Women’s Groups and Political Participation: The Role of Jeevika in Local Governance Participation
 Ph.D. Candidate, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,
|Title:||Women’s Groups and Political Participation: The Role of Jeevika in Local Governance Participation|
|Keywords:||Political Participation, Panchayati Raj, Gender, Elections, Jeevika.|
|Issue Date:||October 9, 2023|
|Publisher:||IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute|
|Abstract:||Existing studies highlight the importance of resources, bargaining power, household autonomy, and gender-biased norms in women’s political participation. However, it is found through the study that these women remain mere token figures as the male members of the household contest elections and wield decision-making power in the PRIs. This study examines the women’s groups formed under Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (or Jeevika), a community-driven poverty reduction program to improve women’s political participation. Women in Jeevika are involved in activities such as SHGs, opening retail businesses, cattle rearing, small-scale production units, etc. Through interviews with 20 Jeevika women of the Siwan district of Bihar, the study argues that women’s groups like Jeevika are important in women’s political participation. Three mechanisms of women’s groups were identified that led to women’s political participation; firstly, they led them to interact with women of the neighborhood under the Jeevika groups, producing social capital and women’s networks. Secondly, several Jeevika women went on to contest elections in local government bodies due to the close-knit networks of women, and finally, women from lower castes mostly participated in the Jeevika groups. The findings contribute to our understanding of how women’s groups influence political participation and underpin women’s contestation in PRI elections. The study has implications for policy-making as it becomes imperative to form women’s groups that empower them to participate.|
|Appears in Collections:||IPRR Vol. 2 (1) [January-June 2023]|
(January-June 2023) Volume 2, Issue 1 | 8th October 2023
ISSN: 2583-3464 (Online)
Existing studies highlight the importance of resources, bargaining power, household autonomy, and gender-biased norms in women’s political participation. However, it is found through the study that these women remain mere token figures as the male members of the household contest elections and wield decision-making power in the PRIs. This study examines the women’s groups formed under Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (or Jeevika), a community-driven poverty reduction program to improve women’s political participation. Women in Jeevika are involved in activities such as SHGs, opening retail businesses, cattle rearing, small-scale production units, etc. Through interviews with 20 Jeevika women of the Siwan district of Bihar, the study argues that women’s groups like Jeevika are important in women’s political participation. Three mechanisms of women’s groups were identified that led to women’s political participation; firstly, they led them to interact with women of the neighborhood under the Jeevika groups, producing social capital and women’s networks. Secondly, several Jeevika women went on to contest elections in local government bodies due to the close-knit networks of women, and finally, women from lower castes mostly participated in the Jeevika groups. The findings contribute to our understanding of how women’s groups influence political participation and underpin women’s contestation in PRI elections. The study has implications for policy-making as it becomes imperative to form women’s groups that empower them to participate.
Having women in local government bodies significantly influence the type of public services delivered. Local government bodies invest more in goods relevant to women’s needs, for instance, water and roads, when a woman heads it (Chattopadhyay & Duflo, 2004). Most importantly, women’s political representation in local government bodies is also instrumental in reporting violence against women (Iyer et al., 2012).
Despite the proven benefits of women’s representation in local government bodies, women’s political participation has declined. According to the World Values Survey Wave Five, women are 3.5 % less likely to vote and 10 percent less likely to participate in politics in between elections than men. Primarily in Bihar, the strength of women legislators in Bihar’s legislative assembly has been declining and is currently the lowest since the last three legislative assemblies.
At the local level, high levels of women’s low political participation have been remedied through political quotas in recent decades. Major flaws still exist in whether political quotas have been instrumental in ensuring women’s political participation in sub-national units like Bihar. For instance, during the fieldwork for this study, it was found that most women’s quota positions are hijacked by male household members who act as the de facto mukhiyas or sarpanches. While elected women mukhiyas and sarpanches were reduced to token figures.
This study assesses the role of women’s groups in facilitating women’s political participation in India. However, measures used by current literature are narrow, including metrics like voter turnouts, electoral contestation, and party membership. This study takes an expansive understanding of political participation and complements the traditional metrics by including women’s civic meetings, laying claims over public delivery of services, and lower-caste mobilization. Using the sub-national case of Bihar as a case study, primary data was collected during a month’s fieldwork, including interviews with 20 Jeevika women, mukhiyas, and sarpanches of the Mairwa and Nautan block of Siwan district.
