Transformative Leadership

published March 2013 for DLD Magazine

India’s society is going through fundamental changes. Recent scandals of rape and sexual abuse of women were met with an open outcry by millions of Indian women and men. This public explosion of indignation would not have been possible a few years ago. Jeanny Gering met with a leader of the women’s movement in India, to find out where the pressure is coming from.

Women at a panchayat meeting

Women at a panchayat meeting

“The revolution is palatable”, says Rita Sarin. “What we have seen in the streets of Delhi and across the country in recent months were women who had the strength to stand up, and break the silence on violence against women.” Rita Sarin is in her late fifties, a delicate woman with eyes brimming with a zest for life and action, especially when she talks about working in the villages.

Her life has been dedicated to the women’s movement in India. Already at university she investigated the condition of female prisoners and she became a member of the team which set up the first “Center for Women’s Development Studies” in India in the late eighties. Rita seized the moment to start a women’s empowerment campaign through building the leadership of elected women representatives to village councils in 2000. Seven years earlier India’s Prime Minister had passed the 73rd amendment, which reserved 33% of all village and district council seats for women.

“This law was no less than the beginning of a revolution”, says Rita. Overnight women were elected into deeply entrenched patriarchal structures. “At first there was a lot of resistance from the fathers and husbands”, Rita remembers with a smile “one woman even hid herself in a cattle truck on her way to our leadership workshop.” In the past fifteen years she and her team trained over100,000 women in leadership skills, which help the women in their new roles of responsibility through all of the five years of their tenure.

Listen to Rita talk about her work in the villages of India.

To assert a women’s quota on the village or district level may seem like a consolatory concession in a Western context, but in a country of 1.2 billion people of which 75% live in villages, this quota has a far reaching effect for women’s standing in society.  Many of the women who get elected in the villages are illiterate and live suppressed lives until they join the Panchayat (village council). To support them in their new jobs, the women empowerment campaign uses basic techniques like self building, social and political leadership education and it reinforces physical mobility by teaching the women to ride a bicycle. The sense of achievement changes a woman’s mindset and helps her to have confidence in herself. In Rita’s experience “once a woman is a leader, she is always a leader, and you can’t push her back into her home.”

After 15 years of relentless work and three election periods, Rita Sarin can see the fruits of her commitment. “Nowadays we come to the villages and men ask us -when is the next workshop taking place? And they want their wives and daughters to take part in it.” To Rita these are signs of a paradigm shift in how women are perceived in Indian society. Since 2001 The Global Hunger Project supports Rita Sarin’s campaign, she is the country director for the international NGO which focuses on eradicating hunger and poverty.

When asked how women’s empowerment is linked to ending hunger Rita Sarin says: “I give you a simple example – when a woman sarpanch (elected member to the village council) receives money from the central government she will first think of feeding the children, and with the mind of a mother she wouldn’t even let a neighbors child go hungry. A man is much more likely to use the money to build a road and other infrastructure. The male leadership is of bricks and structures and women’s leadership is of schools, health, water and sanitation and above all food security.”

The Global Hunger Project’s work in India uses the effects of a women’s quota to tackle endemic malnourishment. Rita Sarin sees this grass-roots approach as the key to changing Indian society and breaking a cycle of violence against women. Seeing politically empowered women at the most basic level, is beginning to tear down the traditionally suppressive attitude to women in India. The days of protest and public anger about the gang-rape of a young woman in Dehli, were a sign of hope for Rita and others who push on, to strengthen women’s status in Indian society. For the first time it was visible to the whole world that India’s women are harboring a revolution, something that Rita Sarin has seen evolve in the villages for the past 15 years.