A roadmap to empower girls and women to become economically independent

While the economy is making strides in the right direction, women’s workforce participation rates remain abysmally low and a cause of concern.


India is widely acknowledged as a key growth driver to the global economy. While the economy is making strides in the right direction, women’s workforce participation rates remain abysmally low and a cause of concern. The 2011 Census of India indicates that out of the total 587.6 million women in India, only 89.3 million women are enumerated as main workers, which is globally one of the lowest. When we analyse the census data on women’s work participation in urban areas, out of 181.6 million women, only 21 million women are considered main workers, within them 17.7 million are other workers.

The Global Gender Gap Index 2017 Report by the World Economic Forum has put the spotlight on India’s poor performance in regards to the economic participation of women. Out of the 144 countries surveyed, India ranked 139 on the Economic Participation and Opportunity parameter, coming well below countries like Bangladesh and Lebanon. This is not surprising given that India’s overall female labour force participation both full time and seasonal is estimated to be a dismal 27%.

Research has identified several reasons that stop women, both in an urban and rural ecosystem, from playing a bigger role in regards to the economy. By far the most common reason is the prevalence of gender based discrimination in various forms, both within the families and outside. Gender based discrimination starts even before a girl is born and continues through early childhood and adolescents, in the process excluding millions of girls from seeking their right to education and optimal health, besides being vulnerable to social ills like child marriage and trafficking. At another level, issues of safety for girls and women, coupled with the fear of sexual harassment at the workplace, keeps a large number of women from seeking employment.

The situation of low participation of women in the workforce persists even while successive governments at the National and State levels have launched many schemes that seeks to provide an enabling environment for women’s economic empowerment. Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP), Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojna (PMKVY), Jan Dhan Yojana (JDY) are some of the recent Government initiatives that support women’s participation in economic development. Through programmes like PMKVY, the Government is also encouraging women, especially from rural India, to open bank accounts and drive financial inclusion.

Our field research indicates the way forward for long-term and sustainable change in the situation requires a multi-stakeholder approach that simultaneously engages community members, NGOs, local self-government representatives, policy makers, banks and most importantly line departments executing women centric schemes. Each of these primary stakeholders must come together and work in harmony through a focused and targeted action mode. While the Government, banks and policy makers ensure the ecosystem to enable and support women’s participation in economic and income generation is developed and accessible; the local self-government institutions, community members and NGOs work together to change the general mind-set that act as barriers for women and girls.

Other important areas of focus are financial literacy and inclusion. Efforts should be taken to ensure that women and girls are aware of the various Government schemes and financial services that are at their disposal. Experts and social development practitioners are emphasising on the importance of combining financial literacy with digital literacy – how to use mobile wallets, mobile banking, wire/online transfer and likes. There’s a need to supplement this with knowledge on ways to maximise savings, among other things. Given that in most cases women are the decision makers of the family, it is imperative they understand budgeting and financial planning.

Emphasis on financial literacy needs to be supported by access to financial services. While having a bank account is a good first step, financial independence takes a lot more. Women should be encouraged to look beyond savings and make use of services such as loans and insurance. In 2011, Plan India initiated the “Banking on Change” programme for women residing in Mangolpuri, Delhi. The programme aimed at promoting economic and social empowerment amongst women from urban poor families through Self Help Groups and financial inclusion. When the programme started only 18% of the 18,000 women participants had a bank account and were using it regularly. In 2015, when the project ended, every woman had a functional bank account.

Once a strong foundation of financial knowledge is set, efforts need to be taken to help these women become economically independent. In my experience, women especially those from the lower socio-economic households are keen on establishing their own micro-enterprises such as grocery shops, tailoring shop, tea stalls, juice-centres. Given that women already have a strong business inclination, what they need is support in terms of seed capital and skills for business planning.

Efforts need to be made in scaling up existing small and medium businesses as well. After the initial investment, women often find it difficult to expand their businesses mainly due to the lack of funds. A Goldman Sachs study in 2014 showed that in India, the rejection rate for loans to women-owned businesses is 2.5 times higher than that for men. For various social reasons banks in India are still hesitant to give loans to women lead Micro Small and Medium Enterprises, and this needs to change.

Another way to get more women into the workforce is by harnessing the power of the collective. For instance, from a community of 100 women, the best possible outcome would be to engage with each and every one of them. As part of the Banking on Change programme, we encouraged women to start small business enterprises such as low cost sanitary napkin manufacturing unit. Today, right from procurement of raw material, to manufacturing, supervision of quality parameters, packaging and sale – everything is managed by the women from the community. This behaviour can be used in getting more women into the economy.

For women to make the most of opportunities, it is essential that they start early. Women’s entrepreneurial skills need to be encouraged and supported as soon as they turn 18 years, then by the time they turn 25 years, they have substantial capital to scale their business. One of our main goals as an organisation is to make girls economically independent from an early age. But for this to happen, we need special funds dedicated to helping girls get the training and facilities they need to set up their own business. I echo the words of all girls and women in giving them the opportunities to become financially independent. Through campaigns like “Meri Beti, Meri Shakti” we will ensure girls get the support they need to achieve their dreams.

It has long been established that if a country wants to build a strong and sustainable economy, it needs to recognise and encourage participation by women. If India is to change the status on women’s workforce and their contribution to the economy, they need to be given opportunities that help them unleash their full potential.


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