AIWC: Economic Empowerment of Women – side event at CSW59

Veena Kohli speaking at CSW59
Veena Kohli speaking at CSW59

Poverty has affected the lives of millions but the most suffering section of society is the women and children. Because of constraints and discrimination, women have to bear the maximum brunt of poverty.  They cannot afford basic needs like food, clothes, house, education and health-care. Even whatever they can afford is of poor quality. Poverty for them is insecurity, powerlessness and susceptibility to violence and often living without access to clean water and sanitation.

Governments of countries are trying to prove that they are more concerned in framing the women friendly policies and programs to improve their quality of life while the prevailing status of women presents a grim picture. Sources reveal that there has not been any change in their quality of life as is quite evident from their unequal and poor status in the society.
Gender economist, E. Boserup explains that women were not always in disadvantageous position. How they reached the position inferior to that of men has been a long process. During the different stages of economic development, their status deteriorated.
Economic development may have resulted in economic growth but has not resulted in human development, especially since half of the population i. e women seem to have been bypassed in this process. Thus, being poor means that they are resource less, unhealthy, exploited and more vulnerable to sexual harassment.

According to the 2014 edition of the world bank    report, the global target for reducing poverty by half was achieved five years ahead of schedule and the number of poor people – those living on less than $1.25 a day — had halved to 18 percent in 2010 from 36 percent of the population in 1990. Even if the current rate of the progress is to be maintained, around 1 billion people will still live in extreme poverty by 2015.In some developing countries, we continue to see a wide gap between the rich and the poor and between those who can and who cannot access opportunities .Other challenges such as inequality, non effective governance, economic shocks, food insecurity and climate change threaten to undermine the progress made.

According to United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal programme ,270 million or 21.9% people out of 1.2 billion of Indians lived below poverty line of $1.25 in 2011-2012.   According to Tendulkar Poverty Line ,during  the year 2011-12, India had 270 million persons below poverty line as compared to 407 million in 2004-05.These figures indicate that  there is a reduction of 137 million persons over the seven year period.

As per the UNDP report 2014, India ranks 135 in Human Development Index. The number of poor is now estimated at 250 million, of which 200 million reside in rural India. The report states that none of the BRICS countries have made place in the high human development category and India remains at the bottom with lowest HDI value among them. “India is the lowest performing country among the BRICS nations in all categories of the HDI with the exception of life expectancy, which is lower in South Africa as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” the report says. “Everyone should have the right to education, health care and other basic services. Putting this principle of universalism into practice will require dedicated attention and resources, particularly for the poor and other vulnerable groups,” says the report. “Strong universal social protection not only improves individual resilience, it can also bolster the resilience of the economy as a whole. The Human Development Report lays great stress on global agreements and pacts and how these can   contribute to build a universal system. National initiatives for universal provision of services are more easily enacted when global commitments are in place and global support is available. Global agreements are essential because they can instigate action and commitment and generate financial and other support.


There are several challenges facing India today vis via women’s economic development but some of the big red flags are-
Inadequate economic opportunities is one of the biggest causes of female poverty which is one of the big challenges to the progress of women. In India poverty is multi dimensional social problem.  Causes of poverty are many like-unemployment and underemployment, lack of property rights, dependence on agriculture, high population growth rate, caste system, corruption and above all holding of financial resources in the hands of males. Most of the women are not direct earners. They do not have a direct standing in the credit market, either formal or informal, as they do not own any assets in their name. There were no property rights in family property till 2005. The custom of dowry as a substitute to inheritance gave them the role of 2nd class members of the family and society. There is no budget for spending on their education. Lack of skills, heavy physical work of different types, long hours of work with limited payment, lack of guarantee of minimum wages, lack of job security and social security, lack of minimum facilities at the work place, lack of income after retirement are some of the factors of the informal sector which contribute to women’s weakness. Also female-headed households are likely to suffer more than male-headed households as they have less access to government development programs, welfare schemes, resources and communal assets. 

