Limitations in Strategies for Empowerment of Women in India

This note explore the limitations of the strategies for empowerment of women and the need to move towards a more radical approach in this regard. The work of several organizations which follow different approaches to women empowerment informs this note.

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Severe forms of gender discrimination that exist in India are known globally1. Governments and various non-governmental organizations are carrying out various strategies and interventions to address this discrimination and empower women. This note highlights some of the limitations of these strategies and the need to move towards a more radical approach in this regard. The work of several organizations which follow different approaches to women empowerment in India and outside, informs this note.

The context

There are significant differences between men and women in terms of a number of development indicators. Literacy, child mortality, and enrolment in higher grades in school are some of these. However, the most notable manifestation of gender discrimination in the country is its sex ratio. In most developed societies, and in states like Kerala with a higher Human Development Index, the sex ratio is invariably in favour of women. A ratio of 1050 women to 1000 men is very common there. However, there are states in India where the sex ratio is less than 950 women for 1000 men. There are anecdotal and other evidences from different parts of India that such sex ratios unfavourable to women are the product of intentional discrimination against the girl child. Medical developments that enable foetal sex determination have been misused for this purpose.

There is also discrimination in resource allocation within the household. This may manifest in extreme forms even in the allocation of food. However, there is bias in the use of resources for education against girls even among non-poor or well-to-do families. While boys get fee-paying education in distant places, sections of parents are not willing to spend similarly on girls’ education. The conventional marriage and inheritance systems do not grant property rights to the daughters of the family. The absence of such property rights affects the bargaining power in their marital relationships negatively. It forces them to tolerate domestic violence and other harassments. Dowry and the harassments that comes with it, are part of this.

A major reflection of gender discrimination in the current context in India is in the participation in paid employment. The female work participation rate in India (which is less than 30 percent) is one of the lowest in the world. There is also an increasing number of cases of sexual violence and harassment reportedly occurring in public spaces and workplaces. One can view this in two ways. This increase could be partly because these days a greater number of cases are actually being reported in the media, and people are more forthcoming in reporting such cases to police. In the past, only a few of such cases would have reached the media or the law and order machinery. Hence, this increase in the reported incidence of sexual violence against women does not mean that such incidents were rare in the past. It is also possible to see an increase in the actual number of such incidents of sexual violence today. It could be because women were not moving out freely for jobs or other work in the past, and they were protected’ by the families, kinships and communities. (There could be other forms of violence when women were protected’ too much by their families and communities.) And now there an increase in sexual violence in public space as more and more women are coming out (or live outside the home) for different purposes including education. Thus, the challenge for society is to encourage women to go out for education and work on the one hand, and also to see that they are not subjected to sexual harassment.

Though the educational opportunities for women have increased in the recent past (from a position of a very low literacy rate in many states until recently), their participation in the political sphere is very limited. This has created demands for reservation of elected positions for women, which has been implemented already in the case of local governments, whereas adequate political support is yet to be mobilized for women’s reservation in the state legislature and the parliament. Even when women are elected to local governments (as chairpersons) it is not rare (in some parts of India) that they do not come out freely to public spaces, and most of their powers are exercised actually by their husbands or sons. Even in states like Kerala where women are as good as men in terms of educational achievements, their participation in the political sphere and civil society is limited. It is not easy to overcome gender discrimination in the public/​political space, even when women acquire empowerment through education and employment.

Underlying factors determining gender discrimination

For historical and social reasons, women did not have adequate access to assets in India. This was initially land and capital (money) and later, education. Hence, the livelihood and the social security of women are sought within the marital family, and not through income-earning work (which is the way men are supposed to earn their livelihood.) In addition to this, there was also a gender division of work, setting norms on what women should (or should not) do. They were burdened excessively with the household work of taking care of children, housekeeping, and also the care of the aged, and these were not considered work in the traditional sense and are also unpaid. This too has limited their participation in gainful employment.

