Before long, New Year will make its march to International Women’s Day, and as we step into a new decade, it is time for a pause, for reflection and fresh resolve. Women make up 50% of India’s population, and women empowerment reserves the potential that will enable India to deliver on its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. Women hold up half the sky, but it is not reflected in the 20% participation in the workforce. Women empowerment holds the fate of not just social inclusion targets for a developing economy, but India needs its women to be an active part of the workforce if it has to realise its economic targets. Women’s development is both a social and an economic necessity.
Last year, our Prime Minister had sent out a call for mahila sashaktikaran or women empowerment, mainstreaming it as an integral part of nation building. To catalyse this tectonic shift, there is a greater need for convergence of efforts and funds. Shri Narendra Modi must stir up another Jan Andolan, this time for Mahila Shakti and invite greater participation of governments and citizens alike, in the manner of what he did for Swachh Bharat, when all arms of the government and multiple programmes were marshalled with the mop and the broom for the cause of taps and toilets. Indians became acutely aware of their role in keeping their country clean and open defecation-free, and more than 92 million rural toilets were constructed over five years. We need another such storm to create a similar energy for women’s development.
WOMEN’S SAFETY AND WELL-BEING
The enduring persona of the Indian woman is that of a homemaker, caregiver, the nucleus of a family, and above all, venerated as ‘shakti’ in the Indian ethos. Yet, while we celebrate these symbols, we lose sight of the real woman behind the stereotype. Who is the Indian woman? Does she live in a village or in a city? Is she a working hand or is she housebound? Does she work in the field, a factory or in an office? Does her Indian or western attire define her? Is she veiled behind a conservative chimera or exposed to a larger worldview? And finally, are these dualities at odds with each other?
Women experience and drive their socio-economic and political empowerment within complex interactions and ecosystems, as such empowerment would relate to an environment in which women possess the ability, freedom and power to exercise choice in accessing a wide range of opportunities for self-enhancement and self-protection.
To ensure women’s safety and well-being, the government promotes a safety paradigm that works on precautionary deterrents, protection, disciplinary and punitive measures to control crimes against women. Several arrangements are in place for women protection. Swadhar Greh for the rehabilitation of women victims of unfortunate circumstances, the Ujjwala scheme for the prevention of trafficking and sexual exploitation, the ‘One Stop Centre’ which serves as temporary shelters for women, the Women Helpline providing 24-hour emergency and non-emergency response, and Mahila Police volunteers who act as a link between the police and community. Several regulations have also been passed to protect the interest and integrity of women and create conditions to enable them to live with dignity, such as inheritance endowments, the domestic violence bill and safeguarding a woman’s right not to be turned out of her home. The government has initiated programmes to encourage the participation of women by protecting their ability to compete commercially, like women-owned FPOs and the MSME push for the role of women in 3% of government procurement.
A GENDER-EMPATHETIC POLICY
A large majority of Indian women undergo daily struggles for their survival and basic rights, experiencing exploitation and exclusion. Women lack the ways to make their voice heard, especially in rural and tribal areas. Gender-based violence is most reflected in the personal domain as around 40% of cases in India are of cruelty by husbands or relatives. The interplay between poverty, lack of equal opportunities, family size, poor health, intergenerational malnutrition, disability, abuse, lack of education, knowledge, awareness, income security and emotional well-being, and inability to navigate judicial and administrative snarls, accentuates gender discrimination and gender-based violence. Persistent entry barriers for women in enterprise and economic activity like lack of access to credit and markets, absence of land ownership, early marriage, childbirth, and financial and digital illiteracy lead to an overall lack of preparedness for economic participation.
To overcome these challenges and build momentum for change, pocket-size pilot programmes must be upscaled to give mass expression to empowerment in day-to-day realities of personal struggles as experienced by lakhs of women. While several regulations and programmes protect the interests and integrity of women, there is a need to intensify and coordinate efforts for their execution through apex groups, administrative structures, and networks and whatever else it may take to inform, improve, and give impetus to their socio-economic independence and safety.
There is also a need to curate gender pathways through government schemes and programmes by enabling linkages between socially transformative investments from across ministries, CSR monies and impact investment in conjunction with Panchayati Raj institutions, rural development missions, micro and small village enterprises, NREGA and SHGs to harness the power of convergence at the grassroots level for the economic advancement of women. It is essential that the institutional ecosystem—police, hospitals, schools, Anganwaadis, administration and NGOs—are sensitised to work together with each other, and with the rest of society so that victims of gender-based violence have the confidence to approach them.
Setting up hubs providing integrated services for women as a public service delivery channel will allow young women, adolescents, working women, elderly women and destitute women to seek counselling, mentoring and assistance on matters pertaining to health, law, finance, banking, skill development, creche services, geriatric care and other citizen services.
To protect their dignity, opportunities for financial inclusion, income security and decent work can give women the agency to lead, participate and benefit equally from governance systems, politics and decision making. More and more young girls can be prepared for new roles in the IT, telecom and engineering sectors. The participation of State Skill Development Missions can help provide skill development programs for rural women on a continuous basis. The enhancement of government-led innovation and an entrepreneurial ecosystem by creating funding mechanisms for women enterprises can help remove entry barriers.
There is an urgent need to step up advocacy so that women from cities to gram panchayats become aware of the benefits and safety nets that have been provided for them. In addition, it is important to advocate equal opportunities, non-discrimination, equal remuneration, judicial rights and the engagement of boys and men in eradicating gender-based discrimination, violence and segregation.
The writer is managing director and co-founder of Primus Partners. Views expressed in the article are personal.