Male migration from rural to urban areas is also a big problem. Men migrate to other cities leaving behind women and children, making them further vulnerable since they solely depend on men economically.
Providing the inhabitants  with need based skill training at local level, equipping them with the latest techniques, helping them to access the marketing links, setting up of  small enterprises ,will help to stop migration of the labour force in search of jobs. It will create an infrastructure within the community that will be conducive to women’s economic empowerment. In a country like India, where the gender divide and the inequality between men and women is so wide, providing the skills and the opportunity for women at local level to be economically self sufficient is a must for social and political empowerment.  Even though there is a vast development in agriculture technology, it is yet to reach all the villages.
Women entrepreneurship program, access to credit and ensuring their participation in value chains is critical. Provision to centers of higher learning, vocational and skill based training, technical education will help in increasing economic participation and also reduce occupational segregation.

Lack of infrastructure in rural areas increases women’s contribution to unpaid housework. Even today women spend up to six hours, just to fetch drinking water from the ponds, rivers etc. In making the development process inclusive, the challenge is to formulate policies and programs to bridge regional, social and economic disparities in an effective and sustainable manner.

Although the Government’s schemes and programs are quite promising, yet concerted efforts are required to ensure inclusion and empowerment of women in all the schemes and policies formulated so far. The schemes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), Self Help Groups and many others have opened employment opportunities to women but with low remuneration, minimal benefits and uncertain contracts. The recent announced 2015 budget cuts in the health, education and social sector spending are a further detriment to the development and empowerment of women especially in the rural areas.

In addtion challenges in the form of traditional and cultural practices, socio-economic conditions remain and lack of awareness, inadequate implementation of various policy measures and mechanism  continue.

 Bottom up programs and legislations have further hampered the possibilities of grassroots women’s needs being addressed by development interventions. Any development program that ignores the life chances of half the population cannot address the problems of poverty and crisis of sustainability. 

Inadequate social security net system has not proven effective. At present, whatever the pension amount is given by the government is too little even to survive and it covers only a very small segment of women from  the lowest income group. The rate of pension varies from state to state.

As per UNDP Report 2014   “Universal access is vital to protect people from vulnerability”. I think this is the area where we can work together and put our views strongly for universal access, keeping in mind our national interests and initiatives. Our efforts to create a better society should be based on promoting peace through participatory good governance ,creating  accountability and grievance mechanisms at local, national and international levels.

AIWC’s Initiatives-

Education and empowerment of women have been at the core of All India Women’s Conference’s agenda since its inception in 1927.  AIWC has been striving incessantly to promote literacy and skill training to empower women, for the last 86 years, through our wide network of 500 branches spread all over the country.  Over 1.5 lakh voluntary members work with selfless dedication for the cause of women in various fields.  AIWC’s programs in education, health and eradication of poverty are aimed at helping 50% of our population i.e. women. Empowerment of women is an essential ingredient in protecting women’s right and has to be looked at from a holistic perspective. Proper education, economic self sufficiency, self confidence and courage are needed on the part of the women with a matching response from men based on mutual respect.  HE for SHE , A UN program, where men are a support system to their women, and gender equality becomes a primary goal in all areas of social and economic development.

AIWC has initiated programs like socio-economic, skill centered literacy, health awareness, legal awareness, environment friendly income generating activities, leadership training programs particularly for women Panchayat members, adoption of villages ,rural/urban community resource centres which have brought quite encouraging results. To quote a few—our  projects on solar drying of food products for income generation, sanitary napkin making unit , spice grinding units, dairy farming, provisional stores, medicinal herbs units  etc have been very successful and given economic independence to women in their local area. The results are visible as the living standard has improved and women have emerged as empowered women who are making decisions for their lives. Around 50,000 women and girls have benefited from these programs. Since 1995,we have introduced new ventures like renewable energy, environment friendly alternate vocations for women bidi  workers(rolling of tobacco leaves),Herbal gardening for  women as income generation activity etc. 

The following suggestions would go a long way in bringing women out of the morass of poverty:


Due to son preference culture and second class family member status of women throughout world, they do not enjoy entitlement rights of land and other family property .They are always treated as a liability by their parents. Therefore, it becomes mandatory to change the traditional tactics of making women landless and resource less individuals by giving them equal access to assets and resources at par with men so that they can gain control over family as well as community resources, increase their bargaining power and enjoy equal say in decision making.


It is imperative to measure the output from the Care economy  in terms of time  and in terms of money so that women’s work will gain economic recognition and monetary edge by including it in national accounting system. Although, some recent legislations have supported this view that women’s household work as well as child care should be measured in monetary terms and husbands should be asked to pay for their wives services but yet it also waits for enforcement.

