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The ORF Gender Compendium: India’s G20 Presidency and Women-Led Development


Shamika Ravi | Arundhatie Biswas

India, in its G20 Presidency, introduced an addition to the lexicon on women’s empowerment—that of ‘women-led development’—thereby influencing a paradigm shift in gender-based policymaking. This compendium takes stock of women’s lived realities in India and across countries of the G20. While member countries share an optimism fuelled by this very idea of ‘women-led development’, the path forward will require a recalibration of existing institutional and social norms. Challenging the status quo—the task required to implement policies that promote women-led development—is unlikely to be without setbacks. ORF curated this volume to support a global transformation from women’s development to women-led development. With this publication, ORF joins the Indian presidency in calling upon G20 leaders to place women and girls at the helm of its mission—One earth, one family, one future.

The Indian presidency has urged the G20 leaders to uphold their previous commitments as contained in the 2022 Bali Leaders’ Declaration and the 2021 Rome Roadmap. It is also heightening its efforts to drive global progress towards gender equality and equity. Such a commitment encompasses various initiatives, including the formulation of national gender strategies and the systematic monitoring of progress through the collection of gender-disaggregated data in all member nations.

Proactively advocating for countries of the Global South, the Indian presidency is also dedicated to highlighting the concerns of non-member countries in the realm of gender and development. It has identified priority areas for fostering women-led development: mitigating and adapting to climate change; nurturing entrepreneurship; bridging the gender digital divide; promoting grassroots leadership; and promoting education, skill development, and increased participation in the labour market.

Furthermore, the Indian presidency acknowledges the intersectionality of climate change and gender, and strongly advocates for women to play a pivotal role in the pursuit of climate justice. It emphasises the imperative for all climate-related policies to adopt an inclusive and gender-equitable approach. In the W20 Communiqué, released in June 2023, the Indian presidency underscored the importance of ensuring women's full and meaningful engagement in decision-making platforms for climate action, such as the 28th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP28) scheduled to be held later this year. Additionally, it calls for the mainstreaming of gender-responsive policymaking, including those related to countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The presidency also seeks to instil a strong gender orientation in fiscal allocations for climate action, infrastructure development, and financial commitments like the UN Loss and Damage Fund established at COP27 in November 2022.

Fostering women's entrepreneurship can catalyse women-centric development, not just in India but globally. The Indian presidency emphasises that women entrepreneurs wield a vital influence in advancing national economies, fuelling GDP growth, job creation, and the provision of essential goods and services. Acknowledging the multifaceted challenges that impede the establishment and expansion of women-led enterprises, the Indian presidency advocates for policies addressing the persisting legal, regulatory, and societal obstacles, alongside enhancing access to capital and financial services.

The Indian presidency extends its efforts towards broader market access, encompassing public and corporate procurement, supply chain inclusion, and adoption of innovative technologies. These endeavours include those in burgeoning sectors such as space, green, blue, and circular economies. Among the array of targeted policy proposals, the establishment of women-focused business centres emerges as a cornerstone, as it could facilitate the growth and transition of women entrepreneurs from informal to formal status.

Furthermore, concerted effort is underway for institutionalising gender-responsive public procurement programmes across the G20 nations. The initiative includes the formulation of national targets by the year 2030, aiming to align public procurement practices with gender-inclusive objectives.

A crucial obstacle to the progress and advancement of women and girls across geographies is the pronounced gender-based digital divide. The existing disparities in access to and utilisation of digital technologies are exacerbating a spectrum of economic and social challenges facing women and girls. Bridging these gaps can result in substantial benefits, not only for the current generation of women but for future cohorts with unmet need for engaging in productive economic activity and being part of decision-making processes. The Indian presidency is re-energising efforts to mitigate the digital gender gap, aiming to halve it by 2030. This mission involves tackling barriers related to affordability, skills, access, security, and the adoption of digital technologies by women in the G20.

Particular attention should be paid to crafting policies that will prevent the duplication and amplification of gender biases in the domains of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Among others, the W20 Engagement Group recommends the implementation of a minimum 15-percent tax reduction or equivalent incentives tailored for women-led technology startups and female entrepreneurs at the helm of tech-powered enterprises.

