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Women’s role in water and sanitation
" Pushpa Srimali, Sarpanch of village Unwas, Haldighati, in the centre with other panchayat members from Rajasthan. "

April 24, New Delhi:  Women’s Political Empowerment Day was celebrated in a function jointly organised by UNICEF and the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) in Delhi on Monday.

The Institute of Social Science together with UNICEF organises a conference every year on this day to celebrate Women’s Empowerment Day.  This year, the theme was “Water and Sanitation and Panchayat Leaders”.  

The event was inaugurated by the Minister for Water Resources Mr. Saifuddin Soz, with the participation of UNICEF Representative Cecilio Adorna, Dr. George Mathew, Director of ISS and Magsaysay Award winner Mr. Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, pioneer in water management from Rajasthan, amongst others. 

The date is historic for the women of India as it was on 24th April 1993 that a key amendment was made in the Constitution to “to reserve not less than 1/3 seats for women” in Panchayats (village self-government council) and municipal bodies in towns and villages.

The occasion witnessed a gathering of about 500 women panchayat and municipal members and NGOs from all over India, colourfully dressed in their finest, singing songs and waving little white flags carrying the message “50% reservation for women”. 

Pushpa Shrimali, the Sarpanch (head of panchayat) of Panchayat Unwas, Village Unwas, District Haldighati, Rajasthan said with a shy, but jubilant smile: “First we got 33 percent (reservation). Next step: 50 percent.”  Women panchayat members, she said, were the driving force behind restoration and protection of water bodies, such as wells, reservoirs and tanks in the villages.  “Paani nahin hai to hamara kaam nahin hota”  (without water, we can’t do our work), she said. 

Welcoming and greeting the women, Mr. Adorna recounted how during his travels in the country, he had been impressed by the success of the sanitary marts strategy in East Midnapore, West Bengal, that had clearly demonstrated that the Total Sanitation Campaign was making a difference.  “It would not have been possible without the involvement of women panchayat leaders” he said.  A clear example is from Uttar Pradesh were 2/3rd of the Panchayats who won the President’s prestigious Nirmal Gram Puraskar (Clean Village Award) on March 23rd this year were headed by women sarpanchs (presidents).

In his address, Minister Saifuddin Soz called on the women to start a revolution in water management.  “Every home – in fact every building – should have its own water harvesting system” he said.  Welcoming the idea of establishing “Paani Panchayats” (water management councils), headed by women, he urged the women to regard reservation not as a charity given to them, but to claim it as their right.

Mr. Rajendra Singh made all women president’s pledge to conserve every drop of water within their panchayat and motivated them to fight against water crisis in their villages through
• Understanding water,
• Help others understand water,
• Conserve water and fight against water exploiters and
• Protect people who conserve water”.

Four state level functions were also held to mark the day – in Bhubaneshwar, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.  In all about 900 women leaders participated in the two-day celebrations.

Amudha Periasamy contributed to this article.

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