Women’s Empowerment – Agenda for New Government

August 28th, 2009

Round Table Discussion – ‘Women’s Empowerment – Agenda for New Government’ by Dr. Sarala Gopalan, Former Secretary, Department of Women & Child Development, GOI; Ms. Firoza Mehrotra, Special Consultant Planning Commission; Ms. Ruchira Gupta, President Apne Aap Women Worldwide NGO; Ms. Nymph Kaul, Vice Chairperson Rai Foundation, New Delhi and chaired by Dr. Vasantha Bharucha, Former Economic Adviser, Ministry of Commerce, GOI in India International Centre, 40 Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 3.


  • Gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution but the cultural legacy in South Asia has a dominant son preference, with discrimination against a female child right at the time of birth. Universally, given the world population of 6.7 billion, females constitute roughly around 50% – maybe not equal to 50% but a little less – slightly lower than 3.31 billion as per the 2006 data.
  • In India from the Fifth Plan onwards, we have had a greater focus on gender issues. A number of legal measures have been introduced taking due cognisance of crime against women and their right to property and violence against them. We have also faced issues relating to economic empowerment of women which broadly covers issues such as poverty eradication, particularly of women, economic independence of women, and availability of credit when it comes to economic activity.
  • At the grassroots level, India has introduced the 73 and 74th Amendments, which mandated one-third reservation for women in the Panchayat and local bodies. Recently, the government has raised it from 1/3rd to 50%. Many of these amendments were passed in the nineties, and India had already set up a National Commission for Women in 1990.
  • An important issue is the impact of globalisation on women and also the commitment to environment. Women can become instruments for promoting use of non-conventional and eco-friendly energy.
  • We need to addresses questions whether we have really achieved whatever is needed in terms of policies or are there any inadequacies in the existing policies to help empowerment of women. How do we make social, economic and political empowerment a reality and enforceable? There is also a social angle and the society angle. How to increase the role of women in addressing newer and emerging issues in our economy?
  • Cradle to empowerment is the whole gamut of a woman’s life; the whole lifecycle approach, starting with the life in the womb. The child sex ratio in India has fallen between 1999 and 2001 as against an increase in the total population sex ratio. This is a very disturbing trend and indicates that there is definitely a growing discrimination against girls in society today in India. Some states in India have a very shameful record.
  • Along with the much-mentioned concept of BIMARU states, there is also the concept of DEMARU, which speaks volumes. DEMARU – "Daughter Eliminating Male Aspiring Rage for Ultrasound", which is indicated in the child sex ratio, again a very disturbing trend.
  • This points to female foeticide; the snuffing out of innocent lives. This attitude is a manifestation of gender discrimination. Until our own attitudes, mindsets and beliefs change, this is not going to change. It is also due to disregard for human rights; the right of the child both by the family and the medical fraternity who often do not hesitate in performing unethical acts, made easier today because of technology.
  • Son preference is another reason for this, both because of the issue of lineage as well as performance of one’s last rites, though in many cases girls have lit the funeral pyres of their parents. There is nothing in India’s scriptures that prohibit a female from lighting her parents’ funeral pyre. A prime reason for gender discrimination is the obsession with marriage because of the rise in consumerism and dowry. Denying education to the female child is another manifestation of gender discrimination. Nutrition is another issuer – there is nutritional discrimination between girls and boys.
  • On the healthcare side too, girls are discriminated against. Some medical institutions actually do not report the deaths of girls due to malnutrition-related illnesses, thus distorting the statistical data, making it prone to misinterpretation.
  • The societal and familial mobility of women is also subject to discrimination. Early marriage is one of the most debilitating things and one of the biggest hindrances in the empowerment of women, because she loses her childhood and is pushed into motherhood and there is a vicious cycle. Identity categorisation is another subtle form of gender discrimination.
  • India has one of the best legal frameworks for gender equality. But besides legislation, we need to ensure that policies we have in place like the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women, Population Policy, Education Policy etc. are more gender-sensitive. The approach and the dimensions of women’s empowerment therefore have to be holistic, looking at political, social and economic aspects as well as being universal.
  • There is a direct correlation between women’s low status and violation of their human rights. One of the most powerful growth vaccines available today is women’s empowerment.
  • Violence against women is one of the most depressing manifestations of gender discrimination and this violence has multiple costs that are ultimately borne by family, society and state.
  • There is need for a rights-based as well as a participatory approach both for leadership as well as participation and involvement in other things whether they are family matters, societal matters or even government schemes and programmes. Women have to be involved and have to be allowed to participate. Change in attitudes and mindsets are the most important. We have to move into the right framework after addressing welfare and development of women.
  • We need to change mindsets of men, women and the whole community and the whole attitude to gender. The struggle to find space for women runs over recent two centuries. They always have had to obey orders without any power to make decisions.
