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In an ashram perched high on a hill above the city of Guwahati is a small exhibit commemorating the life of India’s most famous son. Alongside a bed  where Mahatma Gandhi himself  slept is a display reminding visitors of something the man himself said in 1921: “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex).”

The 21st century poses many challenges that require new ways of thinking, but none is more important than the economic role of women in a rapidly changing world. Over the last several decades, it has become accepted wisdom that improving the status of women is one of the most critical levers for addressing poverty. A series of studies have found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently, children are healthier. Societies that invest in and empower women are on a virtuous cycle. They become richer, more stable, better governed, and less prone to violence.

Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. A nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy. .It is just plain logic. The human race is like a bird and it needs both wings to be able to fly. And, if one of its wings is clipped we’re never going to be able to fly as high. .  

Girls are often valued less than boys: when families fall on hard times, girls are often the first ones to be pulled from school to dedicate their time to wage-earning activities and are fed less frequently. Whether or not they are able to attend school, they are also burdened with household chores and have little or no time to spend with peers, leaving them isolated and overworked.

In India, for example, girls are less likely to be vaccinated than boys and are taken to the hospital only when they are sicker. A result is that girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys their age. By improving girls’ and women’s access to resources―land, water, sanitation, and clean energy ― we can  make them healthier, wealthier, safer, and better educated.  .it has been found that aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy makers do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return.

in The Argumentative Indian Amartya Sen mentions six prevailing inequalities in the realm of gender: (1) survival inequality as seen in the adverse female-male ratio against the biological reality; (2) natality inequality sex-specific abortion); (3) ownership inequality; (4) unequal facilities in education, healthcare; (5) unequal sharing of household benefits and division of labour within the household; and (6) domestic violence and victimisation.

In 2015, world leaders put gender equality and empowerment of girls and women squarely at the top of international and development agendas. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed upon by world leaders, raised global ambition levels and added fuel to the momentum that has been building over the last decade to achieve major improvements for people and planet, and not least the world’s women. This is seen not only as important in its own right, but also as an essential ingredient to eradicate poverty.

The general perception has been that gender mainstreaming is not seen as a priority of humanitarian response. It becomes an add-on, not a primary concern. When, in reality, it should be an essential component of social programmes. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her life is unacceptable, but all too common. Improvement in access to quality education for girls can boost their future income, save mothers’ and children’s lives, reduce rates of child malnutrition, and reduce overall poverty levels. For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: If we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women.

Discrimination against women and girls is a long-running and pervasive phenomenon in Indian society at every level. India’s progress towards gender equality, measured by its position on rankings such as the Gender Development Index has been disappointing, despite fairly rapid rates of economic growth. A culturally ingrained parental preference for sons – emanating from their importance as caregivers in old age – is linked to poorer consequences for daughters.

One unique policy experiment in village level governance that mandated one third representation for women in positions of local leadership has shown promising results. While increasing representation of women in the public spheres is important and can potentially be attained through some form of affirmative action and an attitudinal shift, it is essential for women to be considered as equal within their homes and in broader society.

But the path to achieving gender parity is not an easy one.To make women empowerment sustainable we have to move beyond   programmes that are exclusively focused on women and involve the men as they are a critical piece in the empowerment ecosystem. We often talk of the need for men to alter themselves so that women can be better off and even try to sensitize them to the gender needs of their weaker halves. However, we rarely offer them concrete support to handle issues of patriarchy and masculinity head on so that they become their ideal selves. The fact is that if we want that ecosystem of power around women to change, we need to help men to be happy, healthy and supportive partners to women.

Female empowerment programmes  must have a cultural sensitisaton lens for local men and traditional leaders, Policy engagement must be part of a transformative approach to ensure that positive changes on the ground are embodied in policy frameworks for scaling them   so that they are sustainable in the long run.Investments have to be boosted in labour-saving technologies such as fuel-efficient stoves and processing machines   to free up women’s time.

The development language has become saturated with paternalistic overtones. Our gender discourse instructs us that   women are meant to be pitied; they are not seen as drivers of human history. They are seen as reproductive, not generative—merely reproducing the world but not making new worlds. Arthur Rimbaud called a good poet a “thief of fire.” That is a lovely phrase and people who have shepherded the most successful d4velment programmes in small communities would like to use this lovely phrase for women.

Empowerment has many dimensions–social, economic, cultural, political and personal. When every part is treasured, the good unleashed is greatest. Men may fret that they lose when women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances. .This lesson is best embodied in the words of Nirmala, a self help group member for well over two decades and the current sarpanch of Wanoja in Central India, which she keeps repeating whenever I visit her: “My father always believed that it would have been far better if I were born a son. But today he   realizes how lucky he is to have me as a daughter.”

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com

 

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