Thus, marrying girls to a better bridegroom’ became an aspiration. When several girls/​their families seek an alliance with a better bridegroom’, his bidding price goes up. This has led to an increase in dowry payments. Though dowry is legally prohibited, the practice not only exists but is also getting wider acceptance socially (societies which were not practising dowry in the past are also adopting this practice). Therefore, girls whose parents cannot mobilize enough dowry (or are not physically attractive as per the patriarchal notion of femininity) are side-lined in the marriage market. This puts excessive pressure on the parents of a girl child and couples with more than one girl are pitied. Thus, there is a social pressure to avoid a girl child.

Even if the social and economic conditions for sections of society have changed with the education of women, employment, past practices persist. Social and cultural practices are like habits that take a long time to change. Girls may not have access to quality higher education (available in the cities) even if their households provide such an education to the sons. It is not rare to see employed women not having any right over their salary (they are forced to hand it over to their husbands). They may have to face the double burden – carry out the household chores almost single-handedly, and then have to meet the demands of the paid work. The need to take care of children and other family chores may encourage many women to withdraw from paid work. They may be reluctant to move to cities and other places where the employment is available due to the restrictions within the family. It is also not uncommon to see women themselves internalizing the prevailing gender norms against women, perpetuating these norms through the way children are brought up. Hence, even when the economy and society change at a faster pace, certain norms including those guiding gender relations may take much longer to change.

Strategies to minimize the impact of gender discrimination

There are a number of advantages in women having property rights. It was observed that such women have enhanced bargaining power within the marital family. The ownership of a house may make them relatively more empowered to resist domestic violence. The assets and income stream that come to the hands of women may lead to a resource distribution within the family that would enhance family welfare. This is the reason why women are taken as the targeted group when cash transfer schemes are implemented by governments for poverty reduction.
If employment is not viewed as the most important source of livelihood for women, then they would be forced to secure it from marriage. This may reduce their bargaining power in marital relationships, and they would be forced to continue within marriage even if they face domestic violence and other forms of harassments. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, it is this practice of considering marriage as the sole livelihood for women that drives up dowry demands, creating marital strife and perpetuating a social evil.

Employment opportunities for women are growing as part of the growth of the economy and also as part of the globalization/​liberalization policies. There is an argument that liberalization has led to what is called the feminization’ of the workforce. It is partly due to this that there has been a reduction in the rigidity of labour markets (formal and informal rules imposed by the government on what employers can or cannot do with regard to employees), which has encouraged employers to hire more women. Also, the growth of employment in the informal sector too may have facilitated the entry of more women into the workforce. However, the conditions of employment have not improved much here. The lack of adequate measures to help women to carry out their reproductive roles (pregnancy, infant care, etc.,) discourages women from utilizing these employment opportunities. Therefore, creating women-friendly workplaces is needed to encourage women’s work participation.

The literacy rates among girls were significantly lower than that of the males in many states of India nearly 20 years ago. However, this situation has changed since then. Although one can still see such a situation among some social groups. Moreover, barring some states like Kerala, the educational achievements (number of years of schooling, enrolment in higher education) of women in general, is lower than those of men. This may put them in an unfavourable situation in terms of employment and wages. Jobs and income are one way of empowering the position of women (albeit partially) and so special efforts should be made to improve the access to and retention of women in education.

If women have to continue with the task of carrying out the same level of household chores even when they have jobs, there could be a double burden on them. So, there is a need to reduce their burden of household duties. This may require education of boys on the need to share household work. This could be part of a general gender education aimed at both boys and girls. One can see a gradual change in this regard in urban India, but more intentional efforts need to be made in this regard.

Many services carried out within the family like the care of the aged or very young children need to move towards public organizations provided by the government or the market. In the absence of such institutionalized provision of services, these may have to be carried out within the households, and their burden may fall on women given our social and cultural conditioning. Though one can see a gradual process of institutionalization happening in this regard in urban areas, it needs to gain pace.

One more factor that would discourage the participation of women in employment and in public space is the perceived lack of safety. Though there have been some improvements (including stricter enforcement of rules against sexual harassment in workplaces) much more needs to be done. There has to be stricter and quicker enforcement of laws against sexual violence in public and workplaces. Speedier mechanisms of law enforcement (including judicial systems), women-friendly trial process, and so on are important. Women friendly infrastructure – well-lit roads and public places like bus stands, markets, theatres, extensive provision of public toilets, rooms for rest, overnight stay hostels, toll-free emergency numbers to report violence and extensive information about violence redress mechanisms – are also important.

