Women’s Local Political Leadership Key to Managing COVID-19 Impacts

March 6, 2021

Devaki Singh1, Madhu Joshi1, Shiney Chakraborty2, Anamika Priyadarshini1

1 Centre for Catalyzing Change, India

2 Economist based in New Delhi, India

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary public health and economic emergency. Bihar, the third most populous state of India, is uniquely challenged, as it also faced the influx of returning migrants, straining an overburdened administrative machinery. Even so, the pandemic highlighted the myriad ways in which grassroots women leaders have engaged in relief and rebuilding activities, supporting their community’s needs. Globally, women’s grassroots leadership is increasingly being recognized as a critical indicator of gendered governance, moving beyond the previous focus on their numerical representation in national legislatures alone. However, local women leaders’ actual and potential contributions, particularly in crisis response and their central role in community resilience, remain untapped assets in risk reduction and recovery strategies.

Learning from the voices of Elected Women Representatives

Centre for Catalyzing Change’s (C3) Sakshamaa Initiative embarked on a cross-sectional mixed-methods research to identify the role and impact of local women political leaders in rural Bihar, India. Bihar has 50% quotas for women in rural government. C3 implements a mentoring and capacity building program with these Elected Women Representatives (EWR) across 10 districts of the state. We interviewed 1338 EWRs to explore how their participation and leadership in local governance has evolved through this crisis, using qualitative and quantitative research tools.

The majority (87%) of the EWRs were first time representatives (87%). Almost all were married (96%), with 34% married before the age of 18. More than one-third (37%) had only completed primary school, and 23% had received no formal education.  finished undergraduate studies. Most were Hindu (90%), and of Other Backward Castes (63%) and Scheduled Castes (24%). Most EWRs (79%) are not engaged in paid work outside of their responsibilities as Elected Representatives.

How has the role and recognition of Elected Women Representatives changed under the pandemic?

  1. Increased Workload to Meet Community Needs

Half (46%) of EWRs said that their workload increased significantly since the start of the pandemic and lockdown – signaling the key role EWRs played as first responders. These efforts included:

  • Identifying returning migrants and providing supports for them and their families.
  • Spreading awareness about the COVID-19 disease and associated precautions.
  • Arranging rations, isolation areas, or hospital beds for the COVID-19 patients
  • Providing urgent medical support for pregnant women.

The pandemic also changed the kind of work EWRs were involved in, signaling a shift in their priorities aligning with emerging community needs. Prior to the pandemic, social services (arranging pension, ration cards etc.), roads and other infrastructure, access to drinking water, sanitation, and childcare services (Anganwadi) were indicated as the top priorities for EWRs. During the pandemic, their efforts related to migrants/migration and ensuring food security gained prominence – reflecting their community demands and needs related to rapid and mismanaged return migration, rising hunger in the face of income loss, and supply chain restrictions. EWRs expect increased need in the areas of local education, health and nutrition services as part of rebuilding post-pandemic.

  1. Increased community respect and self-confidence as leaders

EWRs’ active involvement in COVID containment and relief measures revealed the complex nature of Bihar’s prevalent gender norms, especially in relation to EWRs’ leadership positioning. All EWR’s agreed that people’s attitude towards them has changed for the better post COVID-19 and they were now perceived as “a people’s leader” who could be approached to address concerns. Statistical testing found that older relative to younger EWRs were more likely to report that under they pandemic they have greater potential as a leaders or in a better leadership role and are more valued as a leader by the community. As 23% of EWRs are aged 18-34 years, this is a concern, and it may be related to more split family and domestic responsibilities and expectations for these younger EWRs.

Many EWRs also mentioned their confidence and eagerness to compete in elections again. However, few felt that they had any actual power to affect change easily- only 23% believed that they could easily change things in their constituencies. This represents an interesting dichotomy, where women leaders are feeling more valued by their constituents, and more self-confident, but at the same time finding it difficult to navigate existing local governance systems.

  1. Increased decision-making and impact

EWRs have played a pivotal role in the COVID-19 response in Bihar from the start- spreading awareness about the COVID-19 disease and the precautions to prevent it, helping people to get subsidized ration, arranging health care for COVID-19 and other health issues, including vital maternal and reproductive health care. Their efforts not only offer valuable evidence of the centrality of local government in crisis situations, they demonstrate the important role EWRs play in times of community health and economic crises. While some have referred to these women political leaders as “Proxy Representatives,” negating the leadership and contributions of EWRs, their impacts during this pandemic, from social to survival supports, have been too visible to be denied.

Greater support for EWRs is needed

While EWRs have been vitally important across a number of areas for rural communities contending with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown periods, inadequate resources impede their capacities and impact. They are expected to supervise, monitor, and ensure effective implementation of various development initiatives through smartphones, but smartphones are not always available to them. Only 63% EWR participants owned a phone and among them, only 24% had a smartphone. EWRs often relied on other family members, especially sons and husbands, for smartphone access, document/file maintenance, financial processes, and transport. Two in five EWRs (42%) said they receive such support in all work matters. Our EWRs need resources, tools and access to information to continue their important work. Prioritizing their education, financial literacy, and digital access are crucial to sustain their confidence and capacities. Gender equality and empowerment for communities cannot occur if we do not invest in the development of our women leaders, and in their absence, neither pandemic management nor post-pandemic rebuilding will be possible.

The Principal Investigators for this study are Shiney Chakraborty, PhD (Economist based in New Delhi) and Anamika Priyadarshini, PhD (Lead Research – Sakshamaa, Centre for Catalyzing Change).

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