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‘Women in India are becoming agents of change’

It’s not through government action alone,but by their own energy and enterprise

Written by Sonia Gandhi | March 26, 2011 1:25:14 am

Women as agents of change is an idea that seems self-evident in the Commonwealth. The two most influential women personalities of the 20th century — Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher — were both Commonwealth leaders…

Although the women’s movement has already transformed the way in which we look at society in each of our countries,the search for equality is far from finished. History,culture and economics still remain weighted against women. In my own country,most worrying of all is the declining sex ratio of females to males. That this is happening in regions of substantial economic prosperity within the country is even more disturbing. (I should add here,however,that in the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi,young women from these very regions won the most number of medals.)

Among all the challenges facing humankind in the 21st century,few are more pressing than climate change and global warming. Unfortunately,as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has pointed out,most of the climate debate has so far been gender-blind. Yet women have played a special role in raising environmental consciousness. The Chipko movement in the Himalayas in the 1970s,in which village women hugged the trees to protect them from being felled,gave a new meaning and momentum to environmental activism in India.

Enhancing the role of women in protecting the environment is necessary. But what about protecting women themselves? Economic growth is leading to mass migration to cities. Disturbingly,this is being accompanied by growing violence against women. If urbanisation is the world’s future,we must design urban environments and services in ways that will give women greater security,and educate and involve citizens in this cause. A Commonwealth initiative bringing together our great cities to collaborate on this issue would be timely. So these are two areas — climate change and urbanisation — where I hope that the Commonwealth can do more for women…

Like elsewhere in the world,and especially in India,it has not been easy to carve a direct solidarity among women. Their concerns are divided by class,by community,by caste,by culture. But through the 1970s and ‘80s,the women’s movement in India flowered,banding together on issues like dowry and violence,household labour,discriminatory customs,property rights and wages. These campaigns resulted in the enactment of radical new laws.

A visitor to contemporary India will be impressed by the prominence of women in all aspects of life. India’s president is a woman,as are the speaker and the leader of the opposition in the Lower House of Parliament. The chief minister of India’s most populous state is a woman from a section of society subjected to discrimination for centuries. Women are presidents of four of our major political parties. Women are prominent in the judiciary,the higher civil service,the professions,academia,the corporate world,the media and every branch of civil society. At the time of Independence,women accounted for less than 10 per cent of enrolment in higher education — they will soon be on par with men.

And it is not by government action alone that this silent revolution is taking place. Today,women in India are becoming agents of change through their own initiative,their energy and enterprise. Let me give you some examples of where and how women — ordinary poor women — are beginning to make a difference with far-reaching implications for our country as a whole.

Self-help groups

The first is the growth of women’s self-help groups which are changing rural India. Groups of women pool their savings on a regular basis and secure loans for a variety of activities that help them increase their incomes. There are now about five million such groups,averaging 10-15 members each. Last year,they secured bank loans worth more than two billion pounds. By giving poor women access to credit (and I might add,with a repayment record far superior to that of well-heeled borrowers!),these groups are helping to blunt the harsh edges of poverty and destitution. But women are doing more than getting loans. They are actually taking on a variety of functions on behalf of government departments. They are,for instance,buying rice and maize from farmers for sale through fair price shops. They are distributing old age pensions and scholarships. They are managing primary health centres. And in this pub-loving country,it may surprise you to know how successful they have been in forcing the closure of village liquor shops to combat male alcoholism,domestic violence and the drain on household finances.

But there is something even more fundamentally revolutionary about this movement. It cuts across caste divides. It gives women a new voice,a new self-confidence,a new assertiveness. Attending a meeting of these women is an uplifting experience. When once they dared not open their mouths even within the family,let alone voice their concerns before outsiders,they are now vociferous in discussing personal and family problems as well as a whole range of community issues.

Women’s reservation

The second arena where women have emerged as catalysts of change is politics,especially at the local level. In 1993,India amended its Constitution to provide 33 per cent reservation or quota for women in rural and urban local bodies throughout the country. There was cynicism,resentment and even anger – from powerful men,predictably — when the idea was first mooted. No longer. Today,1.2 million elected women representatives,including women from the most deprived and disadvantaged communities,have taken their place alongside men in the councils of rural self-government. Long-established power equations are now changing.

But I am less than happy to admit that at the national level we have not yet been successful. Women’s representation in Parliament has hovered between 9 and 11 per cent,a figure that is considerably lower than in many other democracies. Legislation for a 33 per cent quota in Parliament and state assemblies has been passed by the Upper House. We shall persevere in our efforts to get it approved by the Lower House as well.

Civic Activism

Over the last few years the language of rights has entered the mainstream of political discourse. Thus we now have a right to information,a right to work,a right to education and soon,a right to food security. What is remarkable about the rights debate and how it has progressed is the leading role women have played as its champions and advocates. Thanks to their passion and commitment,governance has become more open and accountable and public policies more caring of the poor.

Environmental activism too is something in which women are prominent. This is not surprising because,in essence,the issue of environment in India is an issue of livelihoods,of public health,of access to forests,of water security.


The fourth arena of impact is enterprise. The most visible may be women who lead some major Indian corporations,businesses and NGOs. But,perhaps even more significant are the unsung majority — who make up over 90 per cent of all working women in what we call the informal or unorganised sector. For years,they enjoyed no pension,health insurance or maternity benefits,something that our government has begun to address.

Collective action by women has taken different forms. Thus,India,once the world’s largest importer of milkfood,is now its largest milk producer. This White Revolution,as we call it,has proceeded in parallel with the Green Revolution. And it is millions of women in thousands of villages who have been the backbone of these milk cooperatives. There are many other instances such as Lijjat,producer of those poppadums so loved by British diners in Indian restaurants here. Founded by seven Gujarati housewives with a capital of about 7 pounds,it now has 42,000 owner-producers with a turnover approaching 70 million pounds…


Finally,technology is proving to be a powerful tool for reducing gender inequalities. In the sunrise IT sector women already comprise close to one-third — a million strong — of its workforce. There is a proliferation of knowledge-based enterprises,run by women in rural areas,such as village information centres and IT kiosks for accessing government services. Their ripple effect is growing…

India is at the cusp of a demographic dividend due to its young and increasingly educated and skilled population. Imagine,what might happen when this demographic dividend is multiplied by a gender dividend…

Excerpts from the 2011 Commonwealth Lecture on ‘Women as Agents of Change’,delivered on March 17 in London. Sonia Gandhi is president of the Congress party

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