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What stops rural women from getting involved in entrepreneurship?

Women constitute only 14 per cent of the total entrepreneurs in the country. Women in rural areas face multiple barriers to pursuing income-generating activities, with patriarchal family and societal norms being the primary hurdle.

Recent data released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation shows that women constitute only 14 per cent of the total entrepreneurs in the country. (Photo for representation)

In Dhani Shankar village, Bhiwani, Renu makes colourful bangles and cosmetic creams using natural ingredients. Renu was lucky to have received the support of her husband in starting her own enterprise. She was motivated to do this after attending a three-day Start-And-Improve-Your-Business training in Jui village, and, she started her shop with Rs 10,000. Now, Renu tells me, she makes a profit of Rs 8,000 in a month. Renu also motivates other women in her village as a Biz Sakhi and, with her help, 14 women have started their own businesses.

When Renu came to participate in the discussion on promoting entrepreneurship, she told me that rural women often face problems in entering the workforce due to their domestic duties. In fact, on an average, Indian women spend 297 minutes daily on unpaid care work.

The need to improve women’s participation in the economy has been a long-standing priority and is also crucial towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, too. In recent years, entrepreneurship has emerged as an ideal way for rural women to contribute, by taking a few hours out of their day they can engage in small businesses and bring home additional income. There are multiple programmes which offer support to such women such as the Start and Improve Your Business Program (SIYB) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the government’s Trade Related Entrepreneurship Assistance and Development (TREAD). Our ongoing partnership with Hero MotoCorp Ltd and the Government of Haryana too seeks to positively impact the lives of 14,000 underprivileged women like Renu through training and entrepreneurial skill development.

However, recent data released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation shows that women constitute only 14 per cent of the total entrepreneurs in the country. So, what is stopping more rural women from getting involved in entrepreneurship?

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Through its pilot programmes with rural women under the Disha Programme, UNDP India has come to realise that one of the reasons for this lack of uptake is the absence of mentorship for women entrepreneurs. Women in rural areas face multiple barriers to pursuing income-generating activities, with patriarchal family and societal norms being the primary hurdle. Renu was of course lucky to have a very supportive husband.

Other issues include lack of awareness about opportunities, difficulty in accessing formal financing and poor customer management skills. It is clear that providing opportunities isn’t enough — these women need to be made aware and guided through the process to ensure they are successful.

Trained by Disha Project – a partnership between UNDP India, IKEA Foundation and India Development Foundation, the Biz Sakhis are women from rural communities who guide budding female entrepreneurs through multiple processes and provide both practical and psychological support to them. As a first step, they encourage rural women to start their own businesses by making them aware of entrepreneurship as a realistic opportunity, and, by informing them of the benefits of starting their own small businesses.

However, even after the women are trained, access to finance remains a big hurdle for rural women who often dip into their savings or take loans from their family. Biz Sakhis are instrumental at this point in helping them access formal banking channels for loans, by providing them information about schemes such as the Mudra Yojana Scheme of the government.

Again, even with financing, small female-run businesses often fail due to poor understanding of the market. Biz Sakhis provide inputs to help women access market linkages and introduce them to a variety of business models and ideas to help them scale up. They also work with small business owners to develop their communication skills, and to be able to persuade and negotiate with stakeholders within the ecosystem of their businesses.

However, the most important role that Biz Sakhis play in the lives of rural entrepreneurs, is to be the source of emotional and psychological support. It helps these women to become more confident in their abilities and have the determination to continue with their businesses.

Often, family pressures and societal norms discourage women from engaging in such activities or cause them to abandon their business in the wake of community backlash. Being from the community themselves, Biz Sakhis such as Renu can effectively engage with women and the community at large to counter such barriers and empower rural women to sustain their businesses.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 21, 2019, under the title ‘Enterprise empowerment’. The writer is the chief of skills and business development at UNDP India.