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'Empower them through work'

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On the 35th anniversary of International Women's Day, founder of India's 1.2 million-strong SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) Ela Bhatt reflects in Outlook India on the obstacles that remain to women's equality.


'Our country rightly is proud of its democracy and its diversity. We must make sure that everyone has the chance to succeed, whatever their caste, gender or background.'

India is undergoing enormous change. In a very short time, many Indians have become much richer, and our country is now often described as a “world player” economically and politically. Despite this transformation, our rich history, culture and traditions rightly remain important. Indeed, our success rests on this potent combination of the old and the new.

We have, however, to be realistic. These traditions are also used to justify out-dated and unfair practices which feed inequality and trap many millions in poverty. Women and girls in particular find themselves excluded from opportunities, with the poorest terribly vulnerable to exploitation, neglect and abuse. Women’s work is denied recognition or proper pay. They face enormous obstacles in having their voices heard and in claiming rights and freedoms that are enshrined in our constitution and laws but denied in practice.

In some cases, this prejudice is open but in many cases it is subtle - although no less damaging. What it means, however, is that Gandhi’s plea for equality between women and men is being ignored at great cost. Any girl denied the chance to fulfil her potential and any woman exploited and repressed by unscrupulous moneylenders, landlords, traders or even their families is a loss to our country.

Inequality between the sexes occurs not just here in India but all around the world. In every continent, girls and women face barriers in their daily lives which simply don’t exist for men. Tradition, culture and religion are often the underlying justification for this discrimination. This is not just unfair but stifles our future prosperity.

This is why The Elders, a group of leaders from around the world, brought together by Nelson Mandela, have called for community and religious leaders to join them in speaking out against prejudice. I am honoured to have been asked to join their number and want to share some experiences from my own country.

These are things I have learned from three decades of struggle with SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India – a labour union for women workers in the informal sector. These millions of women earn meagre incomes producing goods in their homes, picking and recycling rubbish, working as agricultural labourers, small farmers, construction workers, street vendors and hawkers. Bereft of a voice, they have remained invisible to most of my middle class compatriots and are vulnerable to exploitation and neglect. It is sadly clear how bigotry, dressed up as culture or tradition, helps maintain this unfairness. But it is clear as well the enormous benefits to entire families and communities when women are helped to exercise their skills and talents fairly.

In 30 years with SEWA, I have seen again and again the extraordinary qualities and resilience of these women, whose labour sustains us all. They work incredibly hard. They are as clever and quick as any man in business, dealing with money and making each paise and rupee count.

SEWA has played its role in helping to empower them through work. From tiny beginnings, organising women workers into a union, SEWA has grown into an organisation of 1.2 million members in nine states across India with an impact both at community and national level. By banding together, millions of poor Indian women have managed to improve their bargaining power, produce and market their goods collectively and get access to credit at fairer rates.

For the first time, they have the chance to put money aside, invest in their business, better housing and education for their children. But the impact of financial independence goes far beyond putting more food on the table or securing shelter at night. I have watched them also nurture their communities, stand together in a crisis and learn to speak with confidence. They say their husbands value them more and no longer treat them as inferior. Violence in the family decreases. Decisions are shared and women’s influence rises, not only in the family but through the community. Mothers can insist their daughters receive the education they were denied and they actively take part in helping their own communities reach the right decisions on the future because they, at last, have a voice.

None of this would have surprised Gandhi. He strongly believed in women’s equality and saw women as natural leaders in the fight for justice and equitable social change. He would have approved of the way women in India are coming together to lift the barriers blocking their progress in a determined but non-violent way.

But as long as women’s status is lower than men’s and boys are valued above girls, poverty will remain a reality in our country and across the world. We have to rid our society of the view that to be female is to be a second-class citizen, no matter how deep the roots of this belief.

Many of our politicians would still rather ignore the informal sector and the women who form its backbone. They do so at our peril. India’s population is young and their aspirations are high. Making the most of all the talent in this country is essential if we are to satisfy the hopes needs of this growing, young population.

Today, we come together to celebrate the special contribution that women make to our world. This 35th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on women’s progress and the obstacles that remain to equality. Our country rightly is proud of its democracy and its diversity. We must make sure that everyone has the chance to succeed, whatever their caste, gender or background. It is the only way to fulfil our ambitions and Gandhi’s vision for our country and our world.

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