Last year, a mahila mahapanchayat was organised in Haryana’s Kaithal, to spead the message of quality of women. The mahapanchayat was organised by Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Shakti Mancha (ABMSM), and notably, in a first, the two woman sarpanches of the Manas village were asked to remove their veil and address the gathering, which also comprised men.

Dr Santosh Dahiya, president of the Manch and a social activist who organised the panchayat, said that while one of the sarpanches instantly agreed when she asked her to lift her veil and speak to the gathering, the other required some convincing.

After nearly one year, the difference between the two sarpanches is still evident. The village elected two sarpanches because of its large size. It has more than 5,000 voters.

Of the two sarpanches – Mukesh (27), has done MA (English) and B.Ed. She is more vocal about the issues in the village. The other one – Rupesh (23) has studied till Class XII only and leaves it to her husband to do most of the talking.

According to an Indian Express report, Rupesh said, “It was the first time I addressed a gathering. I just said that the we need to take the beti bachao, beti padhao programme forward.”

Her husband Narender says, “The concept of veil will not end in villages as it is a part of our culture. The purdah is only from elders. The tradition is there since the beginning. Even if someone leaves it, people will say she has no shame.

Narender handles most of the work of the panchayat. A contractor in the construction business, he has cut down on his work to ensure that there are no problems with managing the affairs of the village.

Narendra claims that since the men in the village are not comfortable talking to women. They come to him for getting their work done.

“She is my wife… there is no concept of ‘separate’ between us. I reduced my work only to ensure there are no problems. The villagers hesitate in speaking to her,” he reportedly said.

Since the panchayat in May last year, the village has achieved various feat. The government gave it an award for having the best sex ratio at birth in Kaithal district in 2016-17. The village has a sex ratio of 150 girls against 100 boys. A total of 65 girls were born against 42 boys in the village last year. The village also has the distinction of having several girls as national players, especially footballers.

Mukesh who herself takes up issues concerning the village, says that the improved sex ratio in the village is because she and other women keep a vigil.

“Whenever I get to know that a woman in the village is pregnant, I and other women keep a watch. This way the pregnant woman knows that she is being monitored and this ensures that they don’t go for sex selection,” she says.

Despite working without taking any help from the men, even Mukesh, who had readily removed her veil at the mahapanchayat, says she will never look at men face to face without her veil.

“In the villages, we still cover our faces. When I was asked to remove my veil, I sat in the panchayat in such a manner that I did not have to face the men,” she said.

Mukesh says that she was hesitatant to speak at the panchayat. However, her family has told her to express her views wherever required. Also, during her course, she was required to make presentations that helped her.

Her husband, Narinder Singh, is a police constable. She says that even she wanted to join government service, but after her husband joined service, she decided to take care of her two children – a six-year-old daughter and one-and-a-half-year-old son. Mukesh says it will take some time for old mindsets to change. But with new people taking over the mantle, things will look up in the future.

Dr Santosh Dahiya feeks that in her visits to the village after the mahapanchayat, she has seen the women becoming more vocal. “For a long time, women sarpanches have remained rubber stamps. There is a need for this to change. I chose this village to hold the mahapanchayat as it had two sarpanches. The idea is not only to save the girl child, but also accord women status equal to the men,” she added.