the participants were unwilling to depart from deep-seated gender codes that mandated women’s adherence to marriage and to sexual morality. Crucially, the participants endorsed a framework of protectionism towards women in the view that women should be shielded even if it required curtailing their opportunities/rights as citizens. Protection was deemed necessary, especially where there were fears of breach of dominant sexual morality.

    A preview to this truncated interpretation of gender justice was available in an initial discussion of two group exercises by the participants. One set of participants was asked to evaluate, from the perspective of gender justice, an advertisement put out by the Kerala State Women’s Commission as part of its campaign against d omestic violence (exercise 1). The advertisement showed a woman (recognisable as the wife/mother) serving food to her husband and children at the family dining table. It invoked the attention of the viewer (implicitly male) with the words “this beautiful moment is yours. In a family, mother, daughter, sister, wife all deserve the man’s loving protection…”. The second exercise concerned the Indian government’s ban on women below 30 years of age from going abroad to work as domestic workers. The question posed was whether they agreed with the restriction

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    and if so whether they thought it should be extended to men as well (exercise 2).

    There was unanimous agreement that the advertisement in exercise 1 was inappropriate for a campaign to promote gender justice. The participants pointed out that a woman’s work, which made possible the “beautiful moment” in the advertisement was rendered invisible. They also noted that it was a scene from everyday life and hence easy to relate to but had the effect of endorsing discrimination against women; perhaps, some of them said, the woman too could have been shown seated at the table. In contrast, without exception they justified the age restriction on the emigration of women domestic workers in exercise 2. One of the groups and some in the audience felt that the minimum age at which a woman may be allowed to emigrate should be raised from 30 years to 40 years. A young participant pointed out that the nation’s honour was at stake in such emigration and that it amounted virtually to sending out women to be exploited. Participants with previous experience of working in the Gulf region pointed out that domestic workers were treated no better than slaves and unlike male workers were unable to take recourse to the labour courts, hence their situation could not be equated to that of the participants persisted with the view that women should not be permitted to emigrate unless the government could ensure their security.

    Assessment of Gender Attitudes

    We assessed gender attitudes of the participants by taking their views on 27 gendered situations presented as statements.4 The statements were categorised into four domains – referring to socialisation, rights, reproductive decisions and sexuality, of which the largest number of statements was categorised under rights.5 Citizenship is understood to confer rights that enable people to lead a valuable life but cultural notions could intercede to chart distinctions between women and men in ways that may severely curtail the rights of women. The participants displayed the most favourable gender attitudes (index value above 0.80) in rejecting dowry, rejecting the stigma on unmarried women, in endorsing the need for equal employment opportunities for women and affirming the desirability of sex education for children (Table 1).6 For some time now

    Table 1: Assessment of Gender Attitudes

    l ocal governments have been called upon to deal with dowry, with the vulnerability of single women and to generate avenues of women’s employment. The responses to these issues may reflect this exposure. Also, dowry and sex education have been subjected to considerable public attention in the recent past.7

    Favourable attitudes found in the assessment may be shaped within different even conflicting perspectives. Let us consider the opposition to dowry. A prominent view among Christians in particular is that dowry is an inherently beneficial and time-honoured social custom that has been distorted, through excessive commercialisation. In this view, dowry is the appropriate channel for the transfer of property from parents to girl children but extortion is inappropriate. Certain groups reject dowry as it is unacceptable under Islam, but they openly endorse early marriage of girls and other aspects of patriarchy.8 Even the position that dowry is a social evil could be complicit with patriarchy when the opposition is primarily b ecause dowry stands in the way of getting

    Statement Index Score
    1 Free social interaction between adolescent girls and boys is a threat to good moral conduct 0.72
    2 Girls should be taught to maintain greater discipline than boys 0.27
    3 Boys should not cry 0.36

    men in similar kinds of work. However, 4 Young men and women should not be encouraged to choose their marital partners

    there was difference of opinion on whether men too should be similarly restricted from seeking work abroad. One group maintained that as men too faced exploitation, there should be an effort to impose restrictions on their movement.

