Last month, speaking at the Women’s Parliament in Thiruvananthapuram, organised to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first communist ministry, two cabinet ministers in Kerala flagged the low representation of women in the state Assembly.

“We had six women members in the 114-member House in 1957,” said KK Shailaja, minister for health and social justice. “Today, we have seven women in the 140-member House. Though the Constitution assures gender equality, it is not reflected in the legislature, executive and judiciary.”

Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma continued this thread. “Men and women are equal according to the Constitution of India,” she said. “But in practice, women are never treated so.”

While the two ministers, who are senior leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), were concerned about the representation of women in the highest law-making body in the state, the situation is equally worrying at local government bodies for a slightly different reason. Here, despite the fact that women constitute the majority of elected members, it is mainly men who run the show.

Representation, not power

Kerala has 1,200 local self-government bodies. This includes 941 gram panchayats, 152 block panchayats, 14 district panchayats, 87 municipalities and six municipal corporations. Women constitute more than 54% of the total number of elected members in these bodies. However, despite this, they do not seem to be a critical part of the decision-making process in these bodies, primarily because of their lack of political exposure, and interference by male politicians.

This reporter spoke to 20 members of various gram panchayats headed by women. The majority of them were of the opinion that the women presidents were proxies for their husbands or for leaders of the ruling party.

An Opposition party member from a panchayat in Malappuram district, who did not want to be identified, said that the lack of political experience of the woman president of his panchayat was hampering development work. “She got the post only because it was reserved for women,” the member said. “She cannot take independent decisions on crucial issues like drinking water shortage. She has to wait for instructions from her party leaders.”

Another member of a panchayat in Kasargod district, who also wanted to remain anonymous, alleged that the husband of the panchayat president was actually running the show, and was “remote controlling” its affairs.

On the other hand, some elected women representatives complain of the deeply patronising attitude men display towards them.

“[Male] leaders think that I became the mayor only because the post was reserved for a woman,” said Soumini Jain, mayor of Kochi Corporation, the state’s largest. “I just ignore those people and concentrate on the task at hand.”

She added: “Everyday is a tough day.”

‘A worrying trend’

Admitting that politics in Kerala was “a masculine affair”, economist MA Oommen blamed the attitude of men towards women in local government bodies on a feudal mindset.

“Men take critical decisions in the majority of local self government institutions,” he said. He agreed that women should influence the decision-making process more as they formed the majority of elected members. “Unfortunately, that is not happening,” said Oommen. “Women representatives in local governments in Kerala have not become a critical force in the decision-making process.”

Oommen said that women in important positions in local government should not just remain figureheads but take decisions on prioritising development, allocating resources and take a strategic role in governance.

One way of doing this, he suggested, was for women to join hands across party lines. “Women’s representatives in local bodies should unite as women independent of their political affiliations,” he said. “They should network well to overcome the male domination and patriarchal values that influence equitable gender relations.”

Oommen pointed out that women who had associated with the Kudumbashree Mission, a hugely successful women’s empowerment group supported by the government, were better at executing their roles in local government.

So far, over 13,100 of the 38,268 women candidates (or above 34%) who contested the local body elections in 2015 have links with Kudumbashree.

“Women who had prior work experience in Kudumbashree Mission take independent decisions and perform well in their roles as heads of the local government [bodies],” he said. “It may be because of their experience in development activities and the decision-making process.”

Experience counts

Women with previous experience at the grassroots, or in local government, do seem to be able to manage their roles in local politics – as well as handle interference from men – more easily.

Rajalakshmi Ammal, president of the Kilimanoor panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district, said that she never felt that her hands were tied.

Ammal worked as a mahila pradhan agent (a government savings scheme) till 1995 before taking the plunge into politics. Now 52-years-old, Ammal completed three terms as a ward member of the panchayat before becoming its president two years ago. “I am confident that I can discharge my duties without male intervention,” she said. “If you are courageous, no one will try to interfere in your activities.”

EP Latha, mayor of the newly-formed Kannur Corporation, said she made her own decisions, and no one tried to hinder her. “I am the mayor and I am fully aware of my responsibilities,” she said. “I am accountable only to the people.”