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Empowering Women at the Grassroots: Let’s begin by hearing them out

Empowering Women at the Grassroots: Let’s begin by hearing them out

Women today are successful entrepreneurs, top leaders in corporates, multi-talented with daring personalities who have excelled in professions that were considered as male bastions. The definition of success for women has changed dramatically as more and more women have received education and have joined the workforce. However, there are still millions of other women for whom her biggest achievement in life is as follows:

• Being allowed to step out of her house in her village
• Self-confidence to speak to other women
• Learning skills such as stitching
• Convince her in-laws to start a tuition centre at home
• Able to study even after marriage
• Earn Rs 6000 per month through her shop that she started in her village
• Earn respect in her in-laws
• Being a member of Self Help Group, a women based organization
Such were the responses from a group of rural women who got together to celebrate International Women’s Day in Navjyoti Gram Niketan, not very far from our Capital city, Delhi.

On asking a question about how many felt that the women have become empowered in true sense, only 14% of the women present believed so. What reinforces such perceptions is that there is a long journey to traverse in achieving the advancement of women. In fact, one woman had to seek permission from her son who refused to allow her mother to step out, a mother who brought the child into this world.

All of them answered unanimously in affirmation when probed if we needed to celebrate Women’s Day. This was a day for them to rejoice, to break free from the shackles of household chores, to pay attention to themselves, to voice their concerns with their fellow women even if no male is hearing them out, to share their feelings as companions to each other.

Here were their concerns as shared by them directly:

(i) Lack of freedom – Women in rural areas is still confined to four walls and is in purdah (veils). Mobility, decision-making, freedom to choose were the matters that were raised again and again. Only 10% of the women present shared that they have the right to take their own decisions.
(ii) Gender discrimination – 100% of the women reported that the discrimination of women remained the most persistent and pervasive issue. A woman has no space of her own as she leaves her father’s house and moves to her husband’s house after marriage. Dowry is still rampant in rural areas and parents are scared of the fate of their daughters.
(iii) Financial dependence – Low participation in work by women results in poverty, which often bred violence in the families. According to the statistics, only 25% of the rural women in India are in workforce. These women realize that they will be more respected if they started earning, though they wish an equally dignified life for a house-wife.
(iv) Issue of Women’s rights – Despite recent developments in the rights of the women, the gap between de jure and de facto quality remained in these rural areas. Lack of awareness amongst the women was one of the detrimental factors in implementation of these government schemes. In cases of property rights, men are largely seen to oppose their sisters or daughters to inherit land.
(v) Prejudice of the society – The women shared that the nation feels proud of Kalpana Chawla, Sania Mirza and many other women achievers in various sectors but do not let their daughters become one. There are instances when the elders including women themselves are often biased towards their perception on the issue of girls or women. They often have to bear the sarcasm of the conservative society in which they live.
There was no dearth of words when they were requested to describe ‘woman’ in one word, here is what they had to say: Endurance, Courageous, Devoted, Compassionate, Adaptive, Courteous, Benevolent, Multi-tasking, Affectionate, Creator, Goddess

So, while we cherish the spirit of womanhood, we also need to hear the issues raised by these women. Recognizing the urgent need to take appropriate measures, we need to integrate their concerns into national policies and programs.

Holistic approaches need to be adopted taking into account social, cultural, legal and political barriers to full gender equality. Overcoming gender inequality will not result from addressing specific isolated programs, but from a comprehensive method through sustainable and combined efforts that involves and impact everyone.

In spite of the challenges that these women encountered, all of them were positive that the change will happen in society and the situations will improve for them. Of which 50 % were of the view that they themselves can bring out this transformation while rest of them believed that the society has to create an enabling environment to make it happen for them.

Emphasis must be laid on providing value-based education which they expressed need to start from their home. Boys must be asked to help their mothers and sisters in household chores. They must be sensitized and taught to respect them right at young age. A paradigm shift in attitudes towards daughters and daughter-in-laws must be practiced without any biasness.

Women must be encouraged to be self-reliant and empowered to lead a dignified life. Programs like Self Help Groups and skills training for entrepreneurship can help to reach the goal of women empowerment at the grassroots.

And most important, we first need to hear them out what they want!

- Compiled by Ms Chandni Bedi Taneja, Director – Rural Management & Training Institute, Navjyoti India Foundation

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