The last decade saw the barriers holding women back became less burdensome.
We saw the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. We witnessed better representation of women in political and corporate stages. We also heard women’s voices rise up in a global chorus, demanding equal rights and choices.
But these developments, however necessary and desirable, have largely remained confined to urban contexts.
On almost every measure of development, rural women fare worse than rural men or urban women.
Rural women continue to be subjected to stereotypical biases based on cultural beliefs. This, along with the imposition of patriarchal and orthodox boundaries on their choices, create barriers to gender equality.
According to 2017-18 data published by the Indian government’s National Sample Survey Office, more than 70% of rural women workers are engaged in agricultural work. In contrast to their high participation, women own 13.9% of landholdings, the agricultural census of 2015-16 found. Additionally, they often have limited access to resources such as fertilizer credit, and training, and spend more time on unpaid work than rural men and urban men and women.
This disparity is visible in other areas as well. For instance, the 2019 report on Men and Women in India, published by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation highlights that a rural woman earns only INR 179 in daily wages as a casual laborer in contrast to INR 282 earned by her male counterpart.
The gendered limitations imposed on rural women threaten to destroy their productivity and incomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic too has had a huge impact on women’s work. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) suggest that job losses in April 2020, as compared to April 2019, were larger for rural women than men.
The government of India have a few initiatives in place, set to empower rural women and enhance opportunities for them. Flagship programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and its components such as the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP), aim to increase women’s participation in agriculture and infrastructure and strengthen community institutions for rural women.
Several non-government organizations (NGOs) and Community Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives have also come forward to extend resources and services to the hardest-to-reach rural women. For instance, Google’s Internet Saathi enables internet-savvy women on bicycles to travel to nearby villages with tables and smartphones to improve their access to the internet. So far, they have reached more than 300,000 women in 18,500 villages.
But before we have more reforms and more interventions and innovations, we need more data on rural women. Looking ahead, policy-makers need gender-sensitive data on the lives of rural women to take action and generate the political will to make change.
Currently, we measure the poverty of households, not individuals, but the reality is that women and men living under the same roof experience deprivation to different degrees. The persistence of these disparities helps to embellish an image of the rural woman as a victim instead of an agent of change. With the right resources and policy action, rural women could excel as entrepreneurs, investors, and partners with men.
It is estimated that if women farmers had access to the same resources as men, there could be 150 million fewer hungry people through the rise in output.
Governments and international organizations must adopt gender-sensitive metrics which measures individuals on multiple dimensions beyond money, including access to food, clothing, family planning, and freedom from violence. This would help collect more relevant evidence and data to design programmes and policies that are better oriented to serve rural women.
The issue of empowering rural women is not just a challenge, it is also an opportunity, one we must act on quickly.
Anubrata Basu – Senior Manager – Research & Communications, Sambodhi