Women’s Empowerment: Where Are We Now?

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Dipali Goenka

Women’s empowerment – a topic that, when raised, is almost guaranteed to get a reaction. Most people you know, whether in your workplace or social circles either champion it, support it or do not oppose it. Countless articles, reports and surveys have already covered the need for greater inclusion, diversity and representation. Its awareness seems to be higher today than at any other time in history. But this uplifting narrative falters when confronted by on-ground realities. Women’s representation and participation as stakeholders and decision-makers in areas such as the workforce and politics remain disappointingly low.

The Gender Gap Report 2021 by the World Economic Forum estimates that, in the last decade and a half, gender parity across the globe has grown by just 0.24 percentage points per year on average. Female managers account for just 27 per cent of the total managerial opportunities across the world. Women account for only 26 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively, of more than 34,000 parliament seats and 3,400 ministerial jobs worldwide. At this pace, closing the global gender gap will take another 135.6 years.

Before we begin to aim for women’s empowerment, we must evaluate the various issues, systems and processes that hinder the country’s female population. The most obvious challenge is that of representation. The LFPR for women in India in 2020 marked a more than 13 per cent drop from barely a decade and a half ago when it stood at 31.95 per cent. Their representation in the formal workforce is even lower, with only 6 per cent holding formal jobs. The remaining 94 per cent are either engaged in low-skill, low-pay jobs with little to no security, such as domestic helpers, wage labourers, street vendors and home-based workers.

The situation in India is hardly any better. Data from The World Bank estimates the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for women in the country at 18 per cent in 2020, less than half the global average (45.92 per cent). Even more alarming, perhaps, is the fact that India ranks below conservative economies such as Somalia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan when it comes to the economic participation of women. The Egon Zender Global Diversity Report 2020 estimates that women held just 17 per cent of board positions and 11 per cent leadership roles in the country’s corporate ecosystem.

This begs the question: despite the progressive talk occupying airwaves and column inches, why does women’s empowerment in India still feel like a pipe dream waiting to be revitalised? Not surprisingly, the answer to that lies in our very neighbourhoods, workplaces and educational institutions – if we only know where and how to look.

The Conundrum of Women in India

Before we begin to aim for women’s empowerment, we must evaluate the various issues, systems and processes that hinder the country’s female population.

The most obvious challenge is that of representation. The LFPR for women in India in 2020 marked a more than 13 per cent drop from barely a decade and a half ago when it stood at 31.95 per cent. Their representation in the formal workforce is even lower, with only 6 per cent holding formal jobs. The remaining 94 per cent are either engaged in low-skill, low-pay jobs with little to no security, such as domestic helpers, wage labourers, street vendors and home-based workers.

But why are there so many women in the unorganised sector? The reasons include lack of access to education and learning resources across levels, poor healthcare coverage for women, lack of basic living amenities such as nutrition, restrictive socio-cultural mores, and the urban-rural divide. These factors influence each other, creating a complex, multi-layered hurdle to women’s empowerment.

For instance, the lack of access to quality education is one of the biggest reasons women – particularly from Tier-2/3, semi-urban and rural areas – do not have significant representation in the formal workforce. It is easy to point to issues with educational infrastructure, coverage and teaching quality to explain the disparity. Yet, the gap between male and female professionals exists even in the relatively developed and progressive Tier-1 and metropolitan areas. With no one hailing from a similar background serving as an example of success, it is perceived that educating a girl child is not worth the same as a male child. As a result, they drop out of school, stop pursuing higher education, get married and become homemakers to raise families, undermining their financial self-dependence and the power to make a decision. A 2021 study by Zinnov estimated that just 25 per cent of Indian women pursued graduation courses.

It does not help that, across all geographies, a significant percentage of women in India face poverty and lack of resources, whether as children or adults. Struggling for proper nutrition and proper healthcare, objectives such as pursuing education or making a career are often the last thing on the minds of women and their families.

The India Skill Report 2021 observed that women are slightly more employable than men in India. However, lack of new-age skills prevents the majority from applying for better paying, secured and fulfilling jobs. This is further compounded by the fact that only 35 per cent of them have access to the internet, leaving a large pool of talent deprived of updated learning and upskilling resources.