Since women are known to be taking care of children better than men, there is a tendency to consider women as the sole intermediaries of poverty eradication schemes. This would only enhance their work burden (and probably indirectly encourage male members of the family to shun their responsibilities). Therefore, care should be exercised in the design of poverty eradication schemes, and these should not strengthen the gender stereotyping that prevails in society.

A number of government and non-government organizations are trying different strategies to empower women. In general, there are successful efforts to provide literacy to women and education to girls. Girls’ enrolment in schools has gone up in almost all states. Though there is a certain disparity in enrolment in the higher grades of schools or higher education for the girls, there are states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu where almost all girls complete school education and a sizable number of them (comparable with boys) go for one or the other form of higher education. This has contributed to the improvement of human development indicators of females. There are also efforts to address issues, such as the sex ratio of girls. The formation of self-help groups, peer-based lending, and microenterprises are attempted by a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations as a poverty eradication or livelihood strategies. These are necessary and useful to ensure that poorer women have access to a certain level of capital, and basic incomes. There are well-known initiatives of this kind, and the Kudumbashree of Kerala is one among them. There are also attempts to mobilize women who work in the informal sector. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Gujarat is a pioneering effort in this regard. These are laudable initiatives, but we argue that there are certain limitations in these women’s empowerment strategies in the following sections.

Limitations in contemporary efforts to address gender issues in Kerala

Despite the achievements of girls in the domain of education and other human development indicators, the female work participation rate in Kerala is lower and close to the national average. (This is true also for Tamil Nadu, a state which has attempted to address the gender gap in terms of educational attainment, lately). Hence, higher levels of education need not lead to higher participation in employment and economic empowerment of women in the Indian conditions. A significant share of girls, despite being educated, decide not to work and wait to get married and opt to remain housewives to shoulder family responsibilities (including bearing and rearing of children). This could be due to different reasons. They may think that certain jobs which are available (which are not white-collar jobs) may work against the socially accepted notion of femininity and the participation in such work may work against getting, what they consider, a better match in marriage. Parents may not be willing to send their daughters to distant places for taking up work due to concerns regarding safety, and possible relationships with men that may work against arranged marriages. After marriage, girls may be burdened with child-bearing and other household responsibilities, which may work against their taking up the jobs available to them. They may not want to stay away from spouses to take up such employment. The fact that a number of men from Kerala migrate to the Middle East to take up jobs there also increases the burden of women to take care of the household responsibilities, including the care of children and the aged. Adequate institutional facilities for such care are yet to come up in the state and country as a whole. All these factors continue to work against the employment of girls in Kerala.

This non-participation in employment may enhance their vulnerabilities over time. The economic conditions of their life may change within a few years after marriage. The expected role of provisioning to be carried out by the husband may not materialize as expected or the husband’s income alone may become insufficient to meet the family’s expenditure. It is not unusual to see husbands spend a substantial part of their earning, say, on alcohol 2. In certain cases, there could be an increase in domestic violence or the break-up of marriages. All these may enhance the difficulties encountered by women. Either they may be compelled to live in these difficult situations or there could be pressure on them to work and earn. Then, their interest to retain their feminine characteristics may decline, and they may be forced to take up available jobs.

However, by that time, there would be significant obsoleteness in the education and employment-oriented training, if any, that they had acquired before the marriage. The aversion to certain skills to preserve femininity before marriage would also mean that these people would not have got the opportunity to acquire or excel in such skills. Hence, only unskilled work may be available to these women when they desire to come back to work. Here their skills and experience would be as good as those of new entrants. Hence, lower wages. This issue cannot be solved easily even if these women are organized as self-help groups (SHG) with the support from micro-finance organizations. The micro-enterprises promoted by SHG may be populated by many low-productive workers, and these may not be able to expand their scale of operation due to the lack of managerial skills. Even when these women take up paid employment in private enterprises, the jobs that they get would be only those which require no or limited skills. All these affect their incomes. This is not a hypothetical situation in Kerala. Girls who were unwilling to take up available jobs in, say, construction before marriage, may come back to employment 3 – 10 years after marriage, to take up jobs such as rag-picking or waste-collecting. Or they may decide to become part of an SHG-run microenterprise for salaries in the range of Rupees 2000 – 5000 per month<3 in a state where workers who are brought in from other states and engaged in construction or agricultural labour get a wage rate of Rupees 500 – 800 per day4. The low levels of income that they can earn after re-entering the labour market, are not adequate to give them sufficient back-up to defend themselves in the event of harassment or violence in marriage. Hence, a major chunk of micro-enterprises promoted in Kerala for the employment of women (say through Kudumbashree) is not a viable and sustainable way to address the gender issues there. This problem can be set right only through strategies such as:

(a) Encouraging girls and their parents not to consider marriage as the main source of financial and social security;
(b) Encouraging girls to acquire skills and to participate in jobs wherever these are available (and seeing own employment as the main source of their livelihood security);
© Encouraging manufacturing and other kinds of employment within Kerala and encouraging girls to take up jobs in large enterprises (rather than supporting low-productive and economically unviable micro-enterprises).

Limitations in industrial development and mobilization of informal sector women workers in Gujarat

In the Gujarat state, industrial development is taking place at a faster pace compared to the other states. But this does not seem to have helped women from less privileged backgrounds to get into industrial jobs, which may be taken up mainly by men not only from Gujarat but also from the other states of India. The historical under-achievements in education and persistence of gender norms could be the reasons why these women are engaged mostly in home-based production (for the markets) or in informal sector occupations nearer their homes.

This is also a state where a major organization mobilizes more than a million women workers of the informal sector (trade, construction, waste collection, home-based weaving and artisanal jobs, etc.) and attempts to improve their working conditions and creates enterprises where they can be employed. These actions have improved the lives of poor women who are the members of this organization. However, this context also informs the limitations of some of the strategies used to empower women in India.

Despite the industrial development and the laudable work of this organization, this state faces a number of challenges related to human development. It continues to have a significant share of children dropping out at secondary schools. Based on ASER data in 2018, nearly 21 percent of all children are not in grades 9 and 10. Another notable fact is that among these out-of-school children, the majority are girls. Nearly 25 percent of girls are not in 9 and 10 grades, whereas that percentage is only 15 for boys. This shows the persistence of severe gender discrimination working against even the school education of girls. The female work participation rate is also lower in the state like the all-India situation.

Though the organization attempts to mobilize women and creates cooperatives, the income of individual workers continues to be low. For example, it could be less than say 5000 Rupees per worker per month5. However, there are women who are willing to take up such work due to the absence of other employment opportunities, restrictions imposed by family and social norms. The lower incomes can also be due to lower productivity.

The experience from both Kerala and Gujarat indicate a number of important challenges for the empowerment of women. First, there can a faster pace of industrial development within the state, but that may not benefit women if their educational achievements are limited and their occupational choices are constrained by gender norms. Secondly, there can be an improvement in the human development indicators of women (as in Kerala) but that needs to lead to the overall empowerment of women or an enhancement of their freedoms. There is a need for improving educational achievement and industrial development but most importantly, there has to be a conscious effort to dislodge the discriminatory gender norms in the country. This may require different development strategies and one such strategy is mentioned in the following section.

A different strategy

There is an urgent need to increase the FWPR to 50 – 60 percent. The short-term strategy should be to encourage girls to move to the cities and other places. This requires social engineering (advocacy for changing social norms and behaviour) but also specific policy measures. What about the government creating massive and subsidized, safe and cheap residential facilities in cities for girls? There should be a temporary unemployment allowance for these girls while they find employment in the cities. However, the allowance should be designed in such a way that there is a strong encouragement to seek and take up employment that is available. There can be general or specific job-oriented training too, subsidized by the government, and also in places where these workers reside. There should be safe spaces of socialization (including that between boys and girls) in these cities. There has to be an adequate number of government-supported child-care facilities in these workplaces so that childbearing and caring would not discourage girls from participating in work.

Producers can employ these girls (and boys) for different kinds of work. There can be large manufacturing hubs where girls can constitute the majority of workers. There can be newer and less explored employment options for them, like delivery girls for Amazon and Walmart. There can also be other kinds of work for which there is not enough supply despite unemployment. For example, there are not enough trained workers for taking care of the aged. There are also apprehensions on the safety of such work. The intervention by the government (and possibly through known non-government organizations can change the situation). There can (should) be a steady stream of workers for these jobs.

