Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

India’s Women Empowerment Story: Circa 2014-2023

If women constitute roughly half the population of the globe, then bridging gender gaps constitute the most important development issue in the world today. One of the facts of life that we take for granted and which does not rivet our attention always is the near universal practice of gender discrimination and the fact that there is no truly gender just society anywhere in the world. In India and many other countries of the developing world – the women’s movements have battled for 3 entitlements: freedom from social and cultural restrictions, equality of opportunities and empowerment through a package of gender specific rights.

The quest for gender equality has come a long way though it remains an unfinished agenda across the globe. Movements to grant women equality take time to be realized into law and much later into practice with societal acceptance. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which actually gave white American women their right to vote was first introduced in the US Congress in 1878, it became a law 42 years later in 1920. It took another 45 years for Black women, Native American women, Asian American women and women from other ethnic and racial groups to vote after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in the USA, whereas Indian women got the right to vote with the inauguration of our constitution in 1950. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often described as an international bill of rights for women, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. The United States alongside Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga are the seven countries yet to ratify CEDAW.

The question remains: should it take 132 years to attain gender equality (World Economic Forum 2023 Gender Gap Report) when evidence shows that women are co-contributors to global development? Gender equality often is linked to other institutionalized and social driven inequalities. Embracing equity (the quality of being fair and impartial) is the larger principle that needs to be embraced today in all sectors including policy initiatives to further gender equality.

Now let us discuss specific policy initiatives taken by the current political regime in India after 2014 which relate to women’s empowerment. Being a developing country with a high population density, India was struggling to maintain international sanitation levels. Active participation of women was needed when women empowerment programmes were being inaugurated one by one after 2014. To eliminate open defecation, the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched first on 2nd October 2014. The government allocated a separate budget for awareness programmes to bring behavioural changes in society and it has been seen that rural women have played a significant role here. The need for women specific policies was most keenly felt by rural women. After the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, India is swiftly progressing towards achieving open defecation free status, though still there are many related areas in the field of health and sanitation which also need to be covered by the government. Nevertheless, the village panchayats and many NGOs are playing a key role in making Swachh Bharat Mission a success.

In 2015, government data revealed that the greatest number of deaths due to pollution occurred in India, of which 1.24 lakh premature deaths can be accounted to indoor air pollution alone. This was typical of households below the poverty line (BPL), and is particularly true for rural areas due to the wide usage of traditional energy sources (coal and wood) for household needs, particularly for cooking. 

In the light of this problem, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was launched under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Government of India, which aimed to provide five crore LPG connections over three years to BPL households, with a subsidy of Rs. 1,600 per connection. Till date, Rs. 8,000 crores have been allocated for the implementation of this programme, and it has provided 4.5 crore BPL households with LPG connections (PMUY official website). 

Empowerment of women is closely linked with the country’s energy economy and this goal is driving investments in the entire value chain. PMUY now works in the form of a social movement, enabling social change and catalyzing empowerment of women. By adding 7 crore beneficiaries in the Ujjwala family, it is empowering women to lead smoke-free lives, a healthier lifestyle reducing drudgery and enabling them to pursue other income enhancing pursuits. 

To take this initiative forward, Pradhan Mantri LPG panchayats as peer learning platforms, are providing support, catalyzing behaviour changes among Ujjawala beneficiaries and also encouraging safe and sustainable use of LPG. As many as 87,876 LPG panchayats have been conducted across the country. 

Ujjwala Didi, a CSR handholding initiative, aims at creating a force of 10,000 grassroot educators who can take the two messages till the last mile, viz. (i) Clean Cooking Fuel is to be universally available, (ii) Clean Cooking fuel is safe and affordable. Ujjwala Didis will facilitate refill, address any fear around LPG safety, help in resolving grievances and facilitate new connections. Thus, these empowered women will contribute to overall women empowerment through their panchayats. 

The Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana has made a conscious effort to put women at the centre of the national conversation on health. In a written reply to a question, Union Minister of State for Health S P Singh Baghel had recently said in parliament that women account for approximately 49 per cent of Ayushman card recipients. Women also account for 46.7% of the total authorized hospitalization under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB PM-JAY), according to a study by the National Health Authority (NHA). Under the Centre’s flagship health scheme, women beneficiaries have availed maximum treatment in medical specializations such as Oncology (58%) and Ophthalmology (51%) than male patients under the scheme. Also, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Sikkim have observed higher female utilization under AB PM-JAY than male patients. 