  • Political empowerment and the value of women’s votes in India’s electoral process has made political parties realise the importance of women. The manifestos of all parties have something positive to say about women. Many countries in the world have 50% women’s participation in the polity.
  • Reservation for seats in political bodies is a much-debated issue all over the country. Elected women have brought with them a different texture of governance. They looked at those small things that matter to the community, which has made a big difference. Women community leaders and participants understand social dynamics better.
  • The role of NGOs in the context of women’s empowerment is crucial in many ways. If India has decided that political participation is the way forward for women at certain levels, it raises questions for NGO workers and the role that NGOs can play in this empowerment process.
  • The role of NGOs comes into play in the matter of policy implementation, as NGOs are the bridge between government and civil society. NGOs play a very vital role in that by providing information to women about their rights, what they can access and in helping them access it.
  • NGOs can and do play the role of capacity-building as they’re actually in contact with the community, with the woman inside the community and play the role of capacity-builder.
  • NGOs being in direct contact with communities and women on a daily basis can play a role in policy-making. They can actually bring and share their knowledge and information with the government at different levels. The Government of India is seeking assistance from NGOs to do this and their policies are becoming more and more gender-friendly. One of outcomes of this partnership between the government and the NGOs has been gender budgeting; another one has been social audits, which have been tried in different parts and list what women can access. NGOs play a very powerful role in this dialogue between the community and the government.
  • NGOs are a watchdog and because of their participation and presence in different parts of India policies are being formulated or implemented for women and on behalf of women. NGOs can participate along with the community, especially in the form of self-help groups, enabling building capacities, providing access, assisting and act as a watchdog on the local authorities. They provide protection to women by being there and being available and making sure things are done for them.
  • NGOs can play a role in creating awareness and bringing forth the voices of women, because they are in direct touch with them; they are the ones mobilising the women; they are in touch with communities, building the capacities of the self-help groups. Though NGOs cannot be part of any political parties and have to play a non-party role in politics, they can take up broader issues.
  • NGOs can also play a role in education. Most textbooks are extremely gender-biased with social conditioning and NGOs can work with the education sector to see how textbooks can be changed so that girls understand their rights and boys are made aware of their duties. Social conditioning of men and boys can play a very critical role.
  • NGOs have an important role in nutrition. Nutrition is now being tied in with the whole debate of food security, which certain NGOs are leading in India and are fighting this out in courts and at the grassroots level, where women who don’t have access to food. Because of this, they are vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including sex trafficking and prostitution. Beyond behaviour change inside homes, it is also very important to think about food security for women.
  • Another role for NGOs is health, a very critical sector for women and this has been played out in certain ways for the women both in urban and rural India. One reason why family planning programmes very often fail is because men still have the decision making-power and women are not taught about their rights. In health, very often mobility is a very big factor for women to access health.
  • The most important and critical thing that the NGOs can do besides capacity-building, social mobilisation, information and being the link between the community and the government, influence and changing attitudes is to make sure that the government hears what they are saying. They must not become part of the government, but actually represent the sectors that they are trying to change and literally be a mirror to the government for the policies they are creating.
  • There is a need to improve the skills and capacities of women for livelihoods because economic empowerment of women is an important empowerment strategy. When women are economically empowered, they can be socially and politically empowered.
  • The entire gender architectural framework needs to be changed in the society.
  • The role of NGO’s in facilitating women’s empowerment is multifold. NGOs can serve as the bridge between government and the community in terms of information sharing; NGOs can help in capacity building, provide necessary feedback inputs to policy – making, serve as a watch dog during policy implementation, carry out social audit and audits in gender bias in educating girls to understand their rights and boys in understanding their duties, help in social conditioning of boys and men, improve nutrition and health awareness etc.
  • To facilitate spread of women’s political empowerment benefits widely across regions, sectors and families and to prevent women members of our political system from the families or current male members, a rule based transparent approach of one family member per family could be considered.
  • India has one of the best legislations in the world and a mechanism to monitor implementation to achieve results is required.
  • In a book by Mohandas Gandhi published in 1921, Gandhiji highlighted the role of girl in household work – ‘Pal Pothi’ – which needs to be included in school and college for awareness.
  • Under the corporate social responsibility initiative partnership with private sector to focus on women’s education, nutrition and empowerment should be ensured.
  • Top management in firms needs to be sensitised regarding women’s empowerment issue.
  • Amendment to Immoral Traffic Act could be considered to punish buyers or women / girls and impact


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