A Space for Women’s Voices: Unique Gram Sabhas in Madhya Pradesh Empower Women

UNDP’s partnership with the Ministry of Panchayati Raj is developing capacities of elected women representatives in Umaria district, Madhya Pradesh in local governance; generating awareness of both men and women on gender issues, helping communities secure access to entitlements and improving information on agricultural practices and sanitation facilities in the district.


  • The partnership between UNDP and the Ministry of Panchayati Raj is helping locally-elected women leaders in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh understand their role as elected representatives
  • A three-month long training programme for EWRs has enabled locally-elected women leaders to participate in political processes more effectively
  • Support provided has aimed at generating awareness amongst both men and women on gender issues and on schemes implemented or monitored by the Panchayat
  • Exposure visits to gram panchayats in Jalgaon have helped EWRs generate awareness among villagers on importance of sanitation and the need for toilets in every house
  • The number of elected representatives trained in Madhya Pradesh has increased from 16 to 91 percent and from one to 2.4 million across the country between 2008 and 2010-11

The long dirt road running adjacent to Bandhavgarh National Park in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh ends in a concrete road which suggests that we have finally approached Kanchaudhar village. We are looking for a gram sabha or a local village council meeting that’s in progress. The first two hamlets we pass greet us with shut doors and stray dogs. There is not a soul in sight. Are we in the right village? Wall paintings and an old sign assure us that we are.

As we approach the centre of the village, we can hear drums and people talking over loudspeakers some distance away. Our vehicle turns towards the primary school and we see a large gathering. Adults are huddled and busy in serious discussions, children are playing on the ground and village youth are performing a local dance to the beat of drums.

A unique gram sabha on women’s empowerment is in progress. The meeting is being led by the local sarpanch (leader) who is a woman. For a change, men are seated at the back as women of the village hold centre stage. An animated discussion is underway with most of the queries coming from women and the elderly seeking information on entitlements to subsidized housing under the Indira Awas Yojana, old age pensions, access to sanitation and drinking water facilities and how to secure Below Poverty Line cards.

The Sarpanch, Punia Bai, appears completely in command of the proceedings and confidently addresses her village. She answers a range of questions from eligibility criterion for public services, formalities required to access entitlements, and departments and officers to be contacted for securing clearances. Punia Bai today goes a step further, to advise villagers on possible development schemes that they could avail of. It’s a far cry from early 2011, when a baseline data collected to assess existing capacities and strengths of elected representatives in the district revealed that Punia Bai lacked the skills to effectively manage the gram panchayat and depended heavily on advice from her husband and the panchayat secretary.

These special gram sabhas are the culmination of a three-month long intensive orientation and support provided to 123 Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) from Umaria, a result of a partnership between the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and UNDP aimed at developing capacity for local governance.

Since 2008, the partnership has focused on strengthening strategies to develop capacity of elected representatives; policy and research-based advocacy, and sharing of good practices. UNDP supported EWRs to enable them to better understand their constitutional role as elected representatives, sensitized them on gender issues and improved awareness on schemes implemented or monitored by the panchayat. The capacity building approach included male family members of EWRs, thereby sensitizing men on gender issues.

As the Outcome Evaluation of UNDP’s Governance Programme in 2011 notes, the number of elected representatives trained has more than doubled between 2008 and 2010-11, from 1 to 2.4 million. In Madhya Pradesh, the number of elected representatives trained increased from 16 to 91 percent.  

As a result of this support, Punia Bai, who belongs to a tribal community, no longer needs help in responding to queries posed to her. Fresh from an exposure visit to gram panchayats in Jalgaon district, Punia addresses the gram sabha on the importance of village sanitation and the need for toilets in every house. Confidently facing a gathering of more than 250 adults, she answers all their questions and exhorts both women and men to come together for the development of their village and pro-actively access government schemes. “Seeing women like us play a greater role in village development has encouraged more women to come to these meetings and demand their rights,” says Punia Bai. Anju Verma, sarpanch of Rakshat concurs with this view. “For the time ever in the last gram sabha, we witnessed women come out without their veils. This, for me, was the biggest achievement. ”

The experiences of many like Punia Bai and Anju Verma point to the transformation that is taking place amongst these local women leaders, helping them claim their space in the political sphere and building the communities’ confidence in their leadership capabilities.   

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