India recently celebrated its 75th year of Independence. The promise of “Amrit Kaal,” a strategic policy shift, envisions India as a developed nation by 2047 by fulfilling the collective aspirations of its citizen, which has brimmed since Independence. A corollary to this promise is the ask of having big resolutions, denouncing varied forms of slavery, embracing the nation’s heritage and legacy in democratic values, and citizen responsibilities, otherwise termed as “Panch Pran” or national promises.
While public offices have reiterated some of these commitments, the inclusion and articulation of slavery in contemporary political dialogue is new or, in fact, making a resurgence in India. Let us deep dive into the second pran – denouncing slave mentality from a woman’s perspective.
The Global Slavery Index (GSI), is most referred to when defining modern slavery. In 2018, India ranked 4th in the GSI out of 167 countries. GSI aims to estimate people’s vulnerability covering varied dimensions of civil and political protection, social health and economic rights, personal security and refugee population and conflict. It integrates these complex factors to suggest a comprehensive estimation of the prevalence of slavery in modern times. However, the index is under much scrutiny given the dynamic nature and functioning of variables and methodological implications.
The current discussion focuses on the lack of economic agency and women’s rights, a key contributor to modern slavery. In India, women are historically excluded from economic engagement. While signs of change are visible, there’s a long way to go regarding equal participation in the workforce.
PLFS 2020-21 suggests that women’s participation in the labour force is almost half in comparison to men. If we track the trajectory for the last ten years, it shows only single-digit traction. Only one woman out of 100 men in the workforce has dignified employment where they earn a regular wage or are salaried workers. More and more women are self-employed as helpers in household enterprises. A significantly higher proportion of women work in the agriculture sector compared to men, out of which almost one-third of women work as agricultural labourers. Social norms tend to limit the choices of women’s lives and livelihoods. Their time and mobility constraints are directly linked to their gendered roles as primary caregivers and household managers, limiting their ability to engage in economic and educational activities.
Efforts to eliminate distinct forms of inequality are being made. These include the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), MGNREGA, Ujjwala Yojana and so on. There is much emphasis on “Nari Shakti” and respect for women, celebrated as a pillar of India’s growth and advocated through these schemes.
NRLM, a gender-inclusive initiative through Self Help Group (SHGs), aims to diversify livelihoods opportunity for women and their empowerment. As the policy indicates, its success lies in the quality of SHGs being promoted, which entails adequate infrastructure, adherence to panch sutras and well-functioning federations. As evidence suggests, its impact is undeniable at the individual level, with greater access to finance, increased household income and so forth.
Another one-of-a-kind scheme in India that recognised gender equality is the MGNREGA. The scheme guarantees 100 days of wage employment with equal pay to men and women in rural India and reserves thirty-three per cent reservation for women workers. The scheme has been instrumental in addressing women’s practical needs and providing them with the opportunity to create individual and community assets.
Schemes such as these provide a robust governance structure and leverage the women’s networks allowing them to make decisions and interact with various bodies like NGOs, Government agencies, Local Self-governments, banks, and the corporate sector.
However, it would mean nothing if all expressions of gender equality, including livelihoods, health, financial statuses, social norm and political will, is not addressed collectively. If there is a need to reduce inequality-induced slavery, the approach needs to be transformative because micro-finance is only an entry point in the context of a broader strategy for women’s socio-political empowerment. For individual economic empowerment to turn into broader changes in women’s inequality, the glass ceilings of market and value chain stakeholders must go. The piecemeal approach may have worked in unveiling and addressing aspects of inequality, but the aspiration now is to bring transformative change over gender representation or inclusivity.
Gender equality is not putting women at the centre of development as an occasional event or a random element. All these schemes are centred around women, where gender norms, roles and inequalities have been “considered”. They “acknowledge” multiple marginalisations women undergo and aim to provide remedial measures. This element of empowerment is almost patronising, with policymakers and implementors deciding the forms of empowerment which should emerge “from women” rather than “for women”.
To tackle multifaceted inequality, these flagships can’t work in silos. Their outlook needs to be grounded in realities.
Create institutions and federation, but only when change lies at the centre of it; change that is multi-dimensional, inclusive, and transformative. Make efforts to understand the choices and agency of women. Define and measure these efforts. This will then be the drive towards eliminating slavery and not only inequality in its latent form. This is the big resolution that the “Amrit Kaal” should strive to achieve.
Kezia Yonzon – Assistant Vice President, Sambodhi
Aishwarya Sivaramakrishnan – Manager, Sambodhi