Brutal physical assault, blackmail, threatening calls from the local villagers. These are but some of the hardships that have come in the way of Manjulata Sahu, the first woman Sarpanch (head of the village council) of Nadra Gram Panchayat (village council) in Odisha state of India.
Before becoming a Sarpanch, Manjulata was an active social worker and the President of the Federation of self-help groups in her village. She stood for the elections in 2007, after the village community encouraged her to run for the post, contesting against five men and four women in the general category. Such was the faith and confidence that people reposed in her, that two neighbouring villages who had not voted in the electoral process for 15 years, citing lack of development as a reason, came out in huge numbers to support 32-year-old Manjulata.
As a Sarpanch, Manjulata has granted 100 old age and widow pensions and 65 Indira Awaas Yojanas (a national housing scheme). Vegetable gardens have sprung up across the village, especially in areas that were underdeveloped. Individual cultivation is encouraged and fertilizer seeds are provided by the Panchayat. Substantial money has been spent in building latrines for the village schools, besides sensitising people about the importance of hygiene and sanitation in their daily life.
‘’ The work which a male Sarpanch could not do has been managed by his female counterpart,’’ says Basant Kumar Sahoo, an attendee of the Palli Sabha (village council meetings).
It has not however, been a smooth ride for Manjulata who has faced numerous hurdles in her fight against corruption. She came to know that a fellow member of the village council was enjoying the benefits of the Indira Awaas Yojana meant for the poor and the homeless. She complained to the Block Development Officer and even endured severe physical assault by the ward member’s family but was finally successful in getting the grant transferred to a poor widow.
‘’I was under the priority list for the Indira Awaas Yojana but it was instead granted to a ward member. It was because of Manjulata’s support that I received the grant. It will certainly make a notable difference in my life,’’ says 20-year-old Kalpana Behra, a widow and a mother of two small children.
There are several others like Kalpana whose lives have changed for the better with Manjulata’s hard work and sincere efforts.
In another instance, an official managing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act got a project sanctioned twice from the government. Manjulata opposed it and sent letters to various politicians and bureaucrats. She received death threats for her stance. But nothing could deter her. The case is now being investigated and the project has been stalled.
The trainings by UN Women with The Hunger Project and People’s Institute for Participatory Action (PIPAR) have helped Manjulata in overcoming her fears and gathering the strength to face the obstacles headlong. She gets tremendous mental, physical & emotional support from the team.
Shankar Sana Hota from PIPAR feels their capacity building and leadership programs help in educating and empowering women. ‘’Earlier women would not have a say in most matters because the men had the upper hand, both at home and in Panchayats. That has changed now,’’ he says.
The establishment of the Jagruk Manch, another strategy of the programme, has also helped to uplift the spirits of women.
Truly, Manjulata is a source of inspiration for all women who wish to fight for their rights.