Literate Woman Leaders In Villages: Rajasthan’s Big Social Experiment

Manju Meghwal has passed class 12 and is currently enrolled in BA first year.

JAIPUR: The new sarpanch of Rajasthan’s Sichana village has two key things on her to-do list: eradication of child marriage and building toilets. The first is an elusive goal. On the second, she has hit the bull’s eye within months of her election.

Manju Meghwal embodies the new face of grassroots leader in Rajasthan – one that can put the state on a positive track.

The question facing the state – led by an energetic woman chief minister — was a vital one: Can literate women leaders be the agents of development, empowerment and ultimately social change?  With a new law applicable at the grassroots level, it made itself a laboratory that may provide some answers.

Under the law, people standing for panchayat elections – the most powerful elected posts at the village level – need to have passed the school board exams at the very least.

Rajasthan has reserved 50 per cent seats at panchayat level for women. But the state is also one where literacy level for women stands at a humble 46 per cent.

While the rule immediately disqualified some proven candidates who happened to lack formal education, it also broke new grounds, bringing forth leaders like Ms Meghwal.

Politics was far from the thoughts of Ms Meghwal, who, at the age of 30, was a teacher for the government’s adult literacy programme. But she was also one of the few who met the educational criteria in her village in Pali district, 300 km from Jaipur.

“There were very few educated Dalit women, since I have passed class 12 and am currently enrolled in my BA first year, the people elected me,” Ms Meghwal said.

Today the first-time sarpanch is dreaming of stopping one of the biggest social evils of the state – child marriage. A section of women are married off below the age of 15 in Rajasthan – a practice close to the heart of a certain section of the population which the state government has failed to eradicate nearly 70 years after Independence.

“Child marriage particularly affects women and their health, especially when they have children at an early age,” Ms Meghwal said.

For Ms Meghwal, eradicating this practice is a long-term goal. But what she had done in the short term is no mean achievement: getting toilets built in 95 per cent households in her village as part of the government’s Clean India Mission.

While creating the education criterion, the authorities had another purpose – that women hold power in a true sense, since in rural settings, they are often proxy candidates for their husbands or become tools in the hands of the bureaucracy.

“That should not happen. Women should be able to take their own decisions… we brought in the education criteria so that women can be empowered,” said Anita Bhadel, Rajasthan’s women and child welfare minister.

For now, women like Ms Meghwal can be the answer to their prayers.