Jaipur: Till last year, Sunita Sain, 40, a housewife, had never ventured out of her village Udaipuria in Rajasthan. In the male-dominated society that she comes from, only men have a voice in most matters.
Then last year, Sunita participated in the Mahila Gram Sabha at her village panchayat. It was for the first time that she was attending a public meeting and sharing her problems and suggestions related to her village with other women like her.
"I had never even visited the village panchayat before that. But then I wondered, for how long can I just sit and do domestic work?" Sunita said.
In the meeting, she brought up two issues - to set up a sanitary napkin machine and open a government library in the village for girls.
Sunita said the sanitary napkin machine was a necessity as there was no system in the village to get them, without which girls had to miss school during their periods.
Subsequently, the Udaipuria Gram Panchayat, under Govindgarh Panchayat Samiti in Jaipur district, got proposal approved for a budget of Rs 30,000 from the state government.
There are many such stories of change in the 45 gram panchayats under Govindgarh Panchayat Samiti. Women are not just coming out of confines of their homes but are also attending panchayat meetings, raising their issues there and demanding solutions to them.
The ground work for this change was done by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), which got together with 37 of the 45 gram panchayats under Govindgarh Panchayat Samiti, to organise Mahila Gram Sabhas and then went from village to village conducting awareness programmes on women's rights and their role in the panchayat.
Attending panchayat meetings is a big step for women in a feudal society like Rajasthan. "We did not know what the powers of the panchayat were. If all the women of Rajasthan want, they can solve all the problems of their villages through the panchayats," said Sunita.
Gradually, women started coming for the gram sabha meetings. To solve problems related to the health of women and children, 37 gram panchayats have been allocated Rs 10.7 lakh through Mahila Sabhas.
Issues related to women and children such as separate toilets for women, sanitary napkin vending machines with napkin disposal system, vaccination, libraries and street lights in villages have been included in the Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP).
"Earlier, women were not allowed to go out of the house and their role was limited to managing the household. But now, women raise all their issues in panchayat meetings," said Mohan Lal Bunkar, Sarpanch of Nangal Kalan gram panchayat.
"As a result, women in rural areas are becoming more aware of their problems and rights such as immunisation, education, sterilisation and pregnancy. In my gram panchayat, about Rs 2 lakh has been allocated for health problems of women. Soon this amount will be given to the panchayat and sanitary napkin machines will be installed in the village," he said.
Debasish Biswas, a senior programme officer of PRIA, said they made women sarpanchs take up issues related to women and children in the GPDP through meetings conducted at the local level.
In Dhodsar village, women complained about the Primary Health Centre (PHC) being run out of the Panchayat building. Patients coming to the single-room establishment would walk in midway during the delivery of a child. Often women would have to go to Chomu town - situated about 25 kms away - owing to the lack of facilities in the village's PHC.
In 2013, a village resident constructed a separate building for the PHC, but the PHC still kept running from the Panchayat premises. In December 2018, Asha Sharma, 45, a teacher from the village, raised the issue in a Mahila Gram Sabha, which then started the demand for the PHC be transferred to the new building.
A month later, both the Panchayat and the PHC were shifted to the new building.
The PHC at the new building has separate rooms - one for the women of the village and another for the general patients.
Mohammed Hussain, the Govindgarh Gram Panchayat Development Officer, said there had been tremendous social change in the past year in the Panchayat Samitis. "Since the start of Mahila Gram Sabha, the mindset of the people has also changed towards women and their health issues. Thousands of women have broken the shackles of tradition and stepped out of the confines of the homes. This is going to lead to progress in the area," he added.