The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 briefly reviews related literature and background on women’s political participation and conceptualizes the role of women’s groups in political participation. Section 3 situates the women’s political participation in the sub-national context of Bihar. Section 4 discusses the Jeevika scheme, data, and methods used in the paper, while section 5 presents the findings on the impact of women’s groups on outcomes related to women’s political participation. Section 6 concludes.
Conceptualising Women’s Groups and Political Participation
In the extant literature on women’s political participation, economic heft that brings bargaining power (Burns et al., 2001), household autonomy (Chibber, 2002), and gender-biased norms (Brule & Gaikwad, 2021) influence women’s political participation. The main contention of this research is that despite political quotas, women are not equally placed to be able to avail the benefits of quotas in PRIs. Therefore, economic resources, individual identity, and gender norms matter. In particular, Chibber (2002) argues that those women who have an identity that is independent of the household are likely to avail the opportunity of quotas in local bodies’ elections.
Why Women’s Groups?
Women’s groups have been widely studied in terms of their consequences on the economic empowerment of women and women’s healthcare—including maternal health benefits (Saha et al., 2013; Desai and Joshi, 2014). In the rural context of the panchayat, women’s groups such as Self-Help Groups (SHGs), Aasha, and Anganwadi women have also been leveraged by government and non-governmental organizations to facilitate and deliver health and nutrition benefits to the residents. However, the extant literature has overlooked the role of women’s groups in political participation. This paper proposes the critical role of women’s groups in influencing women’s political participation.
According to Kumar et al. (2019), the concept of women’s groups such as SHGs can be employed to illuminate women’s political participation because women’s SHGs provide mobility and communication to women that are instrumental for their awareness about government schemes and claiming rights. The measures used by Kumar et al. (2019) include indicators of ‘whether the respondent voted in the last election and whether she participated in the gram sabha or the mahila (women’s) gram sabha.’ Secondly, Kumar et al. study the awareness and utilization of various government entitlement schemes targeted at households, women, and children among women’s groups to measure women’s political participation.
Recent research on women’s groups has shown that women’s groups help women to mobilize collectively, which has implications for social capital, influencing women’s political participation (Sanyal, 2009; Prillaman, 2021).
In contrast to Kumar et al. (2019), Prillaman (2021) takes an expansive understanding of political participation. Prillaman defines political participation as how citizens interact with the state. In her analysis, citizen interaction is measured through ‘attending a village assembly meeting, contacting a local elected official, making claims for services, campaigning, and attending party meetings.’
A key insight from these analyses is that they underpin the indirect consequences of women’s groups on women’s political participation. Curiously though, the above studies on women’s groups and political participation control for the caste of the respondents. In other words, the caste of women respondents does not fit into their analysis. During the fieldwork, caste emerged as an important variable in understanding women’s political participation. This paper attempts to humbly incorporate caste in the literature on women’s groups and political participation thereby contributing to the literature.
In this paper, I will build on Prillaman’s (2021) suggestion that political participation involves different ways of interacting with the state. In addition, this paper uses indicators including whether the women contested in the Panchayati Raj elections and whether they are affiliated with any political outfit.
Women’s Political Participation in Bihar
Before we take the plunge into the findings, women’s political participation in Bihar is in order. Firstly, women legislators in the Bihar Assembly elections is declining. Figure 1 shows that the number of women MLAs in the 2020 Bihar Legislative Assembly (BLA) stands at 26. The present strength of women legislators in the 2020 BLA is lower than the previous two BLA of 2015 and 2010, where women representatives stood at 28 and 32, respectively.
Figure 1: Winner by gender in the 2020 Bihar Assembly Elections, Source: Lok Dhaba Trivedi Centre for Political Dataset (TCPD)
Secondly, the voter turnout for women voters has witnessed an increasing trend, as shown in Figure 2. Women’s voter turnout has even surpassed the male voter turnout and the total turnout percentage. Figure 2 shows that women’s voter turnout stood at 60%, which was higher than males. It is considered that women-led developmental schemes by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar were the main reasons for the higher female voter turnouts (Kumar 2020).
