Heera Hansda has nothing against marriage – it is just that it didn’t happen.

At first, it was her studies. That done, she began helping out on the family farm in Batkalsoi, the tribal village in Saraikela, Jharkhand. Then her younger brother got married, so she moved out of the family home in search of space, and built a hut for herself and continued to work on the farm belonging to her father and uncle. Her share works out to between two to three quintals of rice every year.

In December 2010, democracy came to her doorstep in the form of panchayat elections – the first local elections held in the fledgling state of Jharkhand. “I was elected unopposed,” Hansda recalls. “The entire village wanted me as their ward panch.”

She ascribes this to the reputation she has built for herself: “I had for some years been actively fighting for our rights. For instance, there were problems in the ration system. We were supposed to get 35 kilograms of rice but would get only 32 kg – the remaining 3 kg was being siphoned off. I reported this to the local police station.” What she leaves unsaid is the courage it took for her, a single woman, to go up against entrenched corruption.

Panchayat reservations

While 50% of panchayat seats are reserved for women, the norm is that such representation remains mostly on paper. The male members of the family take over all the real functions while the woman remains the figurehead. In North Indian villages, the term "SP" – sarpanch pati or sarpanch putra, husband or son of the woman sarpanch – has common currency.

In the 2010 panchayat elections in Jharkhand, women won 58% of the total seats. As in the case of Hansda, this has led to real transformation. As member of a ward committee representing a village with a population of over 900, Hansda's job is to monitor the functioning of government programs in the village, attest identification documents of the villagers so they can benefit from public schemes, among other things.

The 40-year-old official says her work as the village representative in the panchayat gives her tremendous satisfaction. “I try to link women to government programs, to help them access the circle officer, the block development officer,” she said.

Personal experience has helped sharpen her focus on helping other women. Despite her position, Hansda says, she has not been able to get a ration card that recognises her as the head of her own household. “My name is still listed in my father's ration card," she said. "I applied for a separate ration card, but I am still to get one. In that respect, I am still dependent on my father. But I have an MNREGA job-card and a Life Insurance Corporation policy of my own.”

Being single

Her single status is not a handicap, she says – the villagers are respectful of her wish to stay by herself. She lives in a kachcha house of mud with a thatched roof. She cooks for herself most of the time, but since her parents and her brother live close by, they sometimes send food over and at other times, she cooks for the entire family. “If I fall ill, I call a doctor on the phone. What is the problem in being single? There is none.”

She is aware that not all single women, as also widows and all-women households in neighbouring villages, have been as fortunate. Witchcraft is a common accusation levelled at elderly single women, and there have been several instances of such superstitious beliefs triggering violent attacks. “It is common that young men and boys start calling elderly single women witches. When a child falls sick, instead of seeking treatment someone will say that it is the work of some old woman. Not all young men are like this, but some villages have this problem.”

The prospect that she too will, in time, join the ranks of old women makes Hansda, tall and erect at 40 despite the back-breaking hours of hard labour, a little cynical. “I think my brother or his children will take care of me as long as I have property, otherwise they may not,” she said. “That is why I got a Life Insurance Corporation policy from our village agent.”

Panchayat elections took place recently in Jharkhand, with polling in four phases from November 22 to December 4. Hansda has contested again – this time, for the post of panchayat mukhiya. The results are still awaited. Her focus, she says, will continue to be women’s welfare. “In one village, there are on average 80-100 single women," she said. "In my panchayat, there are 13 villages, so that means there must be almost 1,000 single women.” As mukhiya, she can help women not just in her village, but across the entire panchayat.

Experience has taught her that neither the panchayat or the government has much thought to spare for women’s issues. “Only if all women, single or not, get together will the government listen.”

Read the rest of the series here.