As the world gazes at yet another March 8 (International Women’s Day), it is time to take note of what has been accomplished, what remains undone, the lost opportunities and dashed hopes, the milestones reached and those yet to be achieved. The spirit soars as one hears of the success in a hard-fought legal battle that secured women a permanent commission in the Indian Army. The sore point is that it had to be a hard-fought battle. Be it the impressive feat of our Women in Blue in the ongoing ICC T20, or of the women who laid a bridge to the Moon through their Chandrayaan, each of them have breached a wall.
Now picture this. 153. That is India’s ranking in the Gender Development Index given by the UNDP out of a total of 166 countries. India is at the tail-end of the list, way below many sub-Saharan countries and some of our third-world neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal. Even if one wishes away these statistics, more such reports by world bodies project almost the same picture - like the Gender Gap report of the World Economic Forum placing India at 112 out of 153 countries. Gaps galore at all levels. They exist in economic opportunities like participation in workforce, in wage gaps, in a lack of access to healthcare and in opportunities for education. While the issues are ubiquitous, women in rural areas fight a harder battle against these gaps.
The problem of women empowerment in rural areas lies in the fact that there is a glaring lack of awareness of basic civil liberties. Menstruating women are isolated even to this day in many rural areas. A ‘son preference’ culture ensures that even food distribution within the family is tilted in favour of the menfolk. Not to mention its impact on sex ratio (both at birth and beyond). What ossifies this is a set of moribund values that instil a self-effacing culture in women while reinforcing their self-defeating attitudes and perceptions. Access to school education is another problem. For many girls in rural India, as opposed to their urban counterparts, the Right to Education may still be news. Very often the proclivity to learning is disincentivised by the prospect of having to travel to a distant school, fraught with its own risks and difficulties.
The silver lining, though, is in the success stories of micro-credit across the world. The micro-creditors chose women as their target client primarily for two reasons: 1) Women have no access to collateral, considering their access to economic opportunities. 2) The repayment commitment is honoured by women very earnestly and zestfully. But the social ramifications of micro-credit schemes were interesting. World over, many studies found intriguing results. Women were found to utilise the income generated in starting a supplementary venture or in their children’s education, virtually building the social capital for the nation, whereas men were found to be using the additional income in indulgences like alcohol, tobacco, smoking, etc.
In fact, what was found was a further positive correlation between such economic opportunities and the decision-making abilities of women in deciding the size of family, children’s immunisation and education. They were found to have a greater control over the forces in their environment and reported a greater feeling of well-being vis-a-vis those without such economic opportunities. This difference in spending patterns, though debatable, explains the rationale for tilting development programmes in favour of women, who can drive socio-economic change. Women-engineered programmes, particularly at the grassroots level, may thus be an effective tool of the bottom-up process of development.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has a community approach to eradicating open defecation. The programme - which has enabled the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 and talks of clean water and sanitation - might go on to reap richer dividends if it is women-driven. Women groups in rural areas could be encouraged to enrol as Swachhagrahis, or volunteers, in large numbers. They could be trained to use digital platforms that are used to alert the sanitation crew when the solar-powered waste storages are full. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awaas Yojana could be routed through the female members of an eligible family.
A targeted skill development scheme under the PM Kaushal Vikas Yojana specifically directed at women in rural and semi-urban areas to equip them for gainful employment is likely to give more power to them. What might be a game changer is a multidimensional ecosystem to build the capabilities of these women. It should include formal learning infrastructures, micro-credit access, skill training and market access for local produce. Traditional products in the form of arts, handicrafts and pottery have lost market and therefore production due to aggressive globalisation. It is thus imperative to revive these simple community-run economies and bridge gaps in marketing through branding and advertising.
It is not a coincidence that across cultures, women have been hailed as the prime movers of family and society. Adages abound, like the one in India:
The woman is the eye of the family, a woman educated is a generation educated. But the most powerful sentiment I found was in Margaret Thatcher’s words: “If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” It is time to move beyond seeing her as a symbol of society’s honour and accept the fact that she is the prime force of change. More power to Her.
Rohini D is an IRS officer (Views are personal) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org