In the word of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “there is no tool for the development more effective than the empowerment of women”. Women empowerment is one of the most ubiquitous discourse all over the world, be it in academia or in common vernacular of the society. The UN Development Program constituted 8 Millennium Development Goals for ensuring equity and peace across the world. The 3rd MDG is directly related to the empowerment of women. In the western societies the women have got equal rights and status with men in all walks of life. But gender disabilities and discrimination are still existing in India. From the historical development of the society, it has been analyzed that the patriarchy which emerges from the societal order has institutionalized the rights of men to control the economic, sexual and reproduction services of women. They lag behind men in all indicators of social and human development such as life expectancy, health, nutritional and educational levels. The incongruous and paradoxical situation in which women find themselves swings from one end where they are revered as goddess and to an extreme end where they are treated as slaves.
In India, after 20th century, it was rise of the national movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi who was in favor of removing all the disabilities of women. At the same time, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and various other social reformers laid stress on women education, banning and outlawing of evil practices such as sati, renewal of polygamy etc. After independence of India, the constitution guaranteed equality of sexes and in fact in some instances granted extra powers for women. Apart from this, the government of India is signatory to various international conventions and human rights instruments committing to secure equal rights to women. These are CEDAW (1993), The Mexico Plan of Action (1975), The Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies (1985) and other such instruments.
The most positive development in the last few years has been the growing involvement of women in the numbers of programs implemented by the Government of India. Some of these flagships programs are Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2006), Integrated Child Development Services (1975), Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (2002), National Rural Health Mission (2013), etc. In this regard, the Modi government has done a commendable job for women empowerment by implementing the schemes which like earlier instances not only remained on paper but were successfully translated at the grass-roots level. Some of these schemes are like Standup India Scheme (2016) where 81% account holders are women; PM Mudra Yojana (2015) where about 70% of the total loan borrowers are women; PM Jan Dhan Yojana (2014) where out of 38.13 crores of total beneficiaries, 20.33 crore beneficiaries are women (which amounts to 53% of the total). Other such schemes that aim to empower the women are Atal Pension Yojana, PM Jeevan Bima Yojana, PM Suraksha Bima Yojana.
While world witnesses the challenge of COVID-19 pandemic, India took the pandemic as a wakeup call and recently Modi government has announced the package of 20 lakh crore to reboot the economic growth of the nation. The economic package has a great relief to the women especially the Self-Help Groups. Women SHGs are joining the frontline in the battle against COVID-19.
The following examples will indicate how a well-supported SHGs framework can be a game-changer. Today, 67 million Indians women are a member of 6 million SHGs. A significant quantity amounting to 19 million masks have been produced by some 20,000 SHGs across 27 Indian states. This is in addition to over 100,000 liters of sanitizer and nearly 50,000 liters of hand wash. In absence of food supply in some areas, SHGs have set up over 10,000 community kitchens across the country. In last Rs.1.76 lakh crore stimulus package announced by the Union Finance Minister to fight COVID-19, one of the announcements was doubling collateral-free loans to women SHGs from Rs.10 lakh to 20 lakh. This will help 63 lakh SHGs covering 7 crore families. The economic package includes direct benefit transfer (DBT) of Rs.500 per month for the next 3 months for almost 20 crore women enrolled in the Jan Dhan Yojana. Poor widows and senior citizens will be given an ex-gratia amount of Rs.1000 for the next three months which is available in the two instalments. As we know on 1st May 2016, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi launched Prime Minister Ujjwala Yojana for the women to ensure clean cooking fuel in their kitchens. The customer paid the cost of the hot plate and purchase of the first refill. Here it is important to notice that the customer had options to take the hot plate on the purchase of first refill or both based on loan from OMCs at zero percent interest and received via EMIs. But after the onslaught of the pandemic, the government has announced that the beneficiaries of Ujjwala Yojana are entitled to get LPG cylinders free for the next 3 months, which is till June 2020.
Thus, what needs to be recognized is that women should be located in the broader centralized system of governance which will enable them to become more and more self-reliant. Together with this upsurge there is another reason for optimism. Many women leaders who have contributed to child education, sanitation issues, raising awareness regarding the pandemic, are also in the process of strengthening the schemes which they are a part of. Thus, the existing schemes and the economic packages announced for women empowerment during COVID 19 is not only a booster, it can rather be seen as opening up of new opportunities for many deprived women in India.