October 17, 2019
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    Economic empowerment among rural women

    September 23, 2019

    Globally, gender mainstreaming in development and empowerment of women have been top priorities in development agendas for long. The recent attempts, both millennium development goals and the latest initiative of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations recognise and emphasise the need for empowering women due to the massive potential that women carry in contributing to food security, poverty reduction, climate advocacy, social well-being and building stronger economies.

    We, as a low income country until 2010 and as a lower middle income country until 2018, attempted to empower women by way of adopting various tools and approaches and today, as an upper middle income country, we continue the same. Organising women into small groups, societies and conventions sought the way forward in many of those attempts. The influence made through such efforts at the grassroots level ultimately led to sharing of benefits by a woman and her family, but it is questionable whether such efforts made a significant impact on society at large.

    This article looks at rural women’s social groups that existed and exist at the village level, formed by government line departments and agencies during different timelines, and their contribution to women’s empowerment.

    Organisational approach to empowerment

    A successful village organisation carries a huge potential to act as a village-level centre for the dissemination of information, implementation of programmes, distribution of resources, leadership development and investment promotion leading to rural development and poverty reduction. There exist different types of social groups and an organisation at the village level aiming at achieving such common objectives which can be classified based on their origin, aim, formation, interest and so forth. In the most common, there are formal versus informal, temporary versus permanent, and self-formed versus assigned social groups available at the current rural setup.

    The organisations that are discussed here are formal, permanent and government-initiated registered community-based organisations among rural women aimed at mobilising rural communities for socio-economic and cultural development. There are 12,000 women’s action societies organised by the Women’s Bureau, women’s rural development societies of the then Department of Rural Development, around 800 women’s farmers’ societies of the Department of Agriculture and around 25,000 women’s farmer’s organisations of the Department of Agrarian Development which are a few examples of such societies. Likewise, the number of societies at the village level is enormous. A recent study on women farmers’ societies shows that the average membership accounts for 17 women. There are many other non-governmental organisations which also bring together rural women at the grassroots level to provide benefits and to uplift living standards of their families.

    Nevertheless, certain gender-neutral community-based organisations such as rural development societies and farmers’ organisations are also represented by women. The objectives of those women-led organisations are more or less similar in nature, for instance, promoting savings and credit facilities, providing training on financial recording, promoting home gardening and entrepreneurship development as well as improving leadership skills through capacity development and training. In simpler terms, many rural women in the country have got the privilege of being a member in a state-sponsored organisation given the abundance of village organisations despite the unsatisfactory levels of the sharing of benefits.

    Way forward

    Despite 38 percent of rural women in the country being economically active to participate in the labour force, they are often expected to fit into customary gender roles as homemakers. However, making women economically secure is very important to empower them. Rural women with limited resources constantly look for privileges and opportunities and face difficulties getting into the formal workforce not only due to family commitments and lack of education, but also due to scarce opportunities and competition in the job market.

    Although motivated by the hardships they face, yet they have the intention to participate in economic activities. Even though they play a supporting role to breadwinners, increased cost of living coupled with changing needs and wants push them to engage in micro-business activities which reap financial benefits. Hence, women-led organisations act as a central channel of communication and grassroots-level platform that builds community resilience while providing opportunities for women to raise their voice and to find ways to overcome the economic challenges they encounter through a participatory approach.

    Most of these organisations have the framework of entrepreneurship development component to empower women economically by supporting their need for setting up business. When rural women entrepreneurs are created and supported by the organisational approach by providing financial and in-kind assistance, needy individuals can be recognised and resources can be effectively used for setting up micro-businesses.

    Even though, rural women have tremendous intention to start their own businesses, financial scarcity is a huge constraint. Hence, facilitation of entrepreneurship development among rural women through introducing financial mechanisms, including revolving funds and micro-financing services, to these societies will matter the most to empower women on the economic front. Moreover, the enhancement of the economic status of rural women would have a more insightful effect on the welfare of the entire family and move them into new heights within society as well.

