Women living in rural India, employed in both skilled and unskilled labour in the hinterlands, have managed to assert their rights and demands through various platforms. They have effectively used environmental concerns, socio-economic advancement, and digital platforms to seek credibility, independence, and competitiveness in their community. Such platforms provide women a means to achieve passive forms of agency which can be translated into an active form of political prowess. With the help of the 72nd constitutional amendment which heralded the beginning of Panchayati Raj, women were granted 1/3rd reservation in local assemblies as well as for the position of sarpanch.
This scheme devolved decision making powers to women to expand the boundaries and meaning of democracy in the hinterlands. This involved providing equal control over the material, human and intellectual resources which allowed women to achieve higher standards of living. However, to attain space in politics, women are required to prove their capacity in other socio-economic arenas and various other knowledge-bound avenues as well.
The first economic policies aimed at uplifting rural women were largely unsuccessful. Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA), a sub-scheme of the Integrated Rural Development Program, was launched in 50 village districts in 1982-83. It enabled women to overcome their inhibitions and become financially independent by helping them open bank accounts, buy assets, and take loans from the bank instead of expensive moneylenders. According to a study released by the National Council for Applied Economic Research Centre for Macro Consumer Research in 2011, interest on loans from moneylenders are highest (44 percent) against 12.6 percent from banks
This model of economic empowerment only had few successes in small pockets of India such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu because the rural credit networks in most areas were poorly understood and not effective. Following these schemes, micro-credit schemes like self-help groups (SHGs) were introduced, which partnered with the local banks in the area. These SHGs are based on the principles of peer-monitoring. In this model, it is acknowledged that the bank may or may not be rooted in the village and therefore each beneficiary is responsible and accountable for the entire group. This scheme was successful since it imparted financial knowledge as well as financial discipline, thereby enabling a significant decrease in payment defaults. As opposed to the earlier schemes, this model encouraged women to take up different economic activities at their own pace since they had access to a dependable source of credit.
While SHGs helped in progressing women towards financial stability, the level of success of such policies was low as compared to the goals achieved by Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, mainly because the latter guarantees 100 days of wage employment. It is a landmark model, which gained prominence in 200 districts in the first phase introduced on February 2nd,2006, and later extended to 130 districts, in 2007-08. Women now have been able to rise to a level where their say in local governance, like the Panchayat is valued. MGNREGA provisions are also sensitive to the needs of working mothers in low-unskilled jobs; establishment of crèches, accountability, and openness in the day-to-day engagements of the workplace and abolition of contractors has also worked in favour of women. This has reduced gender disparities and has also increased the bargaining power of women. There still, however, exists a wide wage gap between rural women and men. This maintains a ‘U-shaped relationship’ between education and women's employment, wherein a poorly educated woman is 'distress-driven' while a better-educated woman has a wider variety of employment opportunities to select from, as well as attractive wages. Mostly, opportunities for paid employment are based on "employer of the last resort.” In such a case, even paid work may not be empowering for women. Through MNREGA, workers have the option of self-selecting their work. The main goal behind the introduction of MNREGA is that it allows social and economic equity and builds self-esteem and confidence. It can also act as a mechanism for many rural women to recognise their aptitude and potentials.
Several environmental research institutes generate employment for rural women. Through the Barefoot college courses in Tilonia, Rajasthan, women not only work as apprentices and interns, they have also become part of the efforts to preserve renewable energy plants in villages. Working on a community basis, an Energy and Environment committee is formed comprising of at least 30 percent women. This committee identifies the poorest households and these men and women undergo 3-6 months of training as Barefoot Solar Engineers. (BSE). The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) introduced the ‘Lighting a Billion Lives’ programme and has made a handful of rural women energy entrepreneurs. This project has impacted 5.65 million lives globally, covered 24 Indian states, 13 countries, and supported 1,130,570+ households all over the world since June 2017. India, as a member of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), has enhanced female participation in Renewal Energy capacities. The next target that India must aim towards is engaging these rural women in specific skill development projects at different levels of Renewable Energy implementation.
Concerning technological advancements and rural digitization, it is believed that new technology may not contribute to female empowerment, and may aggravate gender polarisation and well as the rich-poor divide.
The pressing question remains if digital literacy can be used as a means to decrease the gender gap and gendered mobile technology ownership. As part of an anti-poverty programme conducted in Niger in November 2016 by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) after a drought, unconditional money transfers were made to randomly selected households of 96 villages. One group received cash, another group received online money transfer and the third group received both, cash and m-money. Results showed that there was a 10 percent improvement in the dietary requirements of the children as well as an increase in the cultivation of crops grown by women in areas where money was transferred online. This shows how the bargaining power of women increased in the family, with a simple digital transfer of cash.
A similar initiative was launched by Vodafone India, M-pesa, which was a model adopted from Kenya in 2013. It did not work because it was viewed by Reserve Bank of India as a Banking service rather than a cash transfer system, and because the registration procedure of the application was extremely time-consuming. M-pesa brought financial inclusion to more than 8.4 million people, but experienced backlash after the Vodafone and Idea cellular merger after which both the plans exited from the scheme. However, it paved the way for the emergence of new and even more accessible and innovative applications like PayTm, PayPal, GooglePay, which were extremely efficient in providing flexibility and independent agency to women.
Such digital advancement must be carried out in tandem with digital skilling programs grounded within broader education curricula which will empower women by enabling them to navigate through their finances more efficiently. It will also help them challenge the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms and customs.
A woman who is environmentally aware, financially independent, and digitally articulate will eventually move towards achieving an equal democratic voice in the country's political spectrum. In 2015, a global development consulting firm called Intellecap embarked on a journey of identifying and digitizing specific rural value chains. They aimed to identify the key beneficiaries of this model, women playing a significant role in non-farm related activities, preserving the village ecosystems, and also working as solar-energy entrepreneurs. Such models can go far in trying to generate employment and empowerment while engaging rural women with new technologies.
The author is a Research Intern at the ORF
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