Empowering women in India

Women empowerment at work in India

The Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-1985) is a landmark in the women’s cause because it introduces the concept of Women and Development. No more piecemeal strategies, but an integrated, realistic and regenerative development effort; the pyramid, so long wobbling unsteadily on its axis, is at last set right. The target is now clearly visualised in terms of economic independence for women and women empowerment as well as women education and access to comprehensive health care systems. All are inter-related, all part of one basic dynamic.

It was long recognised that any genuine developmental effort must aim at improving the quality of life of women in society, which only a multi-faceted approach can achieve; isolated statistics is rarely a satisfactory index. Development is possible only when it is a people’s movement, and therefore, our planners, from the outset, recognised the value of working with motivated groups, women’s organisations and other non-governmental agencies. Women in India are playing a seminal role in development projects, both as participants and as beneficiaries. Working together with committed groups, there is a determination to effect fundamental and far-reaching changes at the grassroots level where all development begins. Welfare is not a trickle of water sprinkled over parched earth, but a determination to restore to earth her vital, creative life-giving power.

Literacy is one of the most fundamental of our freedoms, essential for a healthy, independent and fulfilled life. The Government has been working closely with voluntary organisations in many projects for adult and vocational education, and special schemes for giving assistance to children of pre-school age.

Programmes of women empowerment

Programmes of vocational education pay rich dividends. Take the case of Pratima, a young lovely, spirited girl, always doubling over with laughter, able to hold her own with anyone. She would marry a man of her own choice, it was sure. But appearances can be deceptive; she was yet another victim of dowry, discarded within four months of marriage. In spite of this harrowing experience, she retained her zest for life; her determination was intact. A condensed education programme enabled her spirit of independence to have a material base; she became a midwife, able to help the suffering as well as to live a life of dignity.

Ironic though this sounds (and terribly sad). Pratima was one of the lucky ones, so many like her get burnt. Yet the Condensed Education Courses (for women between the ages of 18-30 years) have gone a long way towards enabling women in India to stand squarely on their own feet; and in asserting their own independence as they move one step closer to the national goal.

Pratima is not alone; her sisters in Orissa and Maharashtra and Sikkim and every corner of the country are participating and benefiting from the Condensed Courses of Education. Many of these are conducted by non-governmental organisations and registered voluntary women’s organisations (provided they have at least three years’ operational experience in conducting educational programmes), by educational institutions, and other bodies. The Government, through the Central Social Welfare Board, provides grants to cover expenses on maintenance of students, stipends, salaries for instructors, equipment, accommodation, and other necessary expenditure. Because of this co-ordinated effort, thousands of women in India are providing valuable service to the community As dais, nurses and primary school teachers, they also spread ideas about nutrition, hygiene and family planning. By living and working within village, local or tribal communities, they are able by their own example, to make great inroads into local habits and customs that normally resist change, especially when it comes from the outside world Most important, these women, by earning their own living, establish that a woman can be independent, and thus hold a torch up to others

The three-fold targets of economic independence, educational advancement and health care for women in India have been articulated in planning documents, but several organisations, government and voluntary have recognised and been working towards this goal from the very beginning.

Some vocational training schemes have assisted urban women in India. At some places, training is given to women in radio and television maintenance; the world of electronics, a new and exciting field with tremendous possibilities, is opening out to women. Most of the women in India who have completed such courses are absorbed by the local electronics industry. One such successful person recounted how her brothers, loving and supportive though they were, just refused to believe that a woman could handle such difficult and sensitive work. One simply cannot overestimate the positive impact of schemes of this sort; women in India get a tremendous sense of confidence, as well as the material satisfaction of supplementing a meagre family income. Social mores, sexist attitudes, popular prejudice; all are undermined. This woman and her brothers are as close as ever; family ties have not been weakened but bonded with mutual respect.

In fact, it is really remarkable—and encouraging—how widely an educational programme diffuses, and in turn promotes, further development. And success is much more obvious when literacy is coupled with other broad-based developmental programmes. This is what voluntary organisations are always working towards.

Women in India are being taught such a range of skills to enable them to earn a living. There is a whole gamut of socio-economic programmes that extend to women in India who require assistance. Grants of up to Rs. lakh are available to voluntary organisations, depending upon the nature of the scheme. Many production units, training-cum production u ancillary to large industries, handloom, handicraft or self-employment units have benefited from these programmes, as have agro-based units such as dairy, goatery, piggery, sheep breeding and poultry farms.

As women in India break new ground, and in increasing numbers so many new inputs are necessary. Fine work is being done by the Mahila Mandals all over the country. They are provided assistance part in rural areas, to benefit village women and children. Another programme is Training of Rural Women in Public Co-operation. Training camps are organised all over the country to encourage women in India to participate in the developmental process at the grassroots level. The Government provides resources to voluntary groups to conduct field surveys, hold short-term training camps and pursue follow-up action for up to half a year. Thus every attempt is being made to ensure that more and more women in India participate in the vital decision-making process of the community; decisions affecting women are so often taken in fora where their voice is strangely silent. The training camps aim to counteract this; to educate women in India and also to motivate them to play a greater, more meaningful role in their own lives.

