Gender equality and sustainable growth, will not be achieved in India, or anywhere else, until women have equal economic opportunity, says Deepshikha Chhetri.
Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) has emerged as a new buzzword in recent years. But it is more than that. It is a vital element of redressing power. It is an essential component in amplifying women’s voices, increasing their access to resources, ensuring their meaningful participation in decision-making at all levels, realising their rights, securing them from abuse and ultimately achieving gender equality. This will in turn aid in the eradication of poverty and drive inclusive economic growth. Empowering women and closing gender gaps is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030.
The Indian government has put a lot of effort into making education and health accessible to women, but there has been little advancement in the inclusion of women in economic activities. Women are currently a huge but hidden contributor to the Indian economy, providing countless hours of unpaid domestic and care work as well as being exploited in insecure and low wage jobs. Their contribution, and their potential must be recognised and renumerated. They deserve better.
According to the World Bank, India ranks 120 among 131 countries, in terms of women’s participation in the labor market. Not even half of the population of women is participating in the economy formally (far below the global average). 60% of women in India still do not have a bank account of their own or have no valuable assets to their name. The main barriers to achieving WEE are adverse social norms, lack of legal recognition or safeguards, the gendered burden of unpaid care and domestic work, reduced mobility and the lack of access to the internet, financial services, and property assets.
This lack of progress is not just limited to India. Globally, studies show that around 2.7 billion women have been deprived of their rights to choose and access the same jobs as men. In some places, the legislation bans women from working in specific jobs or, even worse, authorizes husbands to prevent their wives from working. In other places, a lack of legislation and policy around sexual harassment in the workplace is deterring women from joining the workforce and failing to protect those in it.
The IMF estimates that improvements in this area could increase India’s GDP by 27%. It would also provide massive social benefits as women who are economically empowered also have statistically healthier and better-educated children. It is clear that WEE is morally right and economically and socially essential, so how do we achieve it?
Education, skills development and the implementation of the latest technologies are crucial for the holistic development of girls and women. Both in terms of their wellbeing and their access to income-generating opportunities. MUDRA is one of the most successful Indian government schemes for empowering women. It does so by supporting their nascent enterprises, through the broader Jan Dhan Yojana microcredit program. MUDRA participants account for 78% of women entrepreneurs who have accessed these loans. The government should focus on strengthening gender-responsive budgeting by increasing allocations for women-focused programs like MUDRA. They should also create a ranking for state-level gender budgets and increase accountability through gender audits.
The government cannot eradicate all forms of gender inequalities on their own. It is up to all of us. The private sector and the business community must help to bridge the gap between skills and jobs to make decent work accessible for women. Industries and companies should offer more vocational and technical training in life skills and finances and open up the market to women entrepreneurs by investing in them and by involving their goods and services in supply chains.
Similarly, men have an important role to play in resolving issues of gender discrimination. Interventions towards women’s economic empowerment should include men to participate in training and capacity building activities targeting women, as well as engage men from the family to understand and challenge regressive norms and practices. Campaigns to create awareness should acknowledge the need for male role models and champions to set an example in communities and in other spaces they occupy. Further to this, legislation and policy changes can encourage men’s involvement in challenging norms and provide incentives to participate equally in childcare and domestic work.
On 8th March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD) with an aim to unite people in reflection and advocacy, aiming to eliminate gender discrimination and bring about equal participation in all spheres of life. This year for IWD, the United Nations’ theme is “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future.” Events, actions, and conversations will focus on demanding equal pay, equal participation in decision making spaces, as well as an end to all forms of violence against women and girls, including sexual harassment.
All around the world, nations have acted to move nearer these goals. Many nations have made significant progress but not even a single country can declare it is a nation that ensures gender equality. These disparities, which are most stark in developing countries, will not be resolved until we commit to women’s economic empowerment.