Women’s engagement, leadership and decision-making in the public sphere continues to be suppressed in much of rural India. It is controlled by cultural norms which place women as subordinate to men, and prescribe their roles as confined to the domestic sphere. . Understanding and supporting women’s pathways of empowerment within and between private and public life continues to be a feminist struggle for women’s rights and gender equality. This paper shares findings of case study research exploring how work with men can contribute to this process of change, and support women’s participation in public and political life. The work of the Samajhdar Jodidar (meaning ‘understanding partner’) project in rural Maharashtra, provides an interesting, and important example of the role men can play in contributing to progressive social change on women’s public participation.
Research with 42 men and women involved in this initiative, either directly as activists or as key stakeholders, including women local government representatives, provides some important lessons for how this kind of approach can work. Importantly the commitment to democratic accountability on gender equality spans both private and public spheres. Men first work through consciousness raising to transform their own practices within their homes and intimate relationships. This provides a platform for social action in the wider community and enables trusting relationships to be built with women to work together to drive political change. Demanding accountability from existing legal mechanisms for affirmative action on women’s participation and transforming local level institutions from within have been important strategic areas.