For urban women, striking out in new directions can be a painful and tortuous experience, as the existing infrastructure is far from adequate. This is particularly true in the case of unmarried women, which underscores the need for many more hostels for working women. The Government provides assistance for setting up hostels for women in India from low-income groups.

For the most part, schemes for the development of women in India filter through the whole family; and often beyond it as well. Health camps held in Sikkim, for example, to reach women in India of remote areas to motivate them on child immunisation and family planning, have attracted large numbers of villagers; and modern ideas on hygiene, nutrition and proper cooking methods have captured the popular imagination. The medical services offered by these camps have benefited not only women and their families, but entire villages; and even reached lamas in secluded mountain monasteries.

As brave new winds of change sweep across the land, we have to ensure that children (the most vulnerable and the most precious part of any society) are at the receiving end of beneficial schemes; without this no other developmental effort really adds up to much. To help the child is to help the mother, and when the mother is employed or otherwise unable to bring up her infant, a creche provides a safe and simple answer. Children up to the age of five are cared for by specially trained attendants, given supplementary nutrition, taught basic education and personal hygiene and given regular medical check-ups. The Central Welfare Board launched its own Creche Programme in 1977 (earlier this was handled by the Department of Social Welfare). Children of low-income group families are eligible for assistance; the creche programme initially urban in character and specifically for uncared-for children of migrant labour, has not extended to rural and tribal areas. The Board gives grants towards recurring expenses per unit of 25 children, and also some additional help towards equipment. Institutions that participate are required to match the grant by 10 percent (except on salary). The persistent demand for more and more creches from all over the country testifies to the popularity of this scheme; as also to the fact that we have touched only the tip of the iceberg where child-welfare is concerned.

Other programmes for child welfare and development where the Government gives resources to voluntary bodies include a Supplementary Nutrition Programme designed to benefit children (of the age group 3-5 years) of families of low-income groups. Grants include assistance towards staff salaries as well as providing food supplements. Family counselling centres provide a wide range of services to benefit women and children who are victims of violence and exploitation. Legal aid, counselling, medical treatment, vocational training and shelters are all provided within this scheme. The grant given to the organisation wishing to establish such a centre is up to 80 percent of approved expenditure per centre (subject to a maximum amount) per year. A bride harassed by her in-laws for bringing an insufficient dowry, another escaping from exploitation, maybe forced prostitution, can all find shelter and sanctuary in homes devoted to helping women; and also the hope of a new life, a new tomorrow.

In 1958, a scheme for holiday camps for children was initiated. Recreation being regarded as essential for the healthy development of one’s personality, it was realised that this was so often denied to children of deprived families. Many voluntary agencies came forward, sharing the commitment to bring some moments of undistilled joy into a child’s life.

By and large, this programme focuses on children between the ages of 10-16 years, from families whose income is below a certain level and which does not allow for much to be spent on recreation. For about two weeks, a group of about 50 children live, laugh and play together; learning how to function as a group, and enjoying the experience of community participation. This scheme was extended to benefit handicapped children too. Grants are given to different types of camps, including those for handicapped children. These grants cover different kinds of expenses and are aimed at making children feel that they are part of a larger community, and can participate meaningfully in it.

The handicapped, of course, require special care and love if they are to develop a sense of self-reliance and confidence. Various voluntary groups are working constantly to provide shelter and comfort to those who cannot look after themselves. In Mangalore, good work is being done teaching inmates of a home spinning, doll making, even poultry farming; young physically handicapped girls can also enjoy the work experience by making jute bags, or painting; work and self-reliance alone bring dignity to life. And looking at the joy on faces, young and old, the frustrations, the hurdles, the struggles, acquire a new meaning.

The Constitution guarantees equality to all; and in working to fully realise this, everyone has a role to play; the State, voluntary organisations, motivated individuals, everyone. Development of women, the welfare of children, these terms are synonymous with the development and enrichment of society.

The standing as we are today, at the beginning of a new millennium, it is time to take stock of what has been achieved, and to chart out targets for the future. Much has been achieved in some crucial sectors; in others, a valuable beginning has been made. More and more women in India are coming forward, often against all odds, to take their rightful place in the building of a society of which we are all a part. Even deep-rooted social bias is beginning to give way before the determined assault. The progress of any society is primarily dependent on the role of women in India play in the community. We must work to ensure that woman is born free and bold, capable of immense strength and boundless compassion; a true custodian of all that we cherish; woman inspired, women empowered.

Women empowerment at work in India
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