Women, once considered fit only for domestic chores and looking after the house and babies, have assumed the role of professionals. The ability to exercise full control over their lives is the most common explanation of “women’s empowerment”. The last decades have witnessed some fundamental changes in the status and role of women in society. There has been a shift in policy from the concept of “welfare” in the seventies to “development” in the eighties, to “empowerment” in the nineties and “My body my choice” in the 21st century. This process has been further accelerated with some sections of women becoming increasingly self-conscious of the discrimination they face in several areas of family and public life. They are also in a position to mobilise themselves on issues that affect their position.
Tulsidas’ verse from Ramayana, “Dhol, janwar, shudra, pashu, nari/ ye sub nindan ke adhikari”, highlights the discrimination and deep-rooted gender bias which still exists against women irrespective of caste, community, religious affiliation or class. The Constitution of India grants equality to women in all fields of life. Yet, a large number of women are either ill equipped or not in a position to propel themselves out of their traditionally unsatisfactory socio-economic conditions. They are often absorbed in the struggle to sustain the family physically and emotionally and as a rule are discouraged from taking interest in affairs outside home.
Oppression and atrocities on women are still rampant. Patriarchy continues to be embedded in the social system in many parts of India, denying a majority of women the choice to decide on how they live. Female infanticide continues to be common, especially in states like Haryana, UP, MP, and Punjab. Domestic violence is also widespread and is often due to another malpractice, that of dowry. Apart from a meagre number of urban and sub-urban women, Indian women are still crying for social justice.
The government has numerous programmes for women empowerment but little has been done or achieved through them. The discrepancy in the idea and practice of women empowerment in India contributes to their social, economic and social backwardness. Women make up 48.5% of India’s population. There can be no national progress unless their needs and interests are fully met. Empowerment would not hold any meaning unless women are made strong and aware of their equal status in society. Policies should be framed to bring them into the mainstream of society. It is important to educate women. The need of the hour is to improve female literacy as education holds the key to development.
Women could be empowered through making them realise their collective strength. The policy approach should be towards organising women in groups, raising their level of awareness, and providing them with social and economic support services. The empowerment of women necessitates a strong element of participation, which would enable women to acquire social, economic and political equality.
Many women have become empowered through collective reflection and decision making. This empowerment reflects in positive self-image and self-confidence; the ability to think critically; equal participation in the process of bringing about social change; and encouraging group action in order to bring about social change. Education and training interventions were considered to be one of the most effective tools for the empowerment of rural women, combined with other support services and activities. The principle objective was to empower women through communication of information, education and training to enable them to recognise and improve their social and economic status. Empowerment would become more relevant if women are educated, better informed, and can take rational decisions.
It is also necessary to sensitise the other sex towards women. It is important to usher in changes in societal attitudes and perceptions with regard to the role of women in different spheres of life. Adjustments have to be made in traditional gender-specific tasks. A woman needs to be physically healthy so that she is able to take up challenges. This aspect is sadly lacking in the majority of women, especially in the rural areas. They have unequal access to basic health resources and lack adequate counselling. The greatest challenge is to recognise the obstacles that stand in the way of women’s right to good health. To be useful to the family, community, and society, women must be provided with healthcare facilities.
Most women work in the agricultural sector either as workers in household farms or as wage workers. Yet, it is precisely livelihood in agriculture that has tended to become more stressed and insecure in recent years. The government’s policies for alleviating poverty have failed to produce any desirable results, as women still do not receive appropriate wages for their labour. There is also significant amount of unpaid or non-marketed labour within the household. The increase in gender disparity in wages in urban areas is also quite marked, as it results from the employment of women in different and lower-paying activities. Women are exploited at various levels. They should be provided with wages at par with men so that their status can be elevated in society.
In recent years there have been explicit moves to increase women’s political participation. The women’s reservation policy bill is, however, a very sad story as it is repeatedly being scuttled in Parliament. In the Panchayati Raj system, however, women have been given adequate representation. There are many elected women representatives at the village council level. However, their power is restricted, as it the men who wield all the authority. Their decisions are often over-ruled by the government machinery. It is crucial to train and give real power to these women leaders so that they can catalyse change in their villages.
The movement for gender equality and women’s empowerment still has a long way to go, and may even become more difficult in coming years. The main reason for this is that targeted schemes tend to have a limited impact. To make a positive change, basic infrastructure should be provided in every village and city. To begin with, providing safe drinking water and better sanitation is not only key to improving the lives and health of women but it also reduces their workload in terms of provisioning and ensuring such facilities. Access to affordable cooking fuel reduces the need to travel long distances in search of fuel in the form of wood. Improved transport connecting villages with each other and with towns can also directly improve living conditions as well as unpaid labour time spent in transporting household items. It can also lead to access to a wider range of goods and services plus better access to health facilities. Expenditure on food subsidy and better provisions for public distribution services directly affects the lives of women and girl children in terms of adequate nutrition.
The patterns of resource mobilisation by government also have significant effects on women that are usually not recognised. When taxes are regressive and fall disproportionately on items of mass consumption, these tend to affect women more. This is not only because the consumption of such items may be curtailed but also because the provisioning of such items is frequently considered to be the responsibility of the women of the household. Also, credit policies reduce the flow of credit to small-scale enterprises thus reducing the employment opportunities for women. There is a need to have women-friendly economic policies that can enhance their social and economic position and make them self-reliant.
Socio-economic development of women has always been the central focus of planning since Independence, but much more needs to be done to remove the obstacles in the path of women’s emancipation both from the government and patriarchy. Efforts should be directed towards all-round development of each and every section of Indian women by giving them their due share.
The writer is a PhD scholar at Jamia Milia Islamia