(MENAFN- IANS) Chennai, Sep 23 (IANS) Caste is deep rooted in Tamil Nadu and so is discrimination against women in certain pockets. However if they brave the odds and fight for their rights, as many women have done, things have slowly changed for them.
Jyothilakshmi is a woman panchayat president of Kallakuranai village in Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu. She is also a Dalit and faces strong discrimination.
While speaking to IANS, Jyothilakshmi said,“ we are from the Pallar SC community and the discrimination starts during the election itself. We have to fall at the feet of the upper caste people to ask for votes. When they are contesting, they demand the votes from us but when we contest, we have to fall at their feet.”
She said that she was not even given a proper chair at the panchayat office after she won the elections by 125 votes and became the president. While Jyothilakshmi was provided with a wire chair, the panchayat vice president who is from an upper caste was given a 'Suthu' chair which is much more comfortable and is a revolving one.
When upper caste people came to her office, Jyothilakshmi was made to stand up till the conversation ended as Dalits are not allowed to sit in many villages of Tamil Nadu.
She revealed that at times the upper caste men ask her not to lift her hands while speaking to them.
Tamil Nadu is one of the states that reserve 50% seats in village panchayats for women.
Jyothilakshmi fought back and complained to the district collector who sent a special officer to learn about the issues faced by her. The assistant director of rural development (panchayats) visited the village and conducted a detailed inspection. The officer found that she was discriminated against and ordered a separate room for her in the panchayat office.
On August 15, 2023, Jyothilakshmi was given police protection for hoisting the national flag. She is now much more confident and has a new room with a revolving chair. She was all praise for the authorities who gave her confidence.
Tamil Nadu has provided 50% reservation for women in the panchayats and this has increased the number of women who are taking a call.
Three decades have passed since the reservation for women came into effect, but the caste hierarchy in several Tamil Nadu villages has pulled back the benefit of women's reservation.
Sujatha (name changed), a woman panchayat president in a southern district of Tamil Nadu, told IANS that,“On paper, I am the panchayat president, but in practice it is my husband who is handling the show and I am not allowed to take any decision that will help women. I can't reveal my name as my husband and other men in the family will throw me out.”
However, she said that the winds of change are blowing and with new district collectors who do not allow discrimination against women, things are improving.
Sujatha said that her husband has also slowly come to terms with the fact that she is the panchayat president and he does not have much of a role to play. Sujatha said that poor and illiterate women become confident once they see her in power and open up more with her than with a male president.
R. Aravidan, a social scientist and activist, while speaking to IANS said,“Empowering women through political power and making them presidents of panchayats has been a good move. However, studies reveal that even after three decades since bringing in this legislation, the condition of women has not improved as much as it should have.“
He said that slowly things are changing and educated young women are trying to make their mark in all areas of administration in the panchayats even after stiff opposition from men.
Women panchayat presidents said that they spend most of their allocations to build toilets for women, reverse osmosis plants for drinking water, use local people and CSR funds from corporates to construct roads, minor bridges etc.
The activities of these women are slowly beginning to achieve the desired results in rural Tamil Nadu. in the 2020 panchayat elections, several young educated women contested the polls and became panchayat presidents. This can be seen as the result of the long battle waged by women panchayat presidents braving all odds.