India is a nation where upper caste, feudal, educated and Hindu males conquer the image of the ‘self’. It is a political terrain where the poor, dalit, tribal, non-Hindu, the so called illiterate and the woman are burdened with the identity of the ‘other’. Women belonging to these communities are known to experience dual marginalization as both their gender and their social, political and economic condition works against their favor.
But India is also a country that has, through a revolutionary legislation, attempted to undo the life of secondary citizenship that its women lead. This legislation has also been a collective aspiration of the civil society and the endeavours of The Hunger Project (THP) hail from this aspiration as it aims to bring the marginalized into a space where their presence, position and individuality are celebrated, respected and appreciated.
The Aagaz Foundation is an initiative of THP, whose primary focus is to strengthen women’s leadership in the Panchayati Raj system. Here, 85% of the women come from the scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and other backward castes and 5% represent the Muslims and Christians. Aagaz has started an initiative to support the women who belong to the communities that have and continue to experience oppression of various kinds.
On October 20, 2006, 191 elected women panchayat representative from four Indian states namely Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, assembled in New Delhi to receive their degrees on completion of a formal course in effective leadership. These women are elected representatives and participants at Aagaz Academies, a programme that helps women emerge as effective leaders in their constituencies for ending hunger, poverty and injustice. The inaugural event saw over 500 women come together to celebrate an ‘Aagaz’- a new beginning – of empowerment.
Speaking at the inaugural ceremony, Kiran Bedi (Police woman and Ramon Magsaysay award winner)) said: "This is a unique initiative as it is not urban-centric but it will bring the social change in the rural India." She also said that the legislation on domestic violence and right to information will help women establish their position in the society.
Providing details about the initiative, Program Coordinator of Aagaz foundation said: "We aim to use the woman power to transform the status of women in the society. We hope that through this initiative women will emerge as effective leaders in their constituencies for ending hunger, poverty and injustice."
Kamala Bhasin Highlighting the benefits of such initiatives, social activist Kamala Bhasin said: "Women panchayat leader should use the panchayat ghar for women empowerment.”
Speaking about the critical need for values in leadership, she said, “Today the country needs feminist leadership – women who can see the world through women’s eyes, who are sensitive to the deprivation of oppressed and marginalized classes and who believe in democracy and transparency”. “Women should be coming into politics to transform it with human values and not to blend into it,” she said.
Bhasin touched a chord in the audience as she used a womanly context to drive home her point, “Women are known to be traditionally good at sewing and cleaning – they should mend the political fabric of the country, and spruce it up so that it is shining clean…”
Hodri Bai of Satpur Gram Panchayat, Rajasthan said “ I have learnt a lot in this one year. I am much more confident and informed. Earlier, I used to be only an onlooker but now I ask questions, understand the working of panchayat system and sign on documents with my own signature.”
Speaking about Aagaz’s work, Rita Sarin, the Chairperson said, “…our aim is to create women leaders who can govern at the micro level. We teach these women governance and managerial skills that enable them to handle their various responsibilities effectively.”