Strategy for empowerment


An in-depth look at what 'women's empowerment' means to different people and how it is linked with development. We also consider the key areas of inequality between women and men, and strategies for achieving women's empowerment.

This backgrounder briefly discusses:


What is 'women's empowerment'?

The term ‘women’s empowerment’ means many things to many people, depending on their ideological position and their preconceived notions about a woman’s role in society. For example, though right-wing politicians also now speak about women’s empowerment, they clearly state that it should not be at the “cost” of women fulfilling their role as mothers.

As this example shows, an understanding of ‘women’s empowerment’ is clouded by the inability to differentiate between sex and gender roles. Sex or biological roles mark the fundamental differences between women and men. Gender or social roles are extremely variable and are determined by social, economic, political and cultural forces.

The boundary between these determinants is the subject of much debate. What can be said with certainty is that gender roles are not fixed. They vary across the world, within countries, and within castes and classes. In other words, gender roles can be changed.

If one accepts this position and the principle that gender roles must be changed to ensure equality and equity to women, the term ‘women’s empowerment’ becomes easier to understand -- it means women acquiring the power to think and act freely, so that they can exercise choice and fulfil their potential as full and equal members of society.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) includes the following factors in its definition of women’s empowerment:

  • Acquiring knowledge and understanding of gender relations and the ways in which these relations may be changed.
  • Developing a sense of self-worth, a belief in one’s ability to secure desired changes and the right to control one’s life.
  • Gaining the ability to generate choices and exercise bargaining power.
  • Developing the ability to organise and influence the direction of social change, to create a more just social and economic order.

The link between women’s empowerment and overall development

Women’s empowerment has to be a core part of any development strategy as, apart from being denied equal status, women bear the brunt of poverty in poor societies. In many, if not most rural poor families in India, women do more physical labour than men, eat less, have less access to health and education facilities, get less wages, and bear the major part of the responsibility of bringing up children and looking after the family. This enormous contribution goes largely unrecognised. Women are even denied a role in household (let alone village) decision-making.

Empowering women is thus clearly a basic human rights issue. It is also an issue linked closely to reducing poverty. There is a large body of evidence to show that empowerment of women leads to better progress in poverty reduction. For example, the Planning Commission’s National Human Development Report 2001 notes that many positive developments in Himachal Pradesh can be linked to 'self-empowerment of women'.

The Himachal Pradesh example

Himachal Pradesh is second only to Kerala in terms of school participation in the younger age-groups and the participation rate for girls is almost as high as it is for boys. Further, as the state has a hill economy with relatively better scope for labour absorption, and a horticulture base that requires ‘delicate labour’, the state has a higher percentage of female labour participation.

High female labour participation has had several positive influences:

  • Reduction in female discrimination within the family.
  • Greater participation in decision-making at the household and village levels.
  • Increase in the marriage age for girls.

There is a cycle at work here. Higher levels of female education and work participation have encouraged women to take up a variety of jobs including teaching. The proportion of female teachers in Himachal Pradesh at the primary level is above 40% - much higher than in other north Indian states.

The high proportion of female teachers encourages higher female school enrolment, which, in turn, creates the ground for a number of positive changes:

  • Women with basic education are more likely to have smaller, healthier families.
  • They are more likely to work their way out of poverty.
  • They are more likely to send their own children to school.

However, getting more girls to go to school is not enough. Inequalities between women and men are deeply rooted and have to be tackled across all spheres of life - economic, political, social and cultural.


Key areas of inequality between women and men

Inequalities between men and women manifest themselves in all areas of development. Inequalities are obvious in:

  • Human development - health and education
  • Economic development
  • Violence against women
  • Participation in public life and policymaking
  • Social attitudes and gender stereotyping

Human development: health

Discrimination against women in India starts early and is evident in the skewed sex ratio of 933 women to 1,000 men (world average: 990:1,000). This is an improvement over 1991 figures of 927:1,000. However, the juvenile sex ratio (0-6 years) has declined in the same period from 945 to 927. This is attributed to the cultural bias in favour of male children, which results in the abortion of female foetuses. New technology, which has even reached the villages, allows early detection of the sex of the foetus. Infanticide adds to the declining sex ratio.

Other causes are the social neglect of women and girls, manifested in less access to nutrition and healthcare, and in high maternal mortality.

Maternal mortality in India is the second highest in the world, at 385-487 per 100,000 live births. Close to 125,000 women die due to pregnancy and pregnancy-related illnesses every year. Antenatal services are poor, with only 53.8% of pregnant women receiving tetanus-toxide injections. As many as 58% of Indian women reduce food intake during pregnancy instead of increasing it, and 80% are anaemic.

In rural areas, 60% of girls are married before the age of 18, and 60% of married girls bear children before they are 19. Almost one-third of babies are born with low birth weight because of poverty, early marriage, malnutrition and lack of healthcare during pregnancy.

Women are more at risk from communicable diseases. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age, followed by burns and suicide. Healthcare has become more expensive as a result of greater privatisation and the fall in government spending on health from 1.26% of GDP in 1989-90 to 1.12% in 1995-96. Women, whose health is not a priority, suffer the most when health costs go up.

Human development: education

Around 245 million Indian women cannot read or write -- the world’s largest number of unlettered women. Female literacy is 54.16, and there are wide disparities within states.