Figure 2: Voter turnout for the 2020 Bihar Assembly Elections, Source: Lok Dhaba, TCPD
Meanwhile, in the PRIs, women enjoy a 50% reservation across different positions, including positions from mukhiyas to ward members. The reservation was brought through the 73rd Amendment Act and was implemented in Bihar under Nitish Kumar. During the field visit, PRI women position holders were unavailable for meetings because their husbands had taken up the de facto role of mukhiyas and sarpanches. A more significant proportion of the women that constitute mukhiyas and sarpanches also came from the upper caste and accounted for more than half of the PRI women members (State Election Commission, 2020).
In this background of declining women’s political participation, this study examines the role of women’s groups of Jeevika in ushering in women’s political participation. The following section highlights how women’s groups organize themselves in networks and interact with the state at the Panchayat level.
How Jeevika is Facilitating Women’s Political Participation?
The Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project (or JEEViKA) is a community-driven poverty reduction program that aims to improve the social and economic empowerment of the rural poor in Bihar. The project is geared towards improving women’s lives through various activities such as SHGs, opening up of retail businesses, cattle rearing, and small-scale production units. Jeevika aims to capacitate women individually as well as collectively so that they can opt for appropriate livelihood options for themselves (Priyadarshini 2018) and, subsequently, what the World Bank’s research team for Jeevika calls ‘undoing gender’ in rural Bihar (Sanyal et al., 2016; Pankaj, 2020). Jeevika provisions women to form small-credit groups such as SHGs, open local businesses, and audit and run small and medium enterprises. At present, one of the top priorities of Jeevika officials is making Bihar ODF, i.e., Open Defecation Free. Jeevika officials are actively engaged in a shaming campaign to de-motivate those who defecate in the open.
Jeevika meetings happen weekly. It has a pyramidical structure at the local level with an agency-appointed facilitator who audits and oversees the work of Jeevika at the top is usually. They are followed by Jeevika CMs or coordinators, who are generally the most educated and outspoken among the cohort of Jeevika women. These Jeevika CMs convene meetings of Jeevika didis (a local expression for women associated with the Jeevika scheme who are given funds to open local businesses and produce handcrafts).
For this study, Mairwa and Nautan blocks of the Siwan district of Bihar were selected to understand the role of women in PRIs. Mairwa and Nautan are placed adjacent to each other and are the bordering blocks of Siwan to Uttar Pradesh. In these two blocks, women’s numbers of mukhiyas and sarpanches stand at 34%, lower than the 50% quota sanctioned for women in PRIs. None of the respondents were women during the meetings with the mukhiyas and sarpanches of the Mairwa and Nautan blocks. The male members of the households represented these women in PRIs positions.
This study used semi-structured interviews with 20 Jeevika women of the Mairwa and Nautan blocks to understand the functioning of women’s groups. The sampling process followed was mainly snowball sampling. The questions were designed on the three indicators: political profile, political affiliations, elections contestation, and recent activities.
Mechanisms of Women’s Political Participation in PRIs
Findings are categorized into three mechanisms: women networks of Jeevika highlighting the connectedness of Jeevika women, contesting PRI elections and political affiliations, and finally, the caste dynamics within the Jeevika women.
Women Networks of Jeevika
Building from Prillaman (2021) that political participation involves interacting with the state by attending meetings, laying claims over schemes, and contacting a local elected official, this section highlights that Jeevika women were indeed involved in these processes. Under Jeevika, women conduct regular meetings to discuss the finances and savings of local businesses by didis. Women sit in a circle and discuss the savings from opening local businesses. Meetings of this sort show the sophistication of the Jeevika women’s activities. Also, the savings accrued through opening businesses equip Jeevika women with bargaining power and financial resources both within the household and outside of it. A Jeevika CM, who spoke to me eloquently about the Jeevika meeting, said:
‘Every Saturday, we conduct meetings. Jeevika didis are asked to attend the meetings.’ – Jeevika CM of Mairwa
The meetings provide the women with civic skills such as deliberation and bargaining within the household. Jeevika women, who were mostly illiterate, faced the civic skill problem since women were deprived of education opportunities and restricted from traversing the village neighborhood. Most importantly, women reported that the time they spend out of their homes for meetings brings about self-confidence among them and helps in their self-development, which otherwise would have been negligent. A Jeevika didi who recently graduated from senior high school and visited the Jeevika-run shops on her bicycle frequently notes:
‘Due to Jeevika, we can move from one place to another. Jeevika has provided us mobility in the village.’ – Jeevika didi
Since Jeevika CMs hold an authoritative position, they act as a link between local women and PRI members to avail different government schemes, particularly Awas Yojana for widowed women.
