Millennium Post

‘Women are breaking the gender stereotypes’

On the occasion of labour day, 2014, it is a time to reflect where women stand in the economic growth of the country. But first we would like to know if you perceive a change in the status of women over the period and in what manner?
There has been a significant change in the status of women, when you look at indicators like gender parity in education, women’s participation in various sectors in the economy, participation of women in local governance etc. Yet we cannot treat women as a homogeneous category. On one hand they occupy highest seats of power and authority while on the other hand there are still large sections which are deprived of critical life choices such as age of marriage, childbirth, number of children, choice of livelihood, level of education etc. Whereas there is no dearth of opportunities today yet there are barriers to making full use of these opportunities which prevent many girls and women from realising their full potential. These barriers stem largely from socio-cultural factors. I think while there has been tremendous improvement in the status of women, there is still a long way to go to ensure gender parity from being converted from de-jure parity to de-facto one. The adverse child sex ratio is one such indicator which sets an alarm to all of us since this is not a natural phenomenon and reflects a deep-seated son preference prevailing in the society.

In quantitative terms the participation has certainly increased, but to make it more effective girls and women need to utilise the existing opportunities fully like the RTE, participation in PRIs and other available avenues for their empowerment. Today’s youth is far more aware of its rights, and young girls have also started questioning the gender stereotypes. The current of change is visible. The fact that issues related to women are being discussed more openly and in several forms is itself a positive phenomenon.

To cite some of the concrete trends which are encouraging are increasing employment opportunities in the formal sector. Employment of women in the organised sector to the total employment in this sector has gone up steadily over the last eleven years. Share of women’s employment to total employment in the organised sector has risen steadily from 17.9 per cent in 2000-2001 to 20.53 per cent in 2010-2011. As on 2012, women’s share is 20.5 per cent of the total employment in the organised sector in the country. There has also been an increasing emphasis on the need to create conducive environment at work places including sensitivity towards addressing issues of decent wages, childcare, maternity benefits, safety and occupational health especially in the formal sector. However, the big challenge is to ensure social protection and decent work for women in the informal sector since majority of women work in the informal sector.

More women today are breaking the glass ceiling and have ventured into employment in almost all fields. The number of women entrepreneurs has grown especially after 1990s. Women are moving from traditional skills to acquiring new skills in the emerging sectors such as energy, environment, banking - thus breaking the gender stereotypes. At the same time the potential of women entrepreneurs need to be enhanced in larger numbers and address constraints related to access to technology, remunerative skills including business skills, credit & financial inclusion etc, in different socio-economic contexts. Other important employment challenge is to tackle occupational segregation of traditional gender biases which constraint equality of opportunity across the employment spectrum.

The enrolment of girls in school has risen exponentially since independence. However the concern is the high drop out rate at the senior secondary levels. This needs a very concerted effort to ensure retention through measures which include safe transport, involvement and counselling of parents, keeping girls toilets functional in schools with water and sanitary disposal facility etc.

Women workforce participation rate is still low in the country. Why?
Various probable reasons are attributed to this situation- one view is that larger number of young people, particularly women opting to and staying on in educational institutions (as mentioned in the Approach Paper to the 12th Five Year Plan). Other views are that there is a lack of fit between the jobs and women’s endowments resulting in gender-imbalanced employment growth, and majority of women workers left to remain in unskilled casual labour or low-return self -employment. Besides there are socio-cultural factors associated with marriage, child bearing, care work, and ‘perceived’ status of the family by having a ‘non-working’ wife.

We all know that the ability for women to participate in labour force is the outcome of various economic and social factors that interact in a complex fashion at both the household and macro-level. Further, women are impacted by this overall pattern of job creation. We are seeing a demographic dividend with highest share of youth population and this resource needs to be harnessed for future economic growth in India and within this age group it is also important to understand and consider the gender dimensions of youth employment as to make a positive change. At the same time large part of women’s work remains ‘invisible’ and does not get reflected in statistics. Some pilot studies have been undertaken recently to analyse how this issue can be addressed.

About half of workforce in the county is still dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods with about 79 per cent of the rural Indian women involved as agricultural labour. At the same time there is need for job creation for women not only related to agriculture but also non-farm enterprises in rural areas. With agriculture increasingly becoming less remunerative there is need to make agriculture profitable for women by measures like promoting asset ownership, entitlements of land, value chain development, technology transfer with a focus on drudgery reduction, creating income generating activities through off-farm activities (rural enterprises).

Coming to a more personal note, you being a woman yourself, have you faced any challenges in your career and the initiatives you have undertaken?
There have been challenges, but it is difficult to give it any ‘gendered’ perspective since the challenges are more administrative in nature which would be common to any other male colleague similarly placed. At the same time, for any endeavour which requires a 360 degree approach, it is a challenge to balance work life with personal life. In my case, this was possible due to a very supportive family environment, and I feel that a supportive environment is undeniably the prerequisite for every woman to realise her full potential.

