Decentralisation and the Quest for Gender Justice

“I am grateful to this democracy and this Constitution, thanks to which today I (am) being treated as a human being’’ - Dnyaneshwar Kamble

Imagine a tower made of a few dozen building blocks. You built it a few weeks ago, confident of its ability to withstand time and weather, but now it sways too dangerously in the wind. You begin to pick up pieces from the top, arranging and re- arranging them in different ways, but aside from changing the appearance of the tower, it barely adds to its stability. You halt your work in frustration and begin hoping for the wind to stop. It doesn’t. Then it hits you. You pick up the pieces and start building it bottom-up, ensuring that the foundation is architecturally sound this time. You leave certain spaces open and fill in others, carefully constructing a structure whose individual units come together to form a stable whole. The process takes up more time and might even require a higher degree of planning, but it ultimately pays off, as each unit ends up serving its own purpose and the tower is able to withstand more challenges.

Today, the world is quite different in terms of prevailing social norms and notions of gender justice as compared to, even say, fifty years ago. Discussions revolve around what is acceptable and what is not, defining and re-defining gender and sex, attempts at making the debates around gender justice more inclusive and accepting of socio-cultural and economic differences, and the process of assimilating these ideas into structural mechanisms. But is it sufficient to simply let these ideas percolate from academic debates to the mainstream? Or is it enough for Central governments to turn them into laws from the ‘top’ and expect sweeping changes? Past instances have shown that it is not so. When social progress is sought, its path requires movement in both directions, from the bottom to the top as well as from top to bottom, in order to ensure an actual change in power structures and dynamics. For this purpose, decentralisation, or the transfer of certain decision-making powers from the Centre to the middle and lower-tier governments becomes crucial.

While gender scholars do compare the merits of unitary and federal governance in bringing about gender justice, with some giving more importance to the former, a general consensus seems to have evolved today, according to which most scholars agree that the role of federal units and grassroots politics cannot be dismissed in bringing about movements and empowering women. Democratic decentralisation brings about more opportunities for women to take up administrative positions and play a role in formulating local programmes and policies. Whilst it increases public policy positions for everyone, women benefit largely from decentralisation due to historical under-representation at the national level. Since decentralisation allows for a more accurate representation of the composition of the populace in different areas, it becomes an even more empowering tool for women belonging to marginalised communities. Take, for example, the story of Fatima Bi, a sarpanch from the Kalva village of Andhra Pradesh. Fatima won the United Nations Development Programme’s Race Against Poverty Award in 1998 for her contribution towards self- help poverty eradication programmes in her village. Despite receiving no formal education, Fatima was able to bring about a major transformation in her village, empowering other women and herself in the process.

A federal structure also creates more access points for women to lobby for their interests, i.e., in the event of an anti-progressive bill being passed by the central government, women’s interest groups can approach state courts and governments for recourse. Take, for example, the overhauling of federal regulations regarding contraceptive coverage guarantee in 2018 in the United States by the Donald Trump-led administration. Under the earlier rules, the insurance plans of employers were supposed to mandatorily cover the costs of birth control of employees. This rule was seen as necessary because it has been determined that women, in general, pay far more out-of-pocket costs for healthcare than men, largely because the coverage for what women may need such as contraceptives, tends to be excluded from insurance plans. Under the new rules, companies were allowed to refuse to cover such costs by citing moral or religious exemptions. Two federal courts in California and Pennsylvania, however, took the administration to court and got the regulations temporarily stalled nationwide. Herein lies the strength of a truly federal structure; any bill or amendment deemed by a group to be against their interests can at least be challenged and debated by other representative units.

A decentralised structure might also respond to conflicts between ethnic groups and communities in a more effective way. Some of the core principles of decentralisation involve autonomy, distribution of power, and self-determination. Since it gives regions and communities a certain amount of freedom, and because leadership in federal units emerges from those groups only, a federalised system is deemed to be more efficient in addressing the demands of people. As women are disproportionately affected by conflict, be it in terms of sexual violence, abuse or having their bodies viewed as a ‘battle-ground’ by almost all fighting sides, a decentralised structure helps them in two ways. It not only helps in containing tensions but also enables women in these zones to form a collective and raise their concerns. Their representatives are then able to take up these issues at the national level.

Yet, are federal units enough to ensure that issues of gender justice come to light and are dealt with? Critics argue that a strong unitary government is necessary in order to legislate progressive bills and implement law and order. It has also been suggested that federal units may not be as responsive to such issues because it has been observed that local governments often tolerate or even perpetuate ‘culturally- acceptable’ but socially unjust practices. An unbiased and less culturally-entrenched arbiter is required, critics argue, in order to bring true social reforms. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, in the context of Panchayati Raj institutions, expressed a similar apprehension, stating that a population deeply entrenched in prejudices could not be expected to discharge justice. These concerns are not unjustified. The only way to go forward then, while keeping intact a federal structure, is to ensure the representation of the vulnerable, the marginalised and the oppressed in local governing bodies.

India has been able to take these issues into account and act accordingly in the legal sense. Provisions in the 73rd Constitutional Amendment have made reservation of seats for disadvantages groups mandatory at all levels of Panchayats. One-third of the total number of seats for Panchayati elections have been reserved for women, and in a move to ensure intersectional representation, one-third of the total seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been reserved for women belonging to these communities. While these provisions have played a major role in enabling women to contest elections and participate in political processes, structural constraints remain. In a number of states, constituencies reserved for women and the posts for the chairperson rotate every election; this prevents women from getting re-elected to their constituency, as it has become extremely rare for women to win from unreserved seats. It also means that at any given point, a majority of women councillors end up being inexperienced. The rotation of chairpersons is an even more pressing issue- in many states, women aren’t even allowed to hold their post for a full term of five years, instead, they are only permitted to hold these positions for restricted time periods, such as 20 months. Thus, by the time that it takes women to acquire the necessary skills, confidence and connections, they are forced to step down or rotation occurs. This brings great discontinuity to the practice. The no-confidence motion has also been abused frequently to unseat women and elected representatives from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes. Another major challenge to the representation of women at the grassroots level has been the practice of making women act as surrogates for men who cannot stand up for elections in reserved constituencies themselves. In fact, the phenomenon of sarpanch pati (wherein husbands of women sarpanches wield the true power behind the women) is such a widespread issue today that even the Prime Minister of India has called for an end to it.

The process of decentralisation of power isn’t easy, and it becomes even more complex when we take into account the prejudices and biases that exist in society. Maintaining a balance between the two, that is, respecting cultural practices while still intervening in situations that violate an individual or community’s dignity, becomes the responsibility of the government.

Greater federalisation, especially at the grassroots level, has helped foster a more democratic culture, making women more aware of their rights and opening up more public spaces for them. It has enabled women to come together against the common problems they face; domestic violence, sexual violence, rampant alcoholism among their family members and a general lack of financial independence. It has also led to greater representation of those who’ve been historically marginalised and have faced injustice bordering on dehumanisation. This echoes with Gnyaneshwar Kamble’s words, who was elected as the first transwoman Sarpanch of the nation in 2017 in Maharashtra, “I am grateful to this democracy and this Constitution, thanks to which today I (am) being treated as a human being’’.