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Intricacies of Empowerment


Francesca Refsum Jensenius

FROM OPPRESSION TO ASSERTION: WOMEN AND PANCHAYATS IN INDIA
By Nirmala Buch
Routledge, New Delhi, 2010, pp.199, Rs. 495.00

PARADOXES OF EMPOWERMENT, DEVELOPMENT, GENDER AND GOVERNANCE IN NEOLIBERAL INDIA
By Aradhana Sharma
Zubaan, Delhi, 2010, pp. 260, Rs. 596.00

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 3 March 2011

What happens when efforts are made to empower a traditionally unrepresented group This is the question addressed in both the books under review, although they approach the topics in very different ways. From Oppression to Assertion is an empirically based book that aims to bring forth some truth about the many myths related to the entry of women into representative positions in the Panchayati Raj (local government) institutions in India. Paradoxes of Empowerment, on the other hand, is a detailed ethnography of the complexities and unexpected consequences of a womens empowerment programme in Uttar Pradesh. The starting point for From Oppression to Assertion is the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, which granted women the right to not less than onethird of the seats and leadership positions at all levels of local government (the Panchayati Raj system). This amendment has received much praise and attention, both within and outside India, as a huge step forward for womens equality in India. Opponents of the reservations have pointed to the inefficiency of the Panchayati Raj institutions in general, and of female politicians in particular. The author, Nirmala Buch, is a former IAS officer as well as the Chairperson of Mahila Chetna Manch in Bhopal, the Center for Womens Development Studies in New Delhi and the Child Rights Observatory in Bhopal. It is clear that she has extensive practical, as well as historical and theoretical, knowledge of the development of the Panchayati Raj and the reservation system. Buch sets out to refute several myths about womens reservations in India by providing survey data and extensive anecdotal evidence. The study comprises nine districts spread across Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Within each of these districts, a sample was selected of mainly female political representatives. Since specific groups have been purposefully oversampled it is hard to evaluate the external validity of the study. The author should be commended, however, for having made such an effort to bring data into a debate that has been ridden with unfounded normative statements. The first main myth to be refuted is that women supposedly are not interested in politics. This, Buch argues, is clearly not the case, since less than 1 % of seats reserved for women lay vacant after the reservations came into effect (p. 50). The focus then shifts to the myth that women representatives are mainly relatives of people already in power and are exclusively from upper strata ...


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