    5 Young girls should be taught to do housework so that they can grow up to be good wives
    and mothers 0.22
    6 In our society boys and girls are brought up to believe they have the same opportunities 0.29
    7 To be able to lead a valuable life, a woman must get married 0.21
    8 A wife should obey her husband otherwise society will not respect him 0.39
    9 A husband is justified in using violence against his wife if she does not take proper care of the children 0.62
    10 The Domestic Violence Act is against the interests of men 0.68
    11 It is the mother-in-law who mistreats the daughter-in-law so it is women and not men who are
    responsible for the oppression of women 0.44
    12 It is alright to demand dowry when the bride does not have a job 0.94
    13 Men are much better than women in making decisions about financial matters 0.63
    14 Women should not have the same employment opportunities as men because it would
    lead to male unemployment and social crisis 0.87

    The participants recognised the inequality in exercise 1 and were unwilling to justify it despite its everyday occurrence but they did not reject the protectionism it invoked by beseeching men to

    fulfil their role as protectors of women 15 The work of truck drivers, toddy tappers, plumbers and carpenters is not suitable for women

    and children in their families. The impli- 16 Generally men earn higher wages than women because the work they do is more strenuous

    cations of protectionism were substantiated more fully in the response of participants’ to exercise 2. This exercise brought to the fore the tensions aroused by sexual m orality. Even when the adverse implications of the measure were pointed out, for instance, in forcing women to resort to

    17 Fewer women own property than men because they are less capable of managing property than men 0.68

    18 Men do not have the ability or attitude necessary for household work and childcare

    19 It is better than women undergo terminal contraception because it may affect men's ability to work 0.68

    20 It is not necessary for a husband to participate in the medical consultations of his pregnant wife 0.75

    21 A husband is in a better position to decide on the number of children a couple should have

    22 Sex education in schools will introduce children to the wrong kind of ideas

    23 Girls must dress modestly otherwise they will bring disrepute to their family

    24 Unmarried women are a threat to the stability of a society

    i llegal emigration with all its attendant 25 Unrestricted mobility can only bring harm to women

    risks or to take up less remunerative, but no 26 Prostitutes should not have the same rights as any other women 0.77 27 It is appropriate that women value chastity above all else 0.06

    less exploitative work within the country –

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    the high value society attaches to women being married. The deviation could indicate that marriage defines the parameters within which women are allowed to negotiate other rights, in which case, dowry may be a price to “achieve” marriage. Indeed, during the discussions only the rare participant was of the view that women should have the space to d ecide whether they wanted to be married or not.11 The sharp deviation between the opposition to dowry and the belief that men receive higher wages because their work is more strenuous too suggests the influence of a restrictive gender norm.

    Areas of greater cohesion as between the opposition to dowry and the endorsement of equal employment opportunities for women are instructive. Other statements that refer to women’s suitability for tasks or jobs generally identified with men or men’s suitability for housework show relatively high levels of cohesion with the opposition to dowry. In these instances, the claims entailed are not perceived as threatening the gender norm.

    Challenges and Opportunities

    During a discussion on women’s reservation, when the oldest participant welcomed the measure as a part of secular reform-oriented change that in the past had seen feudal structures crumble, one of the younger participants had retorted that he (the oldest participant) could afford to say so because (at his age) he did not stand to lose very much. Clearly there were undercurrents of resentment but few participants opposed the measure outright. Only one panchayat president was

    Table 2: Rights

    vocal about what he called its severe negative impact on governance arising from women’s inabilities. He revealed that in the previous term he had fielded a woman candidate and with her as president had run the affairs of the panchayat. We analyse here some of the issues that came up in the discussion and also outline the challenges that the data present for the LSG, more importantly, for male representatives in their dual capacity as LSG functionaries and as members of mainstream political parties.

    Politics as a Masculine Space: Student politics was the major route of entry of the participants.12 It is widely acknowledged that women face barriers to entry into politics through the same routes as men. Notably, the majority of participants reported that members of their families were in politics. In the case of a little more than half the participants with family members in politics, their wives were in politics (Table 3). Ten out of 16 panchayat presidents reported that their wives were in politics and one out of three of the wives were LSG representatives. This suggests that in the face of reservations,

    Table 3: Representatives with Family Members in Politicsa

    Category of Family Members in Politics No of
    Father 7 (30.4)
    Mother 3 (13.04)
    Wife 11 (47.82)
    Brother 9 (39.13)
    Sister 4 (17.39)
    At least one family member 20 (86.95)
    No family member 3 (13.04)

    a Six participants did not provide this information. Figures in parenthesis are percentages.