Contesting PRI Elections and Political Affiliations
Several women were also directly involved in the political elections by contesting elections and affiliating themselves with a local political outfit. Jeevika women were more likely than other women in the panchayat context to contest local body elections. As Chibber (2002) notes women with an independent identity outside the household are at an advantage in contesting elections, similarly Jeevika women who were taking on an identity not associated with the household were more likely to participate in elections.
Several women who were Jeevika didis before participated in the ward member elections. While interviewing the Jeevika women, more than two previous Jeeevika didis womenparticipated in ward member elections and secured victory.
Ward member elections were considered a favorite because they required fewer resources which Jeevika women could muster. According to a local rough estimate, mukhiya elections finances could go up to tens of lakhs of rupees. Unlike a panchayat that sometimes consists of a dozen villages, a ward is a conglomeration of households in the panchayats. The wards’ jurisdiction is small– the size of a hamlet, which enabled accessibility for Jeevika women in a context where women are only allowed to visit the neighborhood.
Moreover, most of the Jeevika women were averse to political affiliations. Although, these women are usually invited to attend political rallies of the incumbent government of Nitish Kumar. Some reports connect Kumar’s gendered schemes and women’s penchant for Kumar (2020). It is beyond the purview of this paper to find this connection between Kumar’s gendered schemes on women’s voting patterns. However, during the fieldwork, several women emphatically celebrated the work Nitish Kumar had done for women.
Lower Caste Women Representation in Jeevika
In the PRI positions on which there is a 50% quota for women, upper-caste women dominated these positions. Women in Jeevika largely came from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), showing that the women groups under Jeevika positively impacted lower caste women mobilization. The women contestants from Jeevika in the ward member elections also came from lower castes.
However, some women complained that the Jeevika CM, who often came from an upper caster background, would not release the funds for opening businesses. Women complained about the funds not reaching them. A Jeevika didi who comes from the Teli caste, categorized under EBCs in Bihar, said:
‘I have been waiting for funds to open a general store for months. Jeevika CM does not allow me to avail funds. If I could get funds, I could generate income for my family.’ -Jeevika didi
This study assessed the role of women’s groups in facilitating women’s political participation in India. Using the sub-national case of Bihar as a case study, primary data was collected during a month’s fieldwork, including interviews with 20 Jeevika women and mukhiya and sarpanches of the Mairwa and Nautan block of Siwan district. Findings indicate that women’s groups like Jeevika play an incremental role in women’s political participation through women’s networks and meetings, laying claims of public delivery of services, and contesting elections. A key finding of the paper is that the lower caste women’s participation in the Jeevika scheme has brought a lower caste upliftment and, in turn, props them to political participation. It, therefore, becomes imperative to step up the formation of women’s groups and empower them to participate under the larger ambit of the state.
A significant part not explored in this paper that has ushered in women’s political participation is male-out migration in Bihar (Priyadarshini, 2018; Jain, 2020). According to the Indian Human Development Survey, almost 40-70 % of households in Bihar have at least one male migrant member.
At the same time, Jeevika women’s story of the political participation of Jeevika women is afflicted with several concerns. First, Jeevika is a government initiative, and women’s increasing political participation might be undone if the initiative is withdrawn. Second, most of the Jeevika women are fixated on the ‘labh’ (benefit) concept, which emerges in conversations with almost every Jeevika woman. When asked if they wanted to participate in the local bodies; and elections, most Jeevika women said, ‘Where is the labh in it?’ Women have been socialized in a culture of market transaction under the Jeevika scheme through the concept of businesses and savings (Priyadarshini, 2018). In this sense, most Jeevika women are averse to participating in the local bodies’ elections or being affiliated with any political party because there is no ‘labh’ in engaging with these bodies.
Meanwhile, male panchayat members claim that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar uses women as pawns for the incumbent government. Jeevika women, they claim, are always asked to attend political rallies of the government and are used as vote banks.
This study concludes that the present status of women’s groups has been reeling under an ‘elite capture’ and impacts the lower caste women’s access to these groups. The study, therefore, suggests that Jeevika officials should remedy the elite capture under the scheme through continuous checks so that the benefits reach the targeted groups.
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