She builds bridges, schools and delivers results
By UN Women on May 29, 2014
Mother of three children and a home-maker for more than a decade, few in her sleepy village would have imagined that she would be planning bridges and schools today. But that is Vandana Bahadur Maida’s life in Khankhandvi, in the populous state of Madhya Pradesh, India. Despite family opposition and cultural norms that define a woman’s place in society, she was elected Head of the village council, the first woman Sarpanch. Her election was path-breaking for the village and also for Vandana’s family—as she superseded her own husband who used to be a member of the village council but never the elected leader.
In India, quotas have spurred one of the greatest successes globally for women's empowerment and grass-roots democracy. Just a decade ago, women comprised less than 5 per cent of elected leaders in village councils. Today more than 40 per cent of local council leaders are women, bringing the number of women leaders at the rural level to more than a million.
While the other villagers go about their daily lives, working the farms, running to fetch water or take a reprieve from the hot summer sun in the afternoons, articulate and determined Vandana plans how to bring long-lasting change to her community. She is raising the awareness of her village council about government schemes that can support sanitation, health and education efforts for her village. With a strong record of results, today she is seen as a leader who delivers on promises. Her council has built a village pond to counter the chronic water shortage that her community used to face, as well as the first school, so that the village children are not compelled to drop out of school the way Vandana had to, after class 8 [8th grade].
What do you think have been the most important factors that have helped get you where you are today?
My interest in social development, my husband’s experience of being in politics at the Panchayat level as panch [member], my family’s support and most importantly the technical guidance by UN Women through trainings about the provisions of various government schemes helped me in performing my roles and responsibilities as Sarpanch [head of the village council] and to unturn every stone which is acting as a hindrance in the development of the Panchayat [village council].
What were some of the biggest obstacles in reaching where you are today?
The community members opposed my candidature for the Sarpanch election. They were of the opinion that ‘how can a women run a Panchayat?’ [My] relatives were also not in favour of my candidature for the Sarpanch election. Previously my husband was panch of the same panchayat, so many community members objected, asking: ‘will she sit on a higher post that of her husband?
Tell us a bit about your childhood, your ambitions and who inspired or influenced you to be who you are today?
My ambition was to work for the development of the community and to contribute for it within my capacity. My dream was to do something for improving education. Fortunately, I got the chance to participate in the panchayat elections and I won with a good margin and finally I got the opportunity to work for the advancement of my community.
Being a woman, has that affected your road to where you are today, and how?
Initially, when I was contesting the Sarpanch election, I was not very confident that a women can be a Sarpanch. The community members also had not even imagined a woman sitting on the chair of Sarpanch and performing her roles and responsibilities. So it was very new for the community members. But with the support of my husband, I contested the elections. I explained to the community members my plans for the Panchayat and the developmental works. Finally, the community members supported me and I won with a good margin.
How do you cope being one of the few women in your area of work, which is predominantly male?
I experienced such problems in the initial days of becoming Sarpanch! Male members were opposing my actions and decisions as I was completely unaware of the roles and responsibilities of Sarpanch and about the provisions of government schemes. But later I developed an understanding of these things and now the community members support me in every work of the Panchayat.
What do you believe is your greatest contribution, to society/your community?
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