  1. INVOLVING women in economic decision making

Economic policy making is the domain of politicians who usually happen to be mostly men. At various decision-making levels, gender imbalances can be distinguished in communities even at the earliest stage of development. Women are underrepresented in decision making in govt., business sector especially at senior levels. The irony is that women are not even involved in decisions related to their life like consent at the time of the marriage, and the decision regarding reproductive matters like how many children she should have or how to go for family planning practices? . Therefore, the demand of time is that women being the implementers of the decisions of men need to be involved in framing policies and plans of the society so that they can  be able to address their issues in a much better way.


A universal trend of dividing the household work according to gender has been acting as the main obstacle in the way of women’s suppression and economic backwardness. All the household drudgery from cooking to crop cultivation, harvesting and rare and care of pet animals in homes is performed by women in Indian society as a whole. Women remain busy with performing household tasks and in addition to this perform the most sacred job of motherhood which leaves no scope for her to work in any productive activity. On the other hand, men have kept themselves away from domestic obligations and care of children which are full time jobs at home and they only participate in economic activities which get in cash income (revenue) and thus enjoy command in household as well as community affairs.  Therefore, this uneven and unequal gender based division of labour needs to be changed and men also have to come forward and share the the burden of domestic duties so that women can participate in economic activities.



Women face a major constraint in availing the facility of credit. Establishing their small scale enterprises to earn their own livelihood and to become self reliant turns into an unfulfilled dream due to lack of financial availability. They can’t avail loans from banks unlike their male counterparts because they don’t have assets and other property in their name that could be kept as mortgage with the bank. Therefore, it is the utmost responsibility of the government and other financial institutions to come to their rescue and facilitate women by providing them easy access to credit facilities and grant subsidies to encourage them to come forward.


There is discrimination against women workers in the  labour market whereby women performing the same work as their male counterparts are paid less. The minimum wages ACT 1948 is not enforced due to lack of knowledge and information. Thus, gender based price distortions lead to false economics. Economic policy makers aiming to improve overall economic efficiency need to count and measure women’s work equally with men’s so that their contribution does not remain hidden and   invisible. Policy makers should focus and work for creating job opportunities for women and only then their problems of   economic dependence, poverty and resource lesness can be addressed properly in a broader perspective.


Women’s work days are longer than men’s in general. Men monopolize the use of new technology and women have to work with traditional labour intensive techniques. Thus, change from traditional to modern methods of production in any sector tends to enhance men’s prestige at the expense of women’s by widening the gap in their levels of knowledge and training. Thus ,need of the hour is to make these institutions bias free so that women can enter the fields so far denied to them for lack of training and exposure.


Gender budgeting will help govt and civil society to assess the extent to which gender issues are being addressed through budgetary allocations and expenditures so that women may not be only the beneficiaries of benefits of development but equal participants in the process of development.


Gender Studies need to be promoted in academic curriculum from the initial stages of schooling so that both boys as well as girls will develop sympathy and respect for each other. There is a need to change the male psyche and sensitize men to understand the role and relevance of their opposite gender in their lives. Gender education will help in promoting gender equality and empowerment of women.


Women need to be invited in the political domain of societies world over by giving them not only one third representation but fifty percent of their share as per the proportion of population. It is an admitted fact that unless women make their entry into top decision making bodies of the nation, they can’t reshape their destiny.

While cultural, economic and educational inequality in different states make matters more complicated change cannot be escaped, and there can be no standing still. The people of the developing countries must be given opportunity to develop and improve their way of life and make it imperative that all forms of oppression and exploitation should be systematically controlled and ended. It is without doubt in the interests of world harmony and peace that this should be so. How different would our nation be if the ruling party added the concept of economic exploitation of women and girls in their manifesto? The progress of civilization depends on the continuous search for truth and knowledge and that the remedy lies in more liberties, not their suppression, that equal opportunity available to all and all form of gender discrimination ended.


Provision of a robust social security system for women and girls is the need of the hour. Social services – which include universal access to health care and education, full employment and social protection are required for sustainable and resilient human development. Also there has to be a strong social security system especially for women from private and unorganized sector to provide them economic and health security after a certain age in private and unorganized sector.

I  conclude with a quote of Mahatama Gandhi “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” If we limit our greed and share more with the underpriviledged, we can definitely contribute for creating a harmonious society.