India is a developing country, where the population comprises 50% women. There are sharp gender inequalities. They get unequal pay for equal work. There is a discrimination in the labour market. These are grim realities. Harsh statistics stares us in the face. 70% of the Indian women are illiterate. 90% of family planning operations are tubectomies, which terminate the female child. 60% of primary school dropouts are girls.
The United Nations had adopted 1994 as the year of the family with an emphasis that the family is the smallest democracy at the heart of the society. But on the other hand the Human Development Report 1993 had said, “No country treats its women as well as its men”. Can the India of the next millennium afford to stand on only one of its legs? A woman has to be allowed the full expression of her potential and she has to be empowered to become a dynamic partner in the building of the new India of our dreams.
Several actions need to be taken, if this has to happen. For example, the state has brought forth several pieces of legislation to curb the oppression of women, Child Marriage Restraint Act, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, the Widow Remarriage Act, etc. However, these acts have not become acts of faith, and they cannot, until the mindset of our strongly patriarchal society changes fundamentally.
The question is what can we do to give support to those women, who are destitutes, who are illiterate? Can we do something, which will add value to their life? The answer is, yes, most certainly we can, provided we have new social innovation movements in India. I will like to describe two such movements, which are close to my heart, and which have made a difference.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is one such movement. It is now bigger than the wildest dreams of its founder from Ahmedabad, namely, Ela Bhat. She was a lawyer, who turned into a labour leader. SEWA was registered in 1975 to safeguard the interests of improverished self-employed women. They were slum-dwelling weavers, cigarette rollers, vendors, waste-paper pickers and construction workers. Today, it has over two lakh members covering Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala and Delhi.
Through their organization, SEWA members have successfully negotiated with the employers to get health, death and maternity benefits, set up 71 cooperatives of various trades to share expertise, develop new designs and techniques. Each cooperative has an average of 1000 members.
Most importantly, SEWA in 1974 established a micro-financing bank that now has 70,000 accounts. This has rescued thousands of women from money lenders and pawn-brokers, allowing them to accumulate land, assets and means of production. The repayment rate on its loan is an impressive 96 per cent. SEWA has shown that self help works.
There is another example that is also close to my heart. On a sultry, mid-March day in 1959, seven women from poor families gathered on the terrace of an old building in Mumbai’s Girgaum locality and held a little ceremony. It marked the production of packets of papads and a firm resolve to continue production-on a borrowed sum of Rs.80.
Today, the Bandra-based Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjit Papad is an operation with 60 centres countrywide involving 40,000 women and annual sales of over Rs. 300 crore. The cooperative has paved the way for margianalised women brutalized by poverty and domestic problems to built a life for themselves and their children with a simple motto : self-help.
It is said that God helps those, who help themselves. Self-help is the key, whether you are literate or illiterate, a man or a woman. Hundreds of movements like SEWA and Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjit Papad are required in India. All that it requires is a strong sense of compassion for the downtrodden and commitment to social innovation. Such movements will bring a joy and smile to those unfortunate. Indian women, who have been deprived of the bare necessities of life. We will then have a more equitable India.