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Holding up half the sky: A working ecosystem for women’s economic freedom must have these components


Illustration: Uday Deb


Economic freedom isn’t only about how much money women earn, it’s about their freedom to choose what they want to do to earn. It’s the control over her money and assets that complete the full cycle of women’s economic freedom.


Women’s economic freedom shouldn’t be confined within the four walls of her family and society; she should get a supportive ecosystem which allows her to dream, plan and execute. Freedom of movement for trainings and jobs; easy access to capital and inputs for businesses and a level playing field in both employment and businesses; maternity benefits and support during pregnancy are some of the key areas that can create a supportive work environment for women.


Having a fine balance among all these is very important. In the absence of one or other supportive factor, they can be disrupted easily. Despite tremendous efforts by the government and provisioning in the budgets, it’s the inefficiency of the system and social action of people that create roadblocks and imbalances. As we will be celebrating 75 years of independence next year, ensuring full economic freedom with a greater balance in the ecosystem is extremely important for utilising the full potential of half of India’s population.


Many women are venturing out into unconventional careers. Some heartening developments in the country truly reveal the power of women’s aspirations. Manya Singh, daughter of an autorickshaw driver, winning a Miss India runner-up crown is one such example. Anchal Gangwal, daughter of a tea seller, becoming an IAF flying pilot on her sixth attempt is another example of perseverance. Annies Kanmani Joy of Kerala fought poverty and cracked UPSC in her second attempt, to become an IAS officer last year.


There are hundreds of such examples testifying to the determination of young women to break into careers of their choice. However, there are equally disappointing stories where women are giving up due to structural and social barriers. As a nation, we have a responsibility of creating a suitable ecosystem that acts as an enabler and facilitator and not as a barrier.


Some of the areas which need immediate attention are as follows. Access to good quality education for girls and their retention in schools and colleges is fundamental. Education justice can certainly lead to economic freedom. According to a report by the National Commission on Protection of Child Rights in 2018, 39.4% girls between age 15-18 drop out of school and college, out of which 65% either get into household chores or are engaged in begging etc.


There are economic factors that lead them to leave education. Schools and colleges need to be more gender friendly. While we have built schools and colleges, many of them don’t have functional female toilets. According to a CAG survey, 40% of toilets constructed by the public sector under ‘Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan’ are either non-existent or can’t be used. The report further stated that the objective of providing separate toilets for boys and girls wasn’t fulfilled in 27% of the schools.


The lack of separate toilets for girls is among the top barriers to girls’ education. At puberty, access to a separate toilet can be the deciding factor for her continuation with education. Similarly, they need access to a water point and a place to dispose of their pads. In absence of all these, girls may miss up to five days of school every month and eventually drop out.


The other area which requires much attention is safety and security of women. According to the NCRB, India recorded 88 rape cases every day in 2019. The report further highlights that the rape vulnerability of a girl or woman has increased up to 44% in the last decade.


It’s unfortunate that even available funds to enhance women’s safety aren’t utilised by state governments. Only about 36% of the ‘Nirbhaya fund’ has been utilised since it was set up in 2013. Due to increasing sexual harassment on the streets and in the workplace, women’s free mobility gets obstructed, impinging on their economic activities.


Even after the serious efforts by the current government under Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojna, women entrepreneurs don’t get easy access to institutional finance. Banks aren’t supportive of giving moderate size loans to women entrepreneurs without collateral. In the index of women entrepreneurs, India ranked 52nd out of 57 countries surveyed in 2019.


An ORF study reveals that the low women entrepreneurship rates are part of a broader gender gap in economic participation and opportunity. The report recommends that women entrepreneurs in India need better access to finance and networks. There’s a need to create branches or exclusive desks headed by women officers within banks, to serve exclusively to the needs of women entrepreneurs of all sizes.


The digital revolution has brought tremendous opportunities for women at all levels. Digital money transactions and facility to hold money digitally is extremely powerful for many women who had to keep money secretly from their husbands. However, some of the digital platforms and transactions can be risky, especially for illiterate and semi-literate women. Considering this, the government should set up a ‘National Women Digital Mission’. This mission can run digital literacy programmes; assist entrepreneurs in showcasing and selling their products; ensure safe digital space for women to name a few functions.


Economic freedom for women entails overcoming all these challenges. A combination of efforts by the government, society and family members could bring dramatic results. As we celebrate the 75th year of our political freedom, it makes complete sense for each and every woman of our nation to expect and enjoy economic freedom.


- Sanjay Kumar, founder of Edjustice and India Country Director of The Mittal Institute, Harvard University.



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