    Correspondence Score

    It is alright to demand dowry when the bride does not have a job To be able to lead a valuable life, a woman must get married

    A wife should obey her husband otherwise society will not respect him

    A husband is justified in using violence against his wife if she does not take proper care of the children 58.62

    The Domestic Violence Act is against the interests of men

    girls married and causes financial hardships for their families.9 Importantly, these perspectives were voiced during the workshops. The problem with them is that they fail to make the link between dowry and a patriarchal institution of marriage. The propositions with the lowest index values could represent the boundaries within which representatives conceive of women’s legitimate claims. For instance, most participants endorsed the need for girls to dress modestly and thought women should value chastity above all else, n otions that implicate sexuality, even as they endorsed the idea of sex education for children, bringing into question the values they may expect sex education to promote. Adherence to the dominant gender norm was substantiated further in their responses to other statements regarding gender socialisation – that girls should be more disciplined and should learn to do housework or that boys should not cry (index values between

    0.21 and 0.40).

    The variation in index values of statements could suggest inconsistency. The participants agreed that boys and girls are brought up to believe they have the same opportunities, but at the same time, maintain that girls should be taught to be more disciplined than boys or should be taught housework so that they can grow up to be good wives and mothers. To understand such variations better we have probed the level of internal consistency by examining the correspondence between participants’ responses on the statement with the best index value (best gender attitude) in a specific domain and each of the other statements in the same domain.10 The findings are presented in Table 2 for the domains of rights. Some of the statements were inflected in specific ways so as to elicit unfavourable gender attitudes, where they may exist or where issues posed in more general terms may blur discrimination owing

    to the familiarity of participants with a gender discourse. For instance, the statements on dowry, the mother-in-law’s culpability in domestic violence and women’s employment opportunities were inflected to reveal gender bias.

    There is least consistency between the opposition to dowry (which had the highest index value in the domain of rights) and

    It is the mother-in-law who mistreats the daughter-in-law so it is women and not men who are responsible for the oppression of women

    Men are much better than women in making decisions about financial matters

    Women should not have the same employment opportunities as men because it would lead to male unemployment and social crisis

    The work of truck drivers, toddy tappers, plumbers and carpenters is not suitable for women

    Generally men earn higher wages than women because the work they do is more strenuous

    Fewer women own property than men because they are less capable of managing property than men 62.07

    Men do not have the ability or attitude necessary for household work and childcare

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    women from the families of male politicians may furnish a significant pool for drawing candidates.13 It does not follow necessarily that wives of male politicians are fielded as “proxies” for their husbands. Incidentally, the president who claimed that he had fielded a proxy was not referring to his wife but to a young woman in the panchayat, who held a government job, clearly an atypical case of a proxy. It has been argued that women from “party families” are able to survive better than others (Devika and Thampi 2010: 182). A survey by the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad found that a majority of women representatives cited family environs as the main factor motivating them to participate in local governance (Suresh 2009: 202). Yet, women from political families may survive on patronage, requiring compromises on individual abilities and restraint against exceeding norms of femininity.

    Lack of a Critical Mass of Women in the Political Arena: Participants from the central and southern parts of Kerala pointed out that many women representatives were simply unable to cope with work. This was not because of a scarcity of capable women in the electorate but because electoral compulsions drove political parties to select women candidates according to their community background. Women with prior experience of public work through avenues like Kudumbasree, who were known to be capable, were bypassed as candidates.14 This draws attention to a fundamental problem – that of the lack of a critical mass of women in the political arena, from across social and economic strata. It is not necessarily the case that the best candidates are selected from among men either but there is usually a critical mass of them in public life to choose from. A major challenge thus would be for political parties, in their own interests, to create space for women in ways that would enable their mobilisation. This issue needs to be incorporated into discussions that are parts of gender training efforts for political parties as well as for local government representatives.

    Politics of Patronage towards Women:

    Two sections of male representatives from north Kerala maintained that they did not

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    experience a scarcity of potential women candidates. They were from the areas where a single party dominated the political scenario. A CPM member pointed out that women organised into Mahila Samajams (local units of the All India Democratic Women’s Association) under the party furnished a ready pool of candidates. Muslim League members too said they did not experience a scarcity of women candidates. Throughout the workshop, the latter had been vocal in attempting to define limits to equal opportunities for women on the grounds that sexual differences shaped different capabilities. Their perception of lack of scarcity seems to have been mediated by the view that women are not expected to shoulder the same responsibilities as men. The responses from members of political parties seemingly at two extremes of the political/religious divide implicate them in different ways of articulating a politics of patronage towards women. Single party dominance of an area makes available a larger pool of resources for the LSG from outside its formal confines of elected representatives to facilitate governance. In such contexts, the work of governance may be shared more widely (among men) or taken over by a local leadership (male).15 Not only does this hinder the development of women’s capabilities, but also it may lead to suppression of individual initiative and stifle differences of opinion emerging from genderbased experiences.

