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Shahida Bano of Rajasthan and Prabha Mehra of Uttarakhand are among a new breed of elected women representatives in India’s local governments who are busy addressing problems that their rural communities have been experiencing in the current COVID climate.
Vaccinations are a current priority, while the larger work of fair food distributions and promoting girls’ education continues on the side.
While carrying out their elected duties or even running for elections, these women leaders are often confronted with prejudice and abuse. Helping them in their journey, is a global non-profit ‘The Hunger Project’ (THP). THP’s leadership program prepares women in rural India to run for office so that elected representatives can resolve challenges faced by their own communities.
Currently, a powerful cadre of 8,000 elected women representatives are responsible for 6.4 million people across 1,400 panchayats (local council areas).
With a little push from THP, these elected women are working to mold their communities into well-informed independent citizens, away from the risk of impoverishment and illiteracy.
The Hunger Project, supported by an ‘enraged community of investors’, aims to end chronic, persistent hunger by unleashing the potential of people living in rural, remote communities in Africa, India and Bangladesh.
Tara Donnelly from The Hunger Project’s Australia chapter told Indian Link, “The Hunger Project has been working in India for more than 20 years. In 1992, the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution mandated that one-third of all seats on panchayat village councils be reserved for women, bringing more than one million women into elected office. THP saw an opportunity and the potential of these women as leaders, so we developed strategies to train and empower these local elected women representatives to become effective and respected leaders in their communities, throughout their 5-year term on council.”
“I contested elections because it is my fundamental right,” Shahida Bano shared her story of courage and determination.“I did not give up even though I was bribed and my family threatened. They want to show us our ‘place’, we will continue to show up. We refuse to be overlooked.”
To date, THP has trained more than 200,000 elected women leaders in India to read, write, speak up and lead the political agenda to improve education, sanitation, healthcare, and nutrition in their villages. They also host a program for adolescent girls aimed at keeping them in school and stopping child marriage.
Prabha Mehra helped 100 people in Uttarakhand access employment support because she understands the importance of maintaining an income in rural India, especially during the pandemic.
“We are making sure more get jobs under the scheme in the coming days. It has been extremely crucial in the COVID-19 times and has helped many households to have some source of income and sustained livelihood,” she said.
Hema is another elected representative from Uttarakhand who took charge in creating safe and hygienic quarantine facilities for returning migrant workers from the cities to the villages, so her community is kept COVID-safe. Though she faced challenges in finding a location, after partnering with other elected women in the area she eventually found a suitable solution.
“I along with other ward members and former elected women spoke with people in the community people decided that some of the empty houses would be cleaned and sanitised and used as quarantine zones,” Hema said. “It has been challenging, but we had to do what needed to be done.”
Helping their communities access social services is an important priority for Shahida, Prabha and Hema. Many people in India are accessing social services for the very first time, and a majority don’t know what they’re entitled to. To address this issue, elected women leaders have been connecting people within their communities with the right government services and benefits.
“Our ultimate aim currently is to create COVID-resilient communities in India and in all the other countries where THP has programs,” Tara Donnelly said.
However, the journey to progress has not been smooth. The elected women have encountered the problem of misinformation spreading within their communities which they combatted by sharing accurate health information provided by The Hunger Project through WhatsApp groups and various established networks.
The ‘shadow pandemic’ also poses another major challenge; due to COVID-19 lockdowns, there have been significant increases in domestic violence cases, child marriages, school dropout rates, and hunger rates.
“Unfortunately, these issues create long lasting impacts that will remain well beyond the pandemic,” Tara solemnly stated. “That’s why The Hunger Project is working with our current cohort of 8,000 elected women to respond immediately to stop these issues from escalating further, and to protect the most vulnerable people.”
As world-renowned social reformer Dr B R Ambedkar once said, we must measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress its women have achieved. To support our sisters and brothers in rural India, The Hunger Project Australia has launched a campaign ‘Create a COVID-safe future’. You can donate to their campaign here.
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