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Women in India: The long road from purdah to power Add to ...

Ms. Paliwal tours Hopardi's sand streets with her head bare and her silk sari rustling; she proudly points out the girls' latrines she built at the primary school. When that failed to have much of an impact on enrolment, she persuaded the government to construct a separate school for girls. That, she says, boosted attendance of girls from 40 per cent to nearly 90 per cent.

In 2008, she held a women-only village assembly, the first time many of the women had ever spoken in a public forum, and the first time there had ever been a list of requests and plans to which women had contributed.

But when Ms. Paliwal embarked on that agenda, men in the village organized to oust her. She was only narrowly rescued by the intervention of higher officials. That, Ms. Morris says, is not unusual: "As soon as women try to wield real power, men try to move them out through no-confidence motions - or worse." Her research found repeated reports of women who faced violence in their homes - or outside them - when they refused to carry out a proxy agenda.

And today Hopardi has a male sarpanch, Ms. Paliwal reports with a sigh. The women on the panchayat are all proxies who don't attend the meetings.

Nevertheless, the reservations have created irrevocable change: Everyone has seen a woman run things, now, and there can be no debate about whether that is possible.

Jamana Patel, the Dalit sarpanch in Mogara Kala, says that when she was young, she never dreamed that she could be an authority in her village. But for her daughter-in-law, Nirmala, it's not even a question.

"Women have power now and the way people treat them changes - they get a say in society now," the younger Ms. Patel insists. She keeps her sari over her face - there are men outside. But her voice is strong and certain. "When it's a woman, they say it's 'just' a woman - but when it's a woman sarpanch, that's different - she has an identity. I think girls today think, I can go beyond even what my mother-in-law has achieved."

Women her age - at 22, she is half as old as her mother-in-law - must focus on home and family, she says, but her time will come.

"When I'm sarpanch, you come and see whether I do a good job."

Countries mandate seats for women in government

Dozens of governments - led by strongmen, monarchs and Marxists or prodded by the World Bank - have set aside political space for women, mandating that either a percentage of an electoral ticket or actual seats in the legislature be reserved for them.

Rwanda may have seen the most dramatic impact: Since 2003, it has allocated 30 per cent of seats in parliament to women, who now make up more than half of all legislators elected.

In Argentina, a third of national candidates must be women while, in both Afghanistan and Eritrea, it's one-third of all seats in the lower house of parliament. Uganda also sets aside seats (61 of 214) as do Bangladesh (45 of 345) and Tanzania (75 of 324). Nepal introduced a quota in 2008 that holds 32 per cent of parliament for women.

However, India's immediate neighbours have been less successful.

In 2000, Pakistan's president at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, decreed that women fill a third of the seats on local councils, plus 20 per cent of the National Assembly and 18 per cent of the Senate. But Pakistan's entrenched feudal system has relegated women to the roles of political proxies for men.

Sri Lanka has encouraged women to take part in local politics, conducting an intense training program to prepare them for public office, for example. But despite years of workshops, the number of women elected has barely increased.

India, however, now wants to take the practice beyond politics - to business. This month Minister for Corporate Affairs Murli Deora said he will table legislation to reserve at least one seat on the board of any company with more than five directors. At present, more than 70 per cent of Indian businesses don't have a female director - unless she's a family member of the owner.

Stephanie Nolen

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