Stand up India Scheme launched on 5th April 2016 (now extended to 2025), was meant to promote entrepreneurship at grassroot level focusing on economic empowerment and job creation. Recognizing the challenges that aspiring SC, ST and women entrepreneurs on the whole may face in starting business ventures, Stand-Up India was launched to promote entrepreneurship amongst women, to help them in starting enterprises in manufacturing, services the trading sector and activities allied to agriculture. 

On the occasion of its 7th anniversary, Union Finance & Corporate Affairs Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman noted recently, “It is a matter of pride and satisfaction for me to note that more than 1.8 lakh women and SC/ST entrepreneurs have been sanctioned loan for more than Rs. 40,600 crore”. The scheme has created an eco-system which facilitates and continues to provide a supportive environment for setting up green field enterprises through access to loans from bank branches of all Scheduled Commercial Banks, touching numerous lives by ensuring access to hassle-free affordable credit to unserved/underserved segments of society. More than 80% of loans given under this scheme have been provided to women. 

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap report of 2023 states that the political empowerment gender gap has the widest range of dispersion amongst countries, and manifests the largest remaining gender gap. Let us look at the India story. The current Lok Sabha has the highest representation of women at 14.3% with 78 women MPs, higher than 62 in 2014. Women’s active participation in electoral competitions is an efficient indicator of a healthy democracy in a country. As women in India are approximately about 48% of the total population, their representation in democratic institutions is expected to be in the same ratio. But the reality is totally different. As far as representation of women in Lok Sabha is concerned, India ranks 149th in a list of 193 countries with only 14.3% women, (78 women) in 543 Members of Parliament in the Lower House. 

Introduction of the Reservation system may be regarded as a watershed moment for women in India’s politics. After the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1992, women were provided with reservation of one third of the seats in Panchayat and Municipal elections. Women now form more than 46 percent of the approximately total 13.5 lakh elected representatives in Panchayati Raj Institutions across the country. As of now about 20 states have further increased the women’s reservation level to 50 percent. In India the only power roles in which women have a presence commensurate with their share in population are in the urban & rural local bodies, in the third tier of governance. Now, three decades later, we have a law that allows for similar reservations in the Union Parliament and State Legislatures. The Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam is a significant step towards more gender equality in Indian politics and governance.     

Over the past 27 years, while continuously shifting responsibility for their collective failure to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill in India most political parties have relinquished their role in nurturing women leaders. Now that the 128th Constitution Amendment Bill has become an Act, let us celebrate the fact that in contrast to worldwide trends indicating a noticeable decline in democracy since 2006, India is experiencing a democratic surge in relation to women’s political participation in their roles as voters & candidates. There has been a seven-fold increase in women contesting elections across assembly constituencies all over India. This is a silent revolution. Women have now emerged as predominant agents of change. 

The battle for inclusion and representation of women in the economy or politics, according to some is mere tokenism and not real empowerment. Empirical studies have shown that representation and inclusive work policies lead to women acquiring, enjoying and exercising real power gradually e.g. the first generation women local government leaders in India probably were ‘proxies’ for their husbands or other male members in their families, but there has been a change with every generation in India. Whether it is through subsidy or direct cash transfer, concrete steps like work from home, a hybrid work model, organizations should be going the extra mile to listen to this new-age workforce with a calculated focus on improving learning and growth, flexibility in work models to benefit women. 

Other worries remain. The decline of women in the labour force from 2004-05 is one of India’s enduring mysteries. Why would women, across demography, geography and income, quit paid work in such large numbers? Why would they quit when educational attainment was up, fertility was down, and the economy was growing? The decline in unemployment rate for women indicates that they are not moving from unemployed to employed but out of the labour force altogether. Indian women’s labour force participation rate is one of the lowest, even among developing countries of the world.  

Empowerment is a buzzword today – and economic empowerment is the bedrock on which other kinds of empowerment rests. The word empowerment is being still debated in both academic & non-academic worlds. To me, it means the capability to make independent choices on key aspects of one’s life – education, marriage, employment, reproduction or the right to spend one’s income in one’s way.

I would like to conclude by saying that women’s empowerment is like the proverbial glass that is currently half full, fraught with opportunities as well as challenges. Past women’s movements, have shown us the way – we have now to build on our strengths. When women are educated, employed, independent, confident and productive, society and economy gain and with it every one gains – parents, husbands, employers and the state, therefore all have a role to play in this movement for a gender equal and gender just society. There is a window of opportunity today for reform minded political leaders, activists and intellectuals to work together, to correct historically embedded gender disabilities. We need a focused fight that involves government, the private sector and civil society. To educate women is only half empowerment, the rest half happens when they go to work.

(Prof Rumki Basu was formerly the Head of Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, and presently heads the Centre for Public Policy and Governance, New Delhi. Views expressed are her own)