Within the spectrum of priority areas, the Indian presidency identifies grassroots leadership by women as a pivotal force driving the realisation of its G20 vision for women-centric development. Empowering women to assume leadership roles and become catalysts for societal transformation remains a critical endeavour. Equally vital is the cultivation of societal acceptance for this transformative paradigm, fostering a climate that actively encourages systemic changes that will help nurture women leaders.

Drawing from India's successful experience over the past three decades, a notable accomplishment emerges in the form of women securing nearly half of all sarpanch (village leader) positions—numbering 250,000—across the country’s massive territory. These local leaders wield influence within the gram panchayat, which constitutes the third tier of India’s democratic set-up and serves as a locus for localised governance decisions and is steered by elected leaders. The ascent of women to these positions is emblematic of their increasing role in guiding pivotal decisions that shape society and the economy.

While policies on reservations and quotas often face resistance due to concerns of insufficiency in candidates, India's trajectory showcases a gradual easing of this constraint in the recent years. Notably, the number of women participating in assembly elections has risen six-fold over four decades. The Indian model, marked by a bottom-up approach to cultivating women's leadership at the grassroots, has emerged as a successful blueprint with far-reaching applicability in other parts of the globe.

Acknowledging education as both a fundamental human right and a vital conduit towards fostering a more harmonious and prosperous society, the Indian presidency seeks to propel the education, skill development, and labour market involvement of women. The indispensable economic contributions of women need to be given due recognition and equitable remuneration, supported by measures that facilitate decent work, the equitable sharing of caregiving responsibilities, the fortification of public social infrastructures, and protection against gender-based violence.

Particular emphasis is placed on upskilling women in emerging sectors and STEM fields. The imperative for improved access to a range of affordable hygiene, health, and nutritional products and services for women and girls is also underscored. India's achievements in reducing maternal mortality over the past two decades hold valuable insights, particularly for nations in the Global South that grapple with persistently high maternal mortality rates.

The Indian presidency has also strived to emphasise the promotion of inclusive research in the realms of health, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals. In pursuit of heightened labour market participation, there is a concerted drive to adopt and enforce anti-violence legislation and workplace safety measures as defined by the ILO Convention 190. Simultaneously, there are efforts to legislate gender pay gap reporting across the public sector, private sector, and publicly traded firms, which could be instrumental in reducing gender-based disparities within the workforce.

A cornerstone of the strategy pertaining to the promotion of women's economic engagement is augmenting funding for a "universal basic care basket." This means standardising, professionalising, and formalising the care economy to build a conducive environment for women's economic participation. Care focuses on childcare, elderly care as well as care for those with disability. Building affordable and high-quality care infrastructures within communities can free-up women’s time and allow them to avail economic opportunities in the labour market.

There needs to be a renewed push to deliver on past UN commitments such as the one by G20 donor countries to provide 0.7 percent of GNI to support global development. The development of care infrastructure across member countries could be a critical component in growing women’s economic participation across the G20 countries. There is also a need to design and implement policies that protect and improve maternity and parental benefits to support equitable care responsibilities. This is an important element in supporting families, and especially women who bear the disproportionate burden of care work, given the rapid pace at which families are nuclearising everywhere.

The ORF Gender Compendium: India's G20 Presidency and Women-Led Development is a collection of insightful essays that examine some of the most critical challenges facing women in the G20. These pieces outline ambitious yet pragmatic visions on women’s development and their role in modern societies. Although all member countries of the G20 have made remarkable gains in the last decade, we are also witnessing increasingly divisive societies where uncertainties pose disadvantages to vulnerable groups including women. Our contributors engage with the landscape of women’s position in today’s world by exploring and reimagining relevant areas of gender scholarship such as entrepreneurship, care economy, climate-smart agriculture, water governance, education, livelihoods, and leadership.

Each chapter in this compendium offers nuanced reflections on the myriad ways women reposition themselves as an integral part of our economy and democracy. Informed by empirical evidence and rigorous research, the essays in this volume hope to ignite conversations and policy action. While they focus primarily on India, they offer wider lessons that pertain to countries of the Global South that are experiencing similar obstacles to advancing the goal of gender equality.

