Stride towards economic empowerment of women in Assam

Women’s monetary empowerment is imperative to understanding women’s rights and gender equality. Economic empowerment consists of women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their right of entry to manage resources effectively, control over their personal time, lives and bodies; and increased voice and significant participation in financial decision-making in any respect ranges from the household to worldwide institutions.

Empowering women in the economy and closing gender gaps in the world of work are keys to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of gender equality, to promote full and productive employment and decent work for all and also goals on ending poverty, food security, ensuring health and reducing inequalities.

Economic participation of women in the labour force or as entrepreneurs is low compared to peers and has declined over the past decades despite strong growth. The gap with men is over 50 per cent – the largest among key emerging markets. Participation declines with higher education achievements and family incomes.

The reasons are complex: socioeconomic and cultural factors are important – family status increases if women stay at home, house work has become more attractive than poorly paid market work as husband’s incomes have risen; and safety concerns and poor infrastructure keep women from market work.

Policy makers and social scientists have for some time now inextricably linked sustainable development to population and economic growth, and the increasing recognition of the centrality of women’s empowerment to the success of development programmes.

In India, some of the decline in participation in education of girls may reflect in increasing supply of education and rising marriage market returns to education, especially in the urban areas. Education and family income tend to be highly correlated. Own wage income for the more educated groups is thus less important than household income for participation decisions. Dealing with gender biases across the lifecycle can also have broader, sustainable impacts for equity and remove social barriers. As biases can begin very early in life, sometimes in subtle ways, it is important to influence early trajectories of inequality that are more difficult and costly to resolve over time (World Bank, 2012).

Many laws in India protect women’s rights and guarantee equal treatment by gender. However, they are not fully applied as traditional and religious customs often take precedence. For example, the son bias, which seems important in India can be influenced by the tradition of dowry payments for girls, which continues despite the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 abolishing it. Another area of weak implementation is inheritance laws while the equal pay laws also need to be worked upon.  The monitoring of the implementation of many existing laws on gender equality should be reinforced.

In case of Assam, economically approximately 90 per cent of state’s families earn less than Rs 5 lakhs per annum. Assam was among the lowest five states in terms of GDP growth between 2005 and 2014 (less than 6 per cent). As much as 37.9 per cent of the population fall into the category of “poverty headcount ratio” of UNDP (Economic and Human Development Indicators 2009-10).

The Government of Assam has been taking affirmative action and implementing policies to further the cause of women empowerment and to ensure a sense of self-worth coupled with women’s right to have and to determine their life choices, including reproductive choices. Such policies attempt to ensure women’s right to have access to equal opportunities and all kinds of resources so that they get the requisite power to regulate and control their own lives, within and outside the home.

The reasons for low female participation in employment avenues in India are complex with large differences across regions and include both supply and demand factors. Supply of female labour is affected by cultural and socioeconomic factors, access to resources, safety concerns with infrastructure, biases in regulations or income levels. The high share of educated unemployed women also points to demand issues and lack of jobs for those who want to work – despite high growth over the past decade job creation in India has been low overall and especially for women. Raising female participation in India requires policies that deal with supply constraints.

The gender equality can be brought about by increasing scopes for women to engage in economic activities. Taking up entrepreneurship by women or women groups can lead to income generation and eventually to self sustenance.

There are positive indicators that female entrepreneurship in manufacturing and services is increasing which is an outcome of proactive government policy initiatives. According to Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) website, over 1 million women have benefitted from entrepreneurship training over the past 30 years in programmes run by the government and NGOs.

Although Assam is one of the states with a perceived improved situation for women in society, this is not enough. There is a need to create an environment that is conductive to gender equality by incorporating informal and non-formal education and public awareness programmes.

Women’s empowerment has five aspects: improving women’s sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence their environment to create a more just social and economic order.

Self Help Groups (SHGs) movement has immense potentialities for economic empowerment of rural women. There is no gainsaying the fact that the group approach has emerged as the most powerful cost-effective instrument designed for pursuing diverse developmental agendas of the poor women. The group approach provides financial supports to rural poor and needy women to uplift themselves above the poverty line through income generating economic activities with the help of bank credit.

Identifying SHGs as the prime vehicle for women empowerment, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, on February 1 this year, ceremonially launched the second phase of the scheme for distribution of revolving fund amounting to Rs 30 crores to around 20,000 women SHGs under Kanaklata Mahila Sabalikaran Achoni in the state. Since its launch, the scheme has been able to touch the lives of more than 18 lakh households and 1,78,720 women SHGs across the state have received financial benefit. Eligible women SHGs are provided a revolving fund of Rs 25000 and a capital subsidy on bank loans upto Rs 5 lakh have also provided under the scheme.

With the help of technology too, women in rural areas can be empowered to attain economic independence. One example of how internet is helping rural women to achieve empowerment is the Internet Saathis. The Internet Saathi Project is a joint Initiative of Google India and Tata Trusts. The Internet Saathis are educated village women who are provided training and given smartphones and a bicycle to carry out their activities. The Internet Saathis came into the scene in March 2016. Armed with tablets and smartphones, these women roamed the villages of Assam on their bicycles, trying their best to influence village folk. With the internet the poor rural women can sell their products like handlooms to a larger consumer group.

A MoU was signed between Government of Assam and Google in 2017, whereby it was decided that Assam government would identify various women SHGs in Assam for imparting Internet Saathi training and provide available training infrastructure facilities at Gaon Panchayat/ Block/District level for bringing a digital revolution at the grass roots.

According to this MoU with Google, Internet Saathi was sought to be aligned with the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Literacy Saksharata Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) which is to be implemented in the state and Google would conduct trainings for women to promote digital literacy among them.

Therefore it is of the need of the hour that all stakeholders of the society come together to pledge to make women economically empowered so that ‘equal rights of women’ becomes more than a slogan.

(The views expressed by the author are his own.)

About Swakkhyar Deka

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Swakkhyar Deka is serving as a Liaison Officer with the Information & Public Relations Department, Govt of Assam. He contributes write-ups regularly to leading dailies of the state. His interest ranges from women's rights, economy, culture to various socio-political issues. Among others, he is also a short filmmaker, traveller and an avid reader.

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