Rural Women in India – The Veiled Potential
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.
India is the land of paradoxes. We worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. We beseech her to bring us good fortune, good profits, good yield. We invite her to grace our homes to herald prosperity. Yet we do not think twice before abandoning our new-born girl child on the heap of garbage. Day-in and day-out girls and women in our society face domination and oppression. Women do not feel safe, they fear domestic violence, they fear rape, they do not feel secure even inside their homes.
Covid has aggravated the discrimination against women and the reported crimes against women have been all time high during the pandemic. Year 2020, which marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality. Instead, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are adverse for women and girls, simply by virtue of their gender.
Status of rural women reflects an even darker narrative. Out of 135 crore population of India, 65.13 percent lives in the rural setups and women constitute 48 percent of total rural population. 74.8 percent women are agricultural workers, but only 9.8 percent own a piece of land. 99 percent of households are male-headed. Though access to education has improved, those who are more educated remain unemployed because of the unavailability of formal jobs and low wages. It is also a fact that 81.3 percent of female workforce in India belongs to rural women, but women account for only 19.9% of the total labor force as per World Bank Data (2020).
It is well-accepted that rural women, apart from being the custodians of traditional knowledge, are key agents for achieving the transformational economic, environmental and social changes required for sustainable development in India. Despite women and girls’ critical contributions to rural communities, rural women lag behind rural men and urban women on almost all global gender and development indicators for which data are available. Limited access to credit, healthcare and education are among the many challenges they face, which are further aggravated by the economic crisis and lack of food security that clutches their potential. Gender-based discrimination, social biases and stereotypes limit them into veils of inconspicuousness.
Empowering our rural women is the key not only to the well-being of individuals, families and rural communities, but also to overall economic productivity of the country. By providing equal and equitable rural services and infrastructure, it is possible to facilitate women’s access to education, productive resources, and build on their knowledge, skills and abilities. Schemes like MNREGA, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, Mahila Shakti Kendra, etc., aim to empower rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition. Rural enterprises and SHGs are helping in progressing women towards financial stability, but the level of success required is much higher. During COVID, MNREGA was a life savior for women, but it is limited to only 100 days of job security. The main goal behind the introduction of various schemes is that it allows social and economic equity and builds self-esteem and confidence and a mechanism for many rural women to recognise their aptitude and potentials. But to make the scheme successful in empowering rural women, it is very necessary that they should participate in large numbers in the Gram Sabhas and voice their preferences and concerns regarding the implementation of government schemes. Despite seeing an improvement, there is a requirement to focus and make efforts to increase women’s representation in local institutions and governance mechanisms and include them in decision-making within their households and communities.
We can no more ignore this large chunk of our powerhouse demographic dividend if we’re planning to be trillion dollar economy. The present situation is adverse for rural women and is alarming for country’s development goals. We have adopted the transformative Sustainable Development Goals as a roadmap to a more equitable, just and sustainable world by 2030. To fulfill these goals - particularly the goals on ending poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality and sustainable economic growth - we must recognize the continuum of women’s work to include subsistence, care and livelihoods. Our rural woman, who is environmentally aware, financially independent, and digitally articulate, will eventually move towards harnessing the true potential of our demographic dividend and become an equal democratic voice in the country’s political spectrum.
(The article is written by Dr. Neelam Gupta Founder President & CEO AROH Foundation)
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