India has also not used adequately the employment opportunities for girls abroad compared to Indonesia, Philippines or Sri Lanka. There can be an enabling approach in this regard with adequate training and enhancement of their capacities. There can be government agencies directly involved in facilitating such migration for work.

Such a strategy can enhance the growth rate of the Indian economy too. The subsidies given to workers (including housing, childcare and short-period unemployment allowance) can be reckoned as public spending to boost the aggregate demand in the economy. This can be more like the rural employment guarantee act (but not to carry out unskilled jobs) for those who have a certain level of education, who seek and take up jobs which require such education.

This approach also incorporates the benefits of supply-side solutions, which are advocated to enhance the growth rate of the economy. Employers can be encouraged to use the supply of this somewhat subsidized labour. (The subsidies can be withdrawn as and when the wages meet reasonable costs). Rather than reducing the corporate taxes, here the strategy is to help the employers with an assured supply of a large number of workers (whose cost is subsidized for a specific period). Almost all subsidies given to the investors can be operated through the supply of workers.

There are other possible benefits to this strategy. The massive supply of educated workers would enhance productivity in the economy, reduce the effective cost of production, and that should encourage producers to make more investments. It can facilitate human and social development. Higher female work participation rate would also mean a higher income in the hands of girls. This should result in a greater interest in having a girl child. More income in the hands of women would mean higher levels of nutrition for the children. When girls move to cities and work, parents may not be under the strong compulsion to pay a higher dowry to fetch a husband. These girls are more likely to find their own partners there, and this can lead to a correction of social norms. It may also increase the probability of inter-caste marriages, which may impact positively, the Indian caste system. When many girls move around in the cities, also at night (after night shifts) public spaces would become relatively safer.

Facilitating the migration of boys and girls from rural areas to industrial and service sector jobs would also encourage the structural change in the economy. This may lead to the much-needed shifting of workers from the agricultural sector. It may (with other additional measures) lead to an increase in the operational size of farm holdings, which can, then, increase labour productivity in agriculture. The long-run step under this approach is to improve the access and quality of education in rural India. This could ensure that girls and boys would acquire at least a basic but quality education before they move to the places where work is available.

The radical approach to women empowerment suggested in this note may not be acceptable to a number of organizations and stakeholders in India and that is noted briefly in the following section.

Possible ideological objections

The conventional liberals in India (including the Nehruvian Socialists), though were for the modernization of the country, were not that willing to unsettle some of the traditional institutions of the country. Or their liberalism manifested in a liberal approach to these institutions. (They were different from the communists in the so-called socialist countries. Their statist policies to provide education and employment to women could address certain, if not all, issues of gender discrimination). The communist parties in India neglected the gender issues for a long time and thought that class-struggle would take care of gender issues somewhat automatically. However, it is becoming clear that their approach to women empowerment is shaped by the patriarchal attitude of the male leaders of the party. Though the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) would be interested in improving certain development outcomes for women, it may not want to question and change the so-called traditional Indian values, since it takes pride and inspiration from these.

Pro-capitalists in India want to build its economy without disturbing its underlying social features (unlike the rulers of East Asia, where there were intentional strategies to bring women to industrial employment). Many activists and a major section of social scientists in India are critics of capitalism, but such a position in India would lead to the conservation of pre-capitalist (and pre-modern) social system, including the norms justifying intense patriarchy. The critics of capitalism are not happy to convert women into industrial workers. However, there is no realization among them that the de-facto option in the absence of economic development and industrial employment for women would be to depend on patriarchal and feudal institutions, including the family. Though they search for alternatives, these may not empower women adequately in the current economic context. An adequate willingness to try out appropriate strategies to empower women would be tried out only when these different stakeholders are willing to reflect critically on their ideological prejudices.


  1. Several articles here have discussed these issues. For example, Schooling and Work Participation of Girls and Engendering Social Transformation Through an Educational Intervention Lessons from the Samata Project

  2. This is much more likely given the fact, as quoted in Nair (2015), that the per-capita consumption of alcohol is four times of that at the all India level.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University