    Sexual Politics to Discipline Women Representatives: Women representatives fall easy prey to political rivalries when sexual morality is invoked against them. A participant pointed out that a capable woman president in his panchayat during the previous term had to face sexual slander from political rivals because she was seen moving around with her male colleagues. She was able to withstand the harassment only because her husband, who works in the Gulf, supported her.16 Sexual politics may be used to get rid of effective women who could affect their political party’s fortunes favourably but it may be used generally to “discipline” women. Where a husband is suspicious, women need to fall back on resources such as politically powerful families, which are less available to women from poor families and dalit backgrounds (Devika and Thampi 2010: 186). The problem is fundamental as sexual morality subjects women’s rights as citizens to the institution of marriage. The current scenario of reservations presents an excellent opportunity to initiate a critical debate on r estrictive sexual codes.

    Gendered Citizenship: Women’s ability to access their (civil and political) rights is circumscribed by a social concern for their “security”, a factor that is invariably inflected by sexual morality. Restrictions on basic civil rights such as mobility or right to sell labour power on the market are effected by families/marriage blurring the responsibility of state to protect persons. Indeed, in cultural terms, marriage is framed as the means of protecting women, i e, as the institutional framework mandating discipline and enabling women to function in socially appropriate ways. This not only detracts from the responsibilities of governance, but also vests in men significant powers to curtail the civil and political rights of their wives. In this context, protectionist measures taken by LSG – such as schemes to facilitate women’s marriage, even when it is part of a campaign to resist dowry – curtail a women’s ability to claim her rights independent of marriage. Cleary, local governance must resist the perceived trade-off between women’s security and their rights.

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    We had earlier identified three aspects of the conceptualisation of gender in governance that subvert the use of a gender perspective and serve to blur the accountability of male representatives. Gender just outcomes would require much more than a minimal transfer of resources to women or an opposition to widely recognised offences against women. It would require the formulation and implementation of projects in ways that address patriarchal power. Greater focus on gender education for male representatives could be a part of the process of instituting the accountability of male representatives as it could promote reflexivity regarding gender/sexual norms.

    The currently popular approach to project formulation addressing gender is by identifying the category of needs the project would satisfy, which obscures the embeddedness of “needs” in patriarchal power relations (Wieringa 1998). For instance, even an intervention that imparts training in self-defence, apparently a strategic need, may merely serve to reinforce extant power relations by framing it as a skill that enables women to preserve their chastity and their families (and nation’s) honour. In contrast, an intervention to pro mote self-employment by training women in sewing, a skill conventionally associated with women, serves a practical need, but could be formulated in a way that addresses power relations, i e, when it is imparted with the perspective the skill may be used to reduce women’s dependence on their family and could be the basis of a new and more diversified set of new interests.

    The lack of familiarity with a gender perspective detracts from the ability of panchayats’ to tap project funds that are available on a competitive basis because they are unable to formulate projects that meet the required standards. An interested panchayat president, whose panchayat had successfully applied for a grant that was available on the theme of gender and highland forestry narrated the difficulties he faced in preparing a project proposal, which eventually he outsourced to an NGO at a considerable consultation fee. He was in search of resources that could be extended to panchayats to develop such projects. Of course, this would require the coming together of different kinds of expertise. But the point here is that the routine approaches are clearly inadequate when panchayats attempt to reach out to wider sources of funding. However, these issues rarely come to the fore as many representatives are not even aware of such funds. At the workshop, there were participants who complained of scarcity of funds for gender projects, when there are routine reports of underutilisation of funds.

    Our assessment of gender attitudes, suggests that male representatives are less open to change when it concerns differences that are fundamental to the gender norm, differences they associate with sex and sexual morality. This may be linked to the manner in which the now familiar sex/gender distinction is routinely drawn into gender training programmes. The workshop participants justified differences in socialisation of boys and girls, which arises from the social construction of sex and sexuality but were open to change on rights in the civil domain such as equal employment opportunities or freedom from violence, which they seem to associate more readily with gender (as distinct

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    from sex). Yet, this distinction did not hold in the exercise of specific civil rights such as that of domestic workers to seek work abroad. Here restrictions are justified as a form of protection that women must submit to on account of their vulnerability, particularly to sexual abuse. Perceived differences of sex continue to be used to rationalise discriminatory (protectionist) a ttitudes towards women even where a n otion of gender seems to advocate change. Problems of sexual violence or abuse continue to be deflected on to the mobility of women, to employment abroad in menial tasks or to improper socialisation leading to lack of adequate discipline in women.