Then there are the regressive social perceptions that women must contend with to be part of the workforce. The deep-rooted taboo around menstruation and reproductive health causes more than 20 million girls to drop out of schools every year as they do not receive adequate facilities to lead comfortable and confident lives.

However, even in this discussion, it is essential to adopt an intersectional approach – for, without it – the conversation will fail to drive inclusive and empowering changes. While these issues have been around for several years, the viral outbreak of 2020 magnified them, affecting more lives than ever before. When the markets shut down and businesses moved to online platforms, more than 15 million women lost their jobs, of which, 12 million belonged to rural backgrounds. Today, over 10 million girls are expected to drop out of secondary schools, half of the unemployed women never return to the workforce, and a quarter will continue to struggle to meet basic nutritional needs. This is a lot of unrealised human potential, especially for a nation aiming to become a $5 trillion economy by 2025. We need our women, especially the ones currently deprived of basic resources, to feel empowered and able to fulfil their potential if they are to become the driving force in the making of a better nation.

The Female Opportunity: How to Empower Indian Women and the Benefits

The India Skill Report 2021 observed that women are slightly more employable than men in India. However, lack of new-age skills prevents the majority from applying for better paying, secured and fulfilling jobs. This is further compounded by the fact that only 35 per cent of them have access to the internet, leaving a large pool of talent deprived of updated learning and upskilling resources.

Taking these disparities into consideration, we must build educational environments that ensure consistent, quality and affordable learning experiences for young girls and women, especially in the hitherto underserved rural regions. To begin with, we can look at including more weekly skilling sessions and prioritising practical learning in government schools – something that will benefit both male and female learners. Regular upskilling initiatives for Anganwadi and government school teachers will also help improve the quality of education available, as will personalised sessions for women learners to help them overcome social conditioning and biases. A robust learning system will ensure the long-term development of talent in distant villages and households in India and boost India’s GDP by a whopping 27 per cent.

Coming to the crux of the issue of women empowerment: India does not have enough female leaders, role models and entrepreneurs to drive the change it needs. To close its gender gap, India requires its women to share the same power and influence as their male counterparts. Whether it is representing the country in sports, spearheading innovations in corporate boards, or transforming lives through designing political policies, a fair and equal representation in all fields is the need of the hour.

We also need to look at how we address the issues of the lack of proper nutrition and health guidance for women. Taboos around menstrual health and sanitation need to be broken, and awareness about mental health needs to be improved. To an extent, we can address this by developing personalised diet plans for different age groups, apart from ensuring easy access and availability of adequate nutrition and affordable sanitary products.

Some private organisations are already working towards that aim. Welspun’s Project Wel-Netrutva has improved health conditions for over one lakh people. Apart from regularly organising medical camps, menstrual and health awareness drives, and providing diet solutions to young girls and pregnant women, the project has also trained rural women to build their nutrition gardens. With its multipronged approach and initiatives including menstrual awareness drives, the project has been successful in helping 2,500 children and 588 women across 90 villages and aiding the creation of 50 group enterprises. In a country of more than 170 million young girls and women, such measures can prevent lifelong health challenges, both for these women and their families.

Representation and Entrepreneurship: Ingredients of Building Leaders of Tomorrow

Coming to the crux of the issue of women empowerment: India does not have enough female leaders, role models and entrepreneurs to drive the change it needs. To close its gender gap, India requires its women to share the same power and influence as their male counterparts. Whether it is representing the country in sports, spearheading innovations in corporate boards, or transforming lives through designing political policies, a fair and equal representation in all fields is the need of the hour. But how do we make that possible? The answer lies in providing platforms, forums and strategies to help them discover and capitalise on their unique potential.

At Welspun, we have been actively making efforts to allow our female staff to unleash their leadership talent and create a robust growth environment for women professionals, regardless of the sector or vocation, across the country. For instance, our Welspun Super Sports Women Programme has aided 27 athletes across 14 sports to achieve their dreams. To encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in rural women, our project SPUN (a women-led ecosystem) has allowed over 2200 women across eight centres to leverage their handicraft skills to develop industry-level skills and pursue a sustainable means of livelihood.

Michelle Obama very rightly said: “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half of its citizens.”

As a country with half a billion women, it is time for us to redefine what women’s empowerment means to us.

Dipali Goenka is the CEO & Jt MD of Welspun India Limited.