One has tried to take on challenges with a conviction that hard work and commitment to cause can surmount lot of hurdles. In this journey there are always allies and mentors who play a very supportive role. Given the complex developmental challenges of our times for which there are no fixed recipes, one needs to be a continuous learner.

Starting from Delhi, if I go back, I have seldom handled straight-jacket assignments. For me it has been journey of social engineering whether as Director, Welfare in NDMC in 1999-2004, or as programme in-charge of Stree Shakti programme and as Mission Director of Mission Convergence-Samajik Suvidha Sangam in Delhi from 2004-2010. There have been lot of experimentations developing models for empowering women such as Gender Resource Centres and improving their participation through innovative strategies using holistic approach requiring a multi-pronged strategy combining health services with non-formal education, skill-training, legal literacy, entrepreneurship development and improving awareness levels etc. From an urban experience, my stint in the Government of India has also enabled me to go to rural areas and see how we can institute convergence with women at centre at the gram panchayat levels through building capacities of women from the community to manage these ‘Kendras’ and help other women to avail of the opportunities available around them in terms of improved access to different schemes and services.

The challenge in this journey has been to devise ways and means to reach out to the most vulnerable and the unreached and to implement ideas and concepts on ground as effectively as possible. My experience has convinced me that with a supportive team and wide network the seemingly ‘impossible’ can be turned into possible.

You have experience of different institutions of government dealing with women’s empowerment-in Delhi government, RMK, or the NMEW? Based on same, can you throw some light on the road covered by them and what more needs to be done to improve women’s participation in economic development?

A number of schemes are being implemented for women by different departments/ministries with the aim for economic and social empowerment of women. These relate to building capabilities and skills for enhancing employability such as (Modular Employable Skills (MES) under Skill Development Initiative Scheme (SDIS) under Ministry of Labour & Employment, vocational trainings, Entrepreneurship Development (TREAD scheme by MSME’s, Financial Inclusion/Credit Support through RMK, Self Help Groups (SHGs) – Bank linkage programme, creating Employment opportunities (MGNREGA, NRLM for rural women and Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) and Urban Women Self-help Programme (UWSP) for urban women, creating enabling environment/support services (through crèche facility at work places, transport etc.). Challenge as we all know is that the target group for whom they are meant may not be fully aware of these services, and if they are aware, and they find procedures cumbersome. At our end the challenge lies in coordination and convergence among multiple stakeholders working towards similar objective.
I had a brief stint as an Executive Director of Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (RMK). This body works towards meeting the credit needs for the poor and asset-less women without collaterals. Today there are a number of micro-finance institutions but when this was started there weren’t many. The model of this organisation was that the government reaches out to the self-help groups through the intermediary organisations called the IMOs i.e., NGOs working with women self-help groups. Apart from giving loans, the objective is to build the capacity of the self-help groups so that they can enter into some productive activities. The interest rates are low. The challenge is that off take is restricted largely to states where the climate is already conducive. Hence greater outreach is needed.

Institutional mechanisms are hence needed to look at gender issues in a holistic manner. I am glad to share that through the National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW) we have tried to create such mechanisms at different levels in the name of National Resource Centre for Women (NRCW) and the State Resource Centres for Women (SRCWs) drawing expertise of a pool of committed gender experts and champions who understand the gender issues and approaches to bring about convergence and coordination. Issues related to child-sex ratio, violence against women are receiving attention in all states now. The challenge is to address these issues in a very systemic manner, rather than responding to emergencies and ad hoc responses. These require systemic interventions which can address the root cause of problem and bring a lasting change. Interventions require a combination of measures – legislative, programmatic including institutional -strengthening with accountability of institutions to serve the mandate for which they are meant. These institutions actually start from family, to school, to college, to PRIs, elected bodies, women’s collectives, CSOs besides the government machinery. Responsiveness has to be imbibed in the culture of all institutions and individuals for example, women need to ensure that the legal provisions meant for their safeguard is used very judiciously and responsibly so that acts like sexual harassment at work places do not become counter-productive discouraging the employment of women from prospective employers.

Ultimately, inclusive growth strategy requires creating level playing field, creating equal opportunities, and enhancing participation of all categories. Putting women’s issues at centre stage is important and it is heartening to note that all political parties and governments today affirm their cause for women empowerment.

You have been conferred with Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar - Stree Shakti Award, Leadership Award from University of Minnesota, and recently the Daywati Moti Samman award. How do you feel receiving such distinctions?
Every award for me has strengthened my resolve to work harder and with greater vigour and commitment. I also treat this as recognition for the countless individuals especially the women from SHGs, community groups, my CSO partners, immediate team members who have felt enthralled with each step I have travelled since they have been equal partners in this journey. In the recent Dayawati Modi award I had asked the organisation to confer the cash award that accompanied the citation on girls from poor family struggling to pursue higher education. Out of the nominations received, eight girls from Bihar and West Bengal were selected and given small incentive to promote their higher education. Even though, the amount was small it boosted their morale to pursue their dreams through education. So, I believe that we have to keep doing our bit to help countless girls and women to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.
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