    Weaknesses in the present set-up

    Absence of sustainability: Revisiting past experiences indicates that most of the women’s organisations are heavily dependent on external aid as organisations which receive aid remain sustainable in the long run, whereas they become dysfunctional when the direct assistance, guidance and promises are taken off. Heavy reliance on community officers for the stability of the organisation is a major shortcoming of this set-up.

    Negative Attitudes: Unfortunately, women do not have a wholehearted attitude towards widespread rural organisations owing to unpleasant experiences they have had with previous interventions with no all-encompassing package by a single set-up.

    No transparency:Lack of following transparent procedures when selecting members to distribute benefits also weakens the organisational set-up. When organisations are established, there is a tendency of the same group of active women in the village getting membership and leadership positions and the benefits from the diverse opportunities available.

    Poor youth representation: Lack of active participation and limited representation of youth is also a common occurrence leading to organisational inefficiencies.

    Poor monitoring and evaluation: Members of women’s organisations are discouraged by the minimal monitoring and evaluation by the set-up entity.

    Lack of proper orientation: Most of the time, these organisations lack long-term vision and thus programmes are undertaken in randomly, leading to organisations that are dysfunctional. Entrepreneurial needs including access to loans, technology and skills are not addressed enough through these organisations.

    Implications

    Stabilisation and upgradation of organisations: A progressive organisational approach is important in programme implementation for the success and sustainability of the organisation. Thus, organisations should be graded based on the standard criteria and only targeted intervention should be undertaken as per the status of each organisation. Well-performing organisations should be given priority in terms of providing any assistance while motivating the rest of the organisations to climb the ladder.

    Providing core skills: Investing in innovative financial training and capacity development to improve the financial literacy of rural women is a must. Developing business skills based on the needs of rural women for engaging in economic activities is also required.

    Capacity development of officers: Community officers should be trained well and appraisals should be done based on the performances to encourage their enthusiasm by creating a competitive environment.

    Increase use of ICT and digital solutions: Empowering women in ICT will benefit in many ways, such as the speedy flow of information to women through ICT solutions to rectify shortfalls in receiving information sent by the officers and bridging the information gap, as well to open the door for innovative market opportunities.

    Access to concessionary loans: Ensure enabling environment for women becoming entrepreneurs by providing grants and loans for start-ups, minimising administrative procedures, increasing access to loans and creating healthy marketing opportunities.

    A coordinated approach by creating linkages: Ensure a single entity in the village to liaise for the implementation of various projects that exist or will come into being in the future at the village level, irrespective of what source they come from, whether a different ministry, organisation or project, by a firm policy decision. Maintaining a database of members will ease the procedure. Implementation and resource allocation by linking every external source through inter-ministerial and intra-ministerial agencies for optimum utilisation of opportunities and resources is a prerequisite.

    Ensure youth participation: A proper framework such as innovative entrepreneurship programmes should be adopted to attract and ensure youth participation in the organisations for better decision-making and leadership.

    Market-driven micro-enterprises: Facilitating marketing facilities and encouraging location-specific market-driven micro-enterprises based on available space and resources, particularly on value addition of agricultural produce.

    Promoting group entrepreneurship: Promote entrepreneurship development at an organisational level at least on pilot basis instead of individual targeting and link with a government entity for providing inputs and services of its own or by liaising through other agencies for promoting demand-driven enterprises on agricultural value addition.

    Progress monitoring and evaluation: Qualitative progress monitoring through independent agencies towards achieving continuous improvements, based on the lessons learned.

    Overall, there is no disagreeing that creating opportunities through an organisational set-up would be a pre-condition for social and economic empowerment of rural women. Nevertheless, women’s organisations should be independent, transparent, accountable and democratic to be empowered themselves within a social-friendly environment. Hence awareness, adjustment, and inter-disciplinary approaches are very much looked-for to make these organisations sustainable and to serve rural society. While the many economic benefits obtained through an organisational approach are obvious, the shortcomings in implementation should be overcome to make the organisational approach a successful approach to empower women as a whole.

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