    The understanding of sexual differences as pre-given (rather than variable even in the minimal sense of distinctions over age categories), provides a foil for discrimination/protection and thereby limits the possibilities of using gender as a political tool. Clearly it is time that gender education recognised the greater complexity of biological sex. Research shows that the sexual dichotomy is founded on the erasure of significant variations in its constituent elements, whether hormones, chromosomes, genitals or body structures (Fausto-Sterling 2000). The gender assessment shows quite clearly the need for gender education that advances a gender perspective, distinguishes it from a protectionist one and clarifies the implication of both for women and men. Such education would be a necessary basis for enforcing the accountability of male representatives to an agenda for gender equality in local governance.


    1 Bhaskaran et al (2006: 14) point out that the women’s component plan allocation was stipulated to be used for strategic gender needs in the understanding that merely focusing on practical needs and catering to economic needs would not serve to reverse subordination. Their review of government orders issued with respect to the women component plan shows that an attention was on the nature of projects and on women as direct beneficiaries.

    2 This is assumed in studies such as GoK (2009: 5274), which seek to assess women representatives success in using plan resources “for the benefit of the women community” and their role as mediators in solving the problems of women.

    3 For instance in GoK (2009: 63) finds that women electorate approached women representatives most importantly for problems associated with family, with neighbours and for government aids and services.

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    4 The participants were asked whether they agreed, were undecided or disagreed with each statement and their response was scored using weights (Agree 1, Undecided 2 and Disagree 3).

    5 Socialisation – statements 1 to 6, Rights – statements 7 to 18, Reproduction – statements 19 to 21 and Sexuality – statements 22 to 27. Given the nature of these domains itself, it is not possible to draw sharp distinctions between statements in different domains. Several statements may overlap across domains.

    6 This was computed from the score for each statement in relation to the maximum and minimum scores possible (x – min/max – min).

    7 The State Women’s Commission and Kerala M ahila Samakhya organised anti-dowry campaigns in 2010. A campaign launched by the N ilambur panchayat in Malappuram district in 2009 received considerable publicity.

    8 An anti-dowry campaign by the Kerala Women’s Front between 7 and 13 January 2007, the women’s front of the National Democratic Front, a conservative Muslim organisation, underlined the role of dowry in undermining social order in the community by “shattering the dreams of young girls and motivating them to elope with boys from other communities, throwing to the winds their religious beliefs and their ties with their families” (KWF 2007).

    9 Dowry-less marriages rather than the expansion of women’s opportunities is the favourite solution advanced by anti-dowry campaigns. Nilambur panchayat is a case in point. Civil and political

    o rganisations, including the Democratic Youth Federation of India, that have conducted mass marriages in the past reinforce the connection between women’s identity and marriage.

    10 A higher correspondence score reflects greater agreement in responses. Correspondence scores are computed as a percentage of respondents whose answers in a given domain are in agreement with their response to the statement that has the highest index score.

    11 During the previous term a panchayat in Kannur district, Pinarayi, formulated a social security scheme to “assist” unmarried women over 35-years to get married (Matrubhumi, 6 July). Marriage assistance to daughters of widows is frequently reported as part of women’s component plan expenditures of local self-government bodies (GoK 2009: 92-95).

    12 About 70% of participants indicated student politics as their routs of entry. Six relatively older participants indicated entry through this routs though they had only school level education. Four of them were members of Muslim Students Federation and two of Kerala Students Union. Two participants with higher secondary education had entered through this route when the predegree system in colleges was followed.

    13 Bhaskaran et al (2006: 50) found that in the three panchayats they studied less than 10% of women were members of political parties (ranged from 7.6% to 0.4%) and less than 5% were in trade u nions.

    14 Between 30% and 40% of women in three panchayats were mobilised into self-help groups (Bhaskaran et al 2006: 50).

    15 Women’s representation tends to be negligible in the powerful committee structures of political parties that take policy decisions (Suresh 2009: 203).

    16 Support from family and the husband in particular seems to be critical to women representatives, especially for achieving “success” in terms of staying power in politics (Devika and Thampi 2010: 182; GoK 2009: 65).


    Anitha S, Reshma Bharadwaj, J Devika, Ranjini Krishnan, P R Nisha, K P Praveena, Reshma Radhakrishnan, S Irudaya Rajan, Rekha Raj,

    vol xlvi no 38

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    Bhaskaran, Seema, S Jayshree and A Vijayan (2006): Gender and Panchayati Raj: Status of Women in Kerala (Trivandrum: Sakhi Women’s Resource Centre).

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