We often hear about India’s incredible demographic dividend and how it will be a great advantage in achieving economic growth for the country. However, if we continue with an approach wherein one-half of the population is held back mainly from opportunities, we can never achieve the optimum national output. Today, India ranks 121 out of a list of 131 countries regarding the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of women (at par with Saudi Arabia).
Is Women’s employment the only measure of Women’s Empowerment? How do we measure or define women’s empowerment? What are the key factors we must look at, and how do we all work together to help the women of India achieve it? We believe these four key factors would help women realise their full, empowered potential.
Why women’s empowerment is key to advancing the whole nation
Ability to learn
There are still many barriers to girls staying in school, especially in rural India. Despite school being a right for girls in India since 2009, making it compulsory for children aged 6-14, less than half of the girls attending finish 10th grade; drop-out rates for girls are inconceivably high, especially as gendered issues of health and menstruation become more evident as they develop during their primary schooling years. Keeping girls in school can be supported by having safe transportation, clean bathrooms, menstrual products, and a shift in how people see the value of educating women. A considerable part of their learning ability is keeping young girls healthy – with the proper nutrients, check-ups, enough to eat, and access to life-saving vaccines; they are more apt to stay and succeed in school.
Education equals health. Also, among girls aged 15-19 years, data shows that the second leading cause of death arises due to pregnancy. And those with children can’t complete school due to motherhood and accessing work opportunities. Studies show, with each year of additional schooling, chances of adolescent pregnancy decrease by 10%. Thus, increasing the health, livelihood, and economic opportunities for young women. Education is indeed an imperative component of women’s empowerment in rural India.
Ability to work
The leading barriers to women entering and staying in the workforce include unpaid family labour, lack of education and literacy, and lack of a supportive community. We know that an educated workforce is more robust, but the ability to work is just as crucial. Many workplaces don’t accommodate women with clean and safe bathrooms, transportation, or a respectful and safe working environment, especially in rural India. Global data shows that when you give a woman a dollar, she invests 90 cents back into the community, while a man only invests 40 cents. So, investing in women is simply a better investment to uplift a community. But when we teach skills and provide job opportunities, we must keep in mind the barriers they may face at home. We have to ask, are they allowed to hold a full-time job? Will their situation at home pull them out of work at any given time, causing her to lose her job? We must have multi-faceted solutions to overcome these barriers: Having jobs available isn’t enough.
The jobs need to be safe, accommodating of the varying responsibilities that wives and mothers experience, and be built upon pillars of equality and equity for women.
Removal of cultural and legal barriers
All the rhetoric and cultural stigmas surrounding being a woman in India contribute to the lack of women’s empowerment. Women are viewed as the lesser child, a burden, and their only purpose is finding a good husband and raising a family. Thank goodness our culture has evolved a bit in these areas, but we still have a long way to go. Social norms are still influential in dictating what is and aren’t okay for women to do in society; those who don’t follow them often end up isolated from their communities. One way to reduce the stigmas is by helping women find the right work and giving them independence by giving them control over their wages. Women are powerful and capable and should be treated as such by their employers, the government, and their husbands and families.
We also need to stop perpetuating the indignities of family obligations and roles. We hear from so many women that one of their major barriers is the expectations and rules of their mothers-in-law fulfilling this echo system of oppression. We no longer need to have the next generation suffer simply because that is how it was in our house. Times have changed. The world has changed. and it’s time that dignity for women is cultivated.
Women empower women
This is rooted in the examples we set for women in our media and how we teach history and discuss it at home. Stereotypes fester and spread when there is a lack of authentic representation of women. Women’s empowerment must have their voices heard and their faces were seen. When they are seen and heard, magic happens. When icons like Deepika Padukone stand up to sexist questions from reporters or Rupi Kaur slams her honest and vulnerable poetry to Mindy Kaling’s comedy and acting. This is when young girls and women draw inspiration from familiar faces, their faces as strong role models, and then they too can believe they can follow and achieve their dreams. And just as we have seen on screen, in real life, especially in rural communities – empowered women empower women. We see women through our beautician classes opening their shops, and hiring women from their community. So there is a domino effect when we truly elevate the dignity and opportunity of just one woman.
We have a long way to go – but we believe that those with means or companies use their CSR funds to help organisations that skill women, elevate women’s health, keep girls in school, promote menstrual equity, and elevate life in rural India. With India’s Presidency for G20, all eyes will be on India – and the two major themes that appear to be the focus of the summit will be Climate and how we elevate our women.
This year, 2023, is a great year to double down on lifting women, reversing some of the damage done during the pandemic, which turned back the clock on women’s empowerment quite a bit. We have a huge opportunity to truly uplift India. And our women are the key to making that happen.
They are the key to seeing an overall economic transformation and will bring much-deserved socio-economic change. It will elevate all of us!
Megha Desai is the President of the Desai Foundation, an organisation that works towards empowering women and children through community programming to elevate health, livelihood, and menstrual equity in rural India.
Suggested reading: How Women Entrepreneurship Is The Way Forward For India’s Agri-Business Boom