Enrolment and retention of girls in education is poor -- average years of schooling for girls is only 1.2 years as against 3.5 years for boys. Girls miss school because they have to look after siblings.

Economic development

Official data does not reflect the amount of work that women actually do to enable their families to survive -- collecting fuel, fodder or water, keeping poultry, working on family land. Women also work in home-based industries, bidi and agarbatti-rolling, bangle-making, weaving, etc. They get no social security benefits and are paid a pittance for this informal work. The census does not accurately identify such activities as work. One-third of agricultural workers are women. On average, their wages are 30% lower than men’s wages.

Women find it difficult to get credit from banking institutions because they are often unable to provide collateral. They get much smaller loan amounts even though their repayment record is much better than that of men.

Women’s right to land and other assets is weak. Though legislation has been introduced to ensure that women share equally in ancestral property, enforcing such rights in a patriarchal society requires resources that poor women may not have.
Crimes against women
Crimes against women have been increasing. Between 1990 and 1996, crimes against women grew by 56%. Women face violence both inside and outside the home. The extent of trafficking in women is unknown, but it is estimated that there are 100,000 women and girls in prostitution in the six metros. Fifteen per cent of them are girls under 15 years of age.

Participation in public life and policymaking

Women occupy high positions in politics with many states having women chief ministers and heads of political parties. But women’s representation in Parliament and state legislatures has never been more than 10%. More importantly, the opinion of women is hardly taken into account during policymaking. There is also much debate about whether women in power work to ensure gender equality or merely reflect existing patriarchal positions.

Social attitudes and gender stereotyping

Social attitudes are deeply embedded in history, culture and religion, which have tended to discriminate against women. The roles of rural and urban women continue to be defined by patriarchal structures. This keeps poor women illiterate, confines them to their homes, pushes them into early marriage, and denies them a voice in decision-making.

A broad-based, indicative strategy for women’s empowerment

To tackle the above areas of inequality, the Department for International Development (DFID) of the UK government has outlined 10 objectives for women’s empowerment and a plan of action to achieve each objective.

The DFID strategy reflects a donor's perspective, but it could be used as a starting point for preparing a strategy at a national, regional, local or CSO (civil society organisation) level, with priorities based on regional and local situations.

Objective 1: Advocacy to protect gender equality through international and national policy reform

Action steps:

  • Develop and implement equal opportunity policies.
  • Develop new tools for better analysis and statistics of national and international policymaking.

Objective 2: Greater access to assets and economic opportunities for women

Action steps:

  • Improved access to financial institutions for women.
  • Improved access to water, energy, sanitation, transport.
  • Reform of land and inheritance laws.
  • Adherence to core labour standards.
  • Development of family-friendly practices.

Objective 3: More equality for women in human development areas such as education and healthcare

Action steps:

  • Remove gender barriers to education.
  • Policies/programmes to bring down maternal mortality and increase access to reproductive services.
  • Improve the national statistics system to provide sex-disaggregated data across all key social indicators.

Objective 4: More participation of women in decision-making and leadership roles

Action steps:

  • Capacity-building and other support to women’s organisations.
  • Electoral and other reforms to increase women’s participation in public life.
  • Public awareness campaigns to challenge gender stereotypes.

Objective 5: Increase women’s personal security and reduce violence against women

Action steps:

  • Reform and strengthen criminal and civil law.
  • Raise awareness of women’s rights among the police and judiciary.
  • Public information campaigns.
  • Support to women’s organisations.
  • Improved knowledge and statistics.

Objective 6: Advocacy to promote women’s participation in government and civil society

Action steps:

  • Civil service and public spending reforms to establish and support appropriate government structures.
  • Strengthening the role of civil society organisations in advancing gender equality.
  • Public awareness campaigns.

Objective 7: Promote equality of women under the law

Action steps:

  • Reform and strengthen criminal and civil law.
  • Support to legal literacy programmes.
  • Training and capacity-building for the police, judiciary and civil society organisations.
  • Public information campaigns.

Objective 8: Reduce gender stereotyping and bring about changes in social attitudes towards women

Action steps:

  • Support to media projects and campaigns, including gender training for journalists and programme-makers.
  • Support to women’s organisations.
  • Create awareness among policymakers and political leaders.

Objective 9: Gender-aware approaches to management of the environment

Action steps:

  • Gender-aware planning and women’s participation in the development of strategies for sustainable development.
  • Strengthen tenure and common property rights in line with gender equity.
  • Ensure that local planning and access to natural resources are gender-aware.
  • Improved data and research.

Objective 10: Uphold the rights of boys and girls in the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Action steps:

  • Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • Improved data, research and statistics.
  • Support programmes to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.

Indicators for measuring progress

One way of measuring progress in meeting the above goals is using the International Development Targets set by the United Nations to reduce poverty. Within each target there are indicators that measure whether the targets have been met. Indicators that can be used are:

  • Child malnutrition; prevalence of underweight children in the 0-5 age-group (by sex).
  • Net enrolment in primary education (by sex); completion of education up to Std 4 (by sex); literacy rate of 15-24-year-olds (by sex).
  • Ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education; ratio of literate females to males among 15-24-year-olds.
  • Infant mortality rate by sex; under-5 mortality rate (by sex).
  • Maternal mortality ratio; births attended by skilled health professionals.
  • Contraceptive prevalence rate and HIV prevalence in 15-24-year-old pregnant women.

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