The elections are over, thank heavens and, as I wrote last fortnight, went off with not a peep about women’s issues or even involving women too much in the proceedings. Apart from the huge number of women who turned up to vote in a process, which largely excludes them. Well, no surprises there. Oh and women’s day went by earlier this week with all the empowerment codswallop that goes with it. Roses handed out, seats reserved on flights and seminars on all things connected to women. The greatest hindrance to women’s progress, as I see it, is the perception of their economic worthlessness. And I do wish at least one political party had spoken about this.
I have often thought how wretched I would feel if I had to ask anyone for money to buy myself something like food or medicines, to have them grudge it to me or worse still refuse me. I have never had to ask anyone for a handout thanks to the fact that I have worked all my life. But for millions of Indian women, the power to negotiate has been denied to them because they don’t have the economic wherewithal to do so.
And this is where I have to fall back on a now favourite pastime, blame the government. All governments. Let us look at the late J Jayalalithaa, empress of all she surveyed. She came up with the idea of giving gold to women so that they could be married with ‘honour’, of small amounts of money for education. But I have never heard of Amma instituting a skill development programme, which would help women acquire the tools with which to get a job. I have seen many politicians hand out sewing machines to women as though making clothes is all they are capable of and this was empowerment.
It is funny that women’s empowerment does not seem to, at least in the government’s scheme of things, encompass skills to obtain a good job. Going through the government schemes framed over the years, and these are plentiful, I found that most of them focus on women’s welfare in the form of financial assistance or other handouts. This is called empowerment by the government. But for most women in India, the money they get rarely goes to anything beneficial for themselves, it goes to the family in the form of children’s education or medicines or is taken away by their husbands. The idea that women, especially in rural areas need skills and education to get away from a life of drudgery is still not taken into account when framing policy. Empowerment has become an all-purpose word which has come to mean some sort of assistance in cash or kind. It is no point having vocational education classes in towns and cities, the bulk of women out of the economic loop are in the villages. Adult literacy has been so neglected in India but it could help women get the education needed for jobs. The prime minister is rightly proud of his Skill India scheme. But it hardly focuses on women who need skills the most.
There are many women’s self-help groups but again, there is no emphasis on teaching women to be economically independent. We need to take a serious look at what is possible in our rural areas for women to learn a skill and earn thereby liberate themselves from a life of dependency. That would be real empowerment. There are many advantages to women working apart from to the economy. A working woman is likely to marry later and ensure education and better nutrition for her children. She would also be more able to take care of her own health. The National Sample Survey data shows that at least 31% of women who are now engaged solely in domestic work would like a job out of the home. More than 50% of educated rural women want to work. If the aspirations of these women were fulfilled, the participation of women in the workforce would increase by at least 21 percentage points. So the way to go is to not come up with more so-called empowerment schemes for women’s welfare, the focus should shift to helping women stand on their own feet.
Remember the old adage about giving a man a fish with which he can feed himself once and teaching him to fish so that he can eat every day. The latter is what Indian women need. And this is where the government and private sector need to be more innovative and focused, not confining themselves to giving women handouts, which benefit them temporarily if at all.