Promoting Women's Economic Participation in India

03/21/2013 08:46 am ET | Updated May 21, 2013

Since the horrific rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in December 2012, debates have raged about the social and economic status of women in India. The brutal act revealed to the world that even in 2013, Indian women are treated as second class citizens.

How can this grim classification be changed? Whether we like it or not, money often equals power, so there is growing recognition that the status of women in societies like India can change significantly if they are able to gain financial independence, whether it is through employment where they are adequately compensated or by setting up and running their own businesses.

Despite rapid economic growth, the inability of women to play a part in the Indian economy remains as deep and persistent as ever. The 2011 United Nations Gender Inequality Index (GII), which considered factors like labour force participation, reproductive health and education, ranked India a depressing 134th out of 187 countries, behind countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.

Women in India have of course always worked, but their work is undervalued. An illiterate woman in an unskilled job earns around Rs. 85 a day (US$ 1.58), less than half her male counterpart. Cultural and societal rules still prevent women from setting up their own businesses without the help of male relatives.

Women are also at a disadvantage when it comes to inheriting property. Although the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 gave women the right to own property, it wasn't until 2005 that the law was amended to give daughters the same inheritance rights as sons. But the Act, as the name suggests, does not apply to Muslims, Christians or Parsis. Moreover states can enforce their own succession laws, and tribal lands are governed by different laws. So it's hardly a surprise that the 2001 Census of India revealed that only 11 percent of agricultural landowners were women.

There remain strong cultural obstacles in India, often created by the patriarchy, to the idea of women's economic emancipation. But a number of government initiatives have in recent years been introduced to help women achieve this goal, such as vocational training programmes to teach skills like sewing, computer literacy and spoken English. These efforts have been supplemented by the work of hundreds of NGOs, such as the Mann Deshi Foundation and the Sambhali Trust, working at the rural level, encouraging women's co-operatives in agriculture, livestock rearing and handicrafts. The government now needs to encourage women, especially the rural poor, to set up simple savings accounts.There must be fresh legislation to give all women an equal right to inheritance.

The government's recent pledge of $370 million to start a women's bank is a welcome and major step forward, as are recent moves, through the provision of credit and subsidies, to encourage women to start their own small and medium enterprises. It is a vital momentum that needs to be maintained. Banks and other financial service providers need now, for example, to extend credit beyond the micro credit level to the small and medium business owners. At present, because a micro-credit scheme is often the only option available for a woman who needs further finance for her business, she has to lie about her increase in income in order to access those funds.

The private sector must be given more incentives to hire women at senior as well as junior levels, and together with the government must create better training programmes for women in non-traditional fields. After all, jobs like car maintenance, plumbing, carpentry, and computer maintenance pay more than data entry or sewing jobs. And there must be better institutional support in the form of maternity leave and childcare facilities, the lack of which currently hold back millions of middle and lower middle class women who must choose between jobs and raising children.

Finally, in order to take these steps forward women need support in their own communities. They need support to work in better paid jobs and fields as well as to own land, property and businesses. By forming collectives, networks, and self-help groups, like the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), they gain strength. And collective bargaining rights, as well as co-operative credit and savings systems, will create a united voice for communities of women and allow them to support each other.

Over the next two decades, India's GDP is projected to grow between 7 percent and 9 percent annually, making India the world's third largest economy by the year 2030.

Women are half India's demographic dividend; if they are given the right tools and community support, they can not only become financially independent, but could also become the engines that fuel India's future growth.

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Cherie Blair is the founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. Siddharth Chatterjee, works at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and these are his personal views. Follow the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and Siddharth Chatterjee on twitter:@CherieBlairFndn & @sidchat1

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