The preamble of the Indian Constitution speaks about gender equality as a fundamental right of women and a fundamental duty of the state. The state had been empowered to take measures to achieve positive results in this regard. The reality however is that even after seventy-five years of independence, India’s women continue to assume a role and position that is considered secondary.
The fractured history of India has seen several ups and downs in the ways women have been perceived in society. From the Rig Vedic period when women enjoyed equal status, to the Gupta period when their status deteriorated, male dominance took root. The Mughal period added to their woes with practices like child marriage, dowry, and sati coming to the fore. During British rule, several reformers fought for equal rights for women. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were advocates for women rights and, as a result of their efforts, the status of women in social, economic, and political life began to elevate somewhat. The transition has been slow, and even now women are perceived as the “weaker sex.”
Women’s Empowerment and the Un Charter
From the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targeted at poor countries to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), women’s empowerment gained a new meaning. The MDG gender equality goal encompassed parity in education, political participation, and economic empowerment for women. On the other hand, SDG goal 3 was broader and talked about equal rights, opportunity, and freedom from discrimination and violence. The ethos of all the MDGs and SDGs were clear on one thing: achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment was integral to each.
As a corollary to the MDGs, a joint initiative of UN Global Compact and UN Women developed the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) in 2010. The broad canvas of these principles looked to empower women and girls in the workplace, marketplace, and community. These seven principles were based on “Real-life business practice, and seek to elaborate the gender dimension of corporate sustainability.” Though a noble cause, therein lay the dichotomy of these principles with respect to the role of women in India. Structural and social diversity in India abounds. To apply a broad concept, the main focus of which was on real-life business practices and corporate sustainability, is clearly not workable. India’s gender inequality is predominant in the rural hinterland where women are denied social and economic status. Undoubtedly, a step was taken and is “work in progress.” The government has moved ahead with the agenda of empowerment through social schemes targeted at the vulnerable; progress is visible, though slow.
Women’s Empowerment Principles in Brief
- Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality.
- Treat all women and men fairly at work; respect and support human rights and non-discrimination.
- Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women workers.
- Promote rural education in India, training and professional development for women.
- Implement enterprise development, supply chain, and marketing practices that empower women.
- Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy.
- Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.
Means or the End?
Women’s empowerment is a continuous process and does not have an end point or an outcome that can be measured. Experiential pathways that are not clearly defined may have different outcomes for women in a diverse setup like India and have to be viewed holistically. To look at changing mores that have been ingrained in the social and cultural system requires a patient approach. On the other hand, if we view the positives that accrue as an ongoing, continuous improvement in their social, economic and health status, the achievement of sustainable rural development in India will show appreciable gains with the participation of women in all aspects of life.
Women’s empowerment is now a mainstream development concern in India. The question here, unlike in the developed world, is to look at “what development can do for women,” and then reap the rewards of “what women can do for development.” Women’s empowerment is the means to that end, which will continuously follow with equitable and synergistic progress in the economic, cultural, and social growth of the country.
The Way Forward in Providing the Means
The process of women’s empowerment is a pathway where women travel in individual and collective journeys. As a result, the gains often remain hidden. However, the areas of concern that could be and are being worked on are similar to those espoused by the SDG-5.
- End discrimination against all women and girls.
- Eliminate violence and exploitation against all women and girls in public and private life.
- Eliminate all detrimental practices, like child and early marriage and female genital mutilation.
- Recognize unpaid care and domestic work through state policies.
- Participation and equal opportunities for women in political, economic and public life.
- Promote reforms that give women equal rights including access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources.
- Adopt technology to aid the empowerment of women.
- Promote legislation that protects and promotes gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.
S M Sehgal Foundation: Driving Social Change Through Women’s Empowerment
The gender ratio in India has been skewed toward males and continues to defy the efforts of policymakers and government. Though the goals of achieving gender equality is paramount and has led to several initiatives in the right earnest, some areas like Haryana and Maharashtra show a dismal picture. Per census 2011, the gender ratio in Maharashtra was 929 females in 1,000 males, which is below the national average of 940/1,000. Birth of a girl child is still not as joyous an occasion for families as it is for the birth of a boy.
S M Sehgal Foundation, a rural development NGO in India has embarked on an initiative in district Aurangabad titled “My Daughter My Tree” to try and correct this anomaly. The objective is to counter the prevalent mind-set of preferring a boy over a girl through a unique program combined with environment protection.
This initiative felicitates parents of girls under the age of two years by providing them with a coconut tree, the fruit of which has great spiritual value, along with a tree guard. The tree is dedicated in the name of the girl child to celebrate her birth and also to increase the green cover.
The initiative was rolled out in about ten villages in Aurangabad with the dual objective of sensitizing people to gender equity while increasing green cover. S M Sehgal Foundation also organizes Women’s Leadership Schools (WLS) in these areas to promote local participation and prepare community leaders.
It is heartening to note that the locals have started to realize the potential of promoting girl children and giving them the opportunities that can ensure their brighter future.
S M Sehgal Foundation has been working to build the awareness of women in Samastipur (Bihar) on the benefits of preventive and remedial health, timely vaccination of children, and menstrual hygiene. Borrowing a leaf from the WEP principles, the route chosen to achieve this is to empower women volunteer leaders known as swasthyasakhis. These volunteers take the message to the community through ward level meetings and family visits.
The initiative has shown positive results, and the community is witnessing higher vaccination acceptance for children and better reproductive and general health for women. A direct contribution to the health agenda, an important WEP principle has been accrued through the selfless efforts of S M Sehgal Foundation.