A s elected leader of her village here in southern India, Lakshamamma launched a preschool similar to Head Start, something never offered by her male predecessors even though government funding was available upon request. The preschool costs Ragehalli just $2 a month for building maintenance.
"That is for the future. . . . They will want to learn," said Lakshamamma, an illiterate mother of three who never attended school, in explaining the new priority in her village about 20 miles south of the capital of Karnataka state, Bangalore.
Far to the north, in western Uttar Pradesh state, Rambeti is also leader of her village's local council. Uneducated and the mother of seven, she did not leave the house much before her election last year and still does not. She went to her first council meeting, but since then her husband has gone in her place. "He is the one who is educated. What do I know? I am not interested," Rambeti said in her home in Biharipur. "I don't know anything beyond my doorstep."
Lakshamamma and Rambeti -- neither of whom uses a surname -- represent both the promise and the failure of the world's broadest mandate to bring women into political power, a 1993 amendment to India's constitution that, among other things, reserves for women a third of the seats in local councils called panchayats. Like Lakshamamma, some elected women assume power. But others are little more than proxy council members who represent the views of the powerful men who got them elected.
The quota so far has ushered an estimated 800,000 women into what had been an overwhelmingly male preserve, a number that will rise to 1 million by the end of next year when the amendment is implemented fully.
New female council members such as Lakshamamma have shifted the focus of India's development from road improvements and other construction projects to such human needs as better teachers, basic health services, sanitation and safe drinking water. The quota's broad reach also has lifted into positions of respect some women who had been subordinate or scorned because of their traditional occupations.
The law's effect is particularly pronounced in rural India, where about 70 percent of the nation's 934 million people live with conservative social customs. It was a social advance, for instance, for a cloistered woman like Rambeti to leave the house even once to sit in the company of unrelated men.
Until the quota was imposed, it was unusual for village women to participate in civic life or venture opinions and doing so has made some eager to learn English, the language of India's elite. Some girls now aspire to get educated and get elected. "Undoubtedly, the reservation for women in panchayat on the whole has been a very positive experience because for the first time all through the country you have large sections of women who have been introduced to the political process," said Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association.
But male subterfuge and the traditionally low status of women frequently have conspired to nullify the power that female council members were supposed to have acquired, particularly in northern states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rambeti's home state.
The existing power structure in villages, usually held by men of property and the locally dominant caste, has in some places accommodated the constitutional mandate by handpicking uneducated women as proxies for their husbands, fathers or other male relatives. Rambeti's husband, for instance, had been considered Biharipur's informal "headman." He coaxed his wife into running when no other candidates came forward to seek a seat reserved for women.
In other villages, male civil servants who administer village councils and control the flow of development funds have retained power behind the scenes. An age-old problem has frustrated many women: The men on their councils simply do not listen to them. And in a small number of publicized cases, more aggressive men have reacted violently to the nation's move to increase women's political power by raping or stripping naked their new representatives.
"Nobody wants to give up power. Men are losing power. . . . That is why you find them reacting so sharply," said Ranjana Kumari, an activist with New Delhi's Center for Social Research. Activists acknowledge that the quota has brought uneven results but insist that "proxy politics" will diminish as more women are trained to perform political duties and assert their newfound power.
"It's quite early. It's a mixed experience," said Veena Nayyar, president of Women's Political Watch, a lobbying group. "There are cases where women have come up and have taken charge and are able to provide leadership."
In many ways, India seems an un likely nation to try to increase the political power of women. A preference for boys and the infanticide of girls have created a male-dominated society where there are only 927 women for every 1,000 men, and the gap between the literacy rates of men and women is one of the world's widest. Almost three times as many men as women have formal employment, but rural women are burdened with the unpaid labor of working the fields, cleaning house, caring for children, fetching water, cooking, gathering cattle fodder and patting cow dung into round fuel cakes. "If I don't go to meetings, it is because I am a woman," said Gheesi Bai, a village council member in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. "There's so much housework, if I start doing this, who would do my work?"
The depth of sexual discrimination in India -- and the prospect of attracting women's votes -- made the constitutional amendment uncontroversial when parliament passed it in December 1992. The required 50 percent of state legislatures ratified the amendment in three months. Besides the one-third quota for women, representation of lower castes was mandated in proportion with their presence in the local population.
Unlike the United States, where the Supreme Court has generally declared quotas to be unconstitutional as a remedy to discrimination, in India quotas were written into the constitution of 1950 for lower castes and Anglo-Indians in parliament, state legislatures, government jobs and college admissions.
Mohandas K. Gandhi hoped to revive in independent India what he glorified as "ancient republics" and "true democracy realized." But the most prominent female politician in India's history, Indira Gandhi, who was prime minister for nearly 15 years before her assassination in 1984, did almost nothing directly to bring more women into politics. She came to power as the daughter of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The constitutional amendment defined a uniform structure for the councils and gave them the authority to implement programs in economic development, social justice and 29 other areas. Each council has a budget for development projects; the amount varies from state to state.
No other country requires such broad participation by women in local government. Bangladesh has reserved 10 percent of parliamentary seats for appointed women, while Uganda's 1995 constitution set a quota of 13 percent. "India's is the largest experiment in women's empowerment both in terms of absolute numbers and percentage," said Ramesh Nayak, a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi..
Election manifestos issued earlier this year by every major political party in India endorsed extending the women's one-third reservation to parliament and state legislatures. Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda has promised to propose such a constitutional amendment during the session of parliament that begins next week.
"I think more women in parliament are certainly going to help a reconsideration of what are the issues which parliament and state assemblies should spend their time discussing," said Karat of the All India Democratic Women's Association. "The kind of discussions very often just doesn't touch the lives of people."
Women's activists have focused on the promise of 1 million women entering public office eventually to shift the priorities of the nation, which since independence nearly 50 years ago has built an industrial base and established the world's largest democracy, but invested sparsely in solving problems such as basic education, public health and sanitation. Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report. WOMEN IN INDIA
India has begun a huge empowerment program for women, reserving one-third of all seats in local councils for them. The law, which took effect in 1993, already has brought 800,000 women into an overwhelmingly male preserve. Here is a look at the role of women in India. AFG. POPULATION Women:
452 million, 48% Men:
482 million, 52% Rural population:
74% EDUCATION Of 290.7 million illiterate Indians, 183.1 million are women 60% of girls are enrolled in elementary and secondary school 5% are enrolled at university or professional-training level WOMEN IN THE LABOR FORCE 24% of total labor force 31% of women aged 15 to 64 2% of administrators and managers 21% of professional and technical workers WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT 8% of parliamentary seats 6.1% of all government jobs 4.2% of ministerial-level jobs 6.3% of sub-ministerial-level jobs HEALTH Fertility rate:
3.8 live births per woman Maternal mortality rate:
570 per 100,000 live births SOURCES: U.N. Human Development Report, 1996 (most data 1993); World Bank World Population Projections, 1995 CAPTION: Rambeti, with youngest of seven children, is on Biharipur village council but does not attend.