In chapter 2, Sharon Buteau and Diksha Singh take up the case of women’s under-representation in the domain of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).  They find that women entrepreneurs in India play a critical role in advancing economic growth but continue to face massive gendered barriers to making their enterprise thrive. The authors offer an intersectional approach that showcases insights to propose solutions of ‘what works’ to sustainably address credit gaps for women entrepreneurs.

Chetna Gala Sinha and Ashish Desai carry the development narrative forward by discussing how leveraging product innovation can provide rural women entrepreneurs access to capital. Using the case of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank (MDMSB), the authors chronicle the market experience of Cash Credit (CC) loans, an innovative non-group loan product, along with building requisite financial and digital literacy for rural women to effectively manage and overcome barriers to repaying their loans.

An impediment to women’s participation in the economy, and their retention, is the challenge of unpaid care work (UCW).  Mitali Nikore underlines how women continue to bear the greater share of unpaid care work—in India, for example, women spend eight times more of their time on UCW compared to men. The essay offers plausible solutions for recognising, reducing, and redistributing care work.

In their chapter, Renana Jhabvala and Nandini Dey demonstrate the power of women-led collective enterprises. They walk readers through the incredible journey of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) to demonstrate its role in the economic empowerment of India’s rural women. They describe the various forms of collective action needed to enhance women’s bargaining power through cooperative enterprises to allow greater market access by investing in local gender leadership.

Creating opportunities for girls to pursue STEM fields at the primary and secondary levels is equally crucial in nurturing cohorts of women leaders. This is underlined in the essay authored by P. Sivakumar and Niyathi R. Krishna, which finds that despite India’s growing number of women STEM graduates, the gendered ‘leaky pipeline’ remains endemic, preventing women from reaching the top rungs in scientific research. This chapter explores the prospects of innovation and research to encourage alternative, egalitarian narratives of women in leadership positions in STEM.

Another wicked challenge disproportionately impacting women across the globe is the climate crisis, and that is the subject of the contribution from M. Manjula. In her essay, she argues that women agricultural farmers need the requisite skills to adapt their cropping methods to the vagaries of the weather exacerbated by climate change. She calls for the promotion of climate-smart methods to mediate gender gaps in agriculture.

Women also bear the brunt of climate-induced water scarcity, write Ambika Vishwanath and Sanya Saroha in the next chapter. Their analysis illustrates the relevance of the water-gender nexus in overcoming the barriers to water security faced by women in India. It ponders the potential positive outcomes of breaking down such obstacles, including improved health security and economic empowerment for women and girls.

Not leaving the girl child behind in the development roadmap, Shoba Suri, Oommen C Kurian, and Sikim Chakraborty evaluate the state of Madhya Pradesh’s Ladli Laxmi Yojana (LLY) scheme in their essay. LLY provides financial assistance to families raising girl children and aims to prevent the incidence of sex-selective abortion. The authors investigate the LLY intervention using data on some of the most fundamental strands of gender equality such as improving sex ratio, changing mindsets within families leading to greater acceptance of the girl child, and investing in their health and education.

Among other interventions aimed at women’s development, the story of Pashu Sakhis across India is a novel one. At the core of this programme is the training of women as livestock health service providers. Arundhatie Kundal, in the concluding essay, analyses the trickle-down benefits of this alternative community livestock extension approach. She demonstrates the potential of the programme in building women’s entrepreneurship and the creation of social capital for women-led development at the grassroots.

We thank all our authors for their invaluable contribution to this compendium. We hope that these analyses will stimulate thoughtful and invigorating conversations on women-led development, not only across the G20 economies but beyond. We are particularly hopeful that young scholars will find these essays useful and we encourage them to take this work forward in the global pursuit of gender equality and equity.

Read the compendium here.

Prof. Shamika Ravi is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India and Secretary, Government of India.

Arundhatie Biswas Ph.D is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Arundhatie Biswas

Arundhatie Biswas

Arundhatie Biswas, Ph.D is Senior Fellow at ORF. Her research traverses through multi-disciplinary research in international development with strong emphasis on the transformative approaches to ...

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