“The awkward fit of theory to actuality is most vivid for poor women in poor economies. These women may depend on others, but lack the supposed securities of dependence. They are impoverished, but are often providers. They are powerless, yet others who are yet more vulnerable depend on them for protection. Their vulnerability reflects heavy demands as much as slender resources.”
— Philosopher Onora O’Neill
Concerns about inequality and injustice women face in various societies don’t require a league consisting only of economists and policy-analysts. Both historically and contemporarily, philosophers and literary figures world over have reaffirmed their interest through their characters in these overwhelming problems. I will like to initiate this article by bringing into picture two characters: Sissy Jupe from Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times and Vasilisa Arsenyeva from Salman Rushdie’s novel The Golden House. One may wonder what these novelists writing in different centuries have to do with women and a just society. Both Dickens and Rushdie in their own way handled hard facts of life with an unfailing appeal to their readers.
Mr M’Choakumchild was exploring Sissy’s knowledge about national prosperity. “Now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this prosperous nation, and a’n’t you in a thriving state?” Sissy pleaded ignorance but nevertheless explained her ignorance. She said she could not answer the question unless she knew, “Who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine.” Obviously Sissy Jupe, not happy with sad affairs of distributive justice chose to lament it.
Rushdie, in V Arsenyeva, finds a different version of a woman. Rushdie captured her emotions while she delivered a monologue on poverty, love and need. Let me quote from her monologue. “Please. I require no sympathy regarding the poverty of my origin… Poverty is a disgusting condition and to fail to emerge from it is also disgusting. Fortunately I excelled at all things both physical and mental and so I have been able to come to America… I know my presence here is the fruit of my own labour... The past is a broken cardboard suitcase full of photographs of things I no longer wish to see. I am the general of myself and my body is the foot soldier that obeys what the general commands.”
The two characters share some commonalities. First both are women: one a young school-going girl and the second V Arsenyeva; a relatively older Russian girl with origin in Siberia, and living in America. Next both concern themselves with resources: their distribution and empowerment. Both characters, through their outpourings, set the ball rolling: an emotive story of real agony and anguish of a little girl who would be a woman a few years later and a young woman who was a little girl a few years earlier. Sissy for her age was quite wise; poverty taught her wisdom from very early stage of childhood; it gave her farsightedness early in life. She could distinguish between finer nuisances of micro and macroeconomics and had no qualms in believing macro affluence did not suo motu convert itself into micro affluence and socio-economic comfort. The monologue of V Arsenyeva is a reflection on overcoming paucity of resources and ignorance by dint of “great self-discipline” and the acquired ability to “build a house” so that “one can live in it (this being an example).” Sissy lamented lack of empowerment, Arsenyeva believed in self-determination and relentless pursuance of her dreams.
Both these women used their experiences to remind the world it fell short of being completely just. History bears us out the world has always fallen short of being completely just particularly when it comes to women. The exclusion of women outside the realm of opportunity to partner in building prosperous societies and economies is denial of a just society to them and others too.
Much work both in theory and practice has been done for exploring the methods to improve the lot of the weak, the exploited and the marginalised. Looking at the recent history of empowerment, a conference that took place at World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki in 1988 to deliberate upon issues like what is meant by “quality of life”, and the requirements in terms of socio-economic policy for improving and ultimately achieving it thereby empowering the deprived ones, started a lively discussion on way ahead. Helsinki conference unequivocally stressed on the need to assess a number of distinct areas of human life in determining how well people are doing rather than measuring quality of life by hinging on single index of per capita national income.
From Helsinki conference the world travelled through Millennium Development Goals and reached in 2015 more comprehensive and inclusive Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 5 of Sustainable Development Goals 2015 aims to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women in the public and private spheres and to undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources and access to ownership of property. Descent work, equal access to education, and representation in political and economic decision making processes are the rights women must enjoy. Investment in the empowerment of women results not only in making progress on Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals but also in fuelling sustainable economic development. Let us have a look at Indian scenario.
On August 14, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru reminded the nation about the task ahead i.e. “…the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.” But unfortunately for close to six decades (which indeed is a long period) the tasks identified by Nehru remained largely unaccomplished with not much success. Many countries like Cuba, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Costa Rica, etc, following different growth strategies could achieve huge reduction in human deprivation and inequality. In these countries much stress was laid particularly on expansion of basic education and health care. India’s performance was certainly not worth bragging about and not very enthusing in the field of opportunities for women and their empowerment. When it comes to women, where does the problem lie particularly in traditional societies like ours?
Julia Annas, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University, in an essay titled “Women and the Quality of Life: Two Norms or One?” tries to answer above question by analysing the existence of “two actual norms for human life”. She gives examples from traditional societies where certain practices have withheld benefits accruing to women. For example, unfortunately it is still believed that resources should not be “wasted” on educating daughters. The reason adduced for this as cited by Annas is “…the women in the traditional society, with their domestic futures, don’t desire education.” Annas further gives similar examples like, to quote Annas, “…women may justly be kept from participation in public life because they are more self-centered and less capable of impartial thought than men.” This example shows how such reasons adduced result in various assertions of differences between men’s and women’s natures. Annas ridicules this reasoning and asserts that “superficial desires” as compared to “informed desires” where all positive aspects of education are known to women must recede and thus women will show desire for education. What the learned philosopher means is, “…injustice results from the existence of two norms,” and harps on mitigating superficial desires “resting on an unreflective view of their circumstances.”
Even now it has been a known practice in many households that the woman who cooks food is the last to eat it and that too whatever meagre is leftover. They are not expected to complain and they are ever ready to confess that their nutritional status and physical heath are good even when they have physical ailments. Thus desires adjust to deprivation and division of functions. This sort of exclusionary neglect needs immediate attention and equipping women with adequate information not justifying “superficial desires” is the first crucial step towards eliminating cases of exclusionary neglect. Annas rightly concludes in any society gender issues are not focused on women alone but the relationship between men and women.
Current efforts afoot in India under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi reflect on concerns expressed by philosophers like Professors Julia Annas and Onora O’Neill. Narendra Modi has visualised through his vast experience as leader of Gujarat and afterwards the nation the use of comparative perspective by going beyond the limited.
For example, the need to understand the nexus between social conditions and economic opportunities has been properly appreciated. He has realised the crucial linkages between creating basic educational facilities and opening up of new economic opportunities and expanding the scope for better use of labour and skills. Most importantly, it has also been recognised that social opportunities are influenced by a host of factors like the state of health and educational services, the nature and availability of finance, the presence of markets, including policies to promote and restrict these markets, presence of middlemen in markets and very importantly gender injustice. Therefore, the Prime Minister insists on unified approach to empowerment and this is reflected in various programmes launched by present Government.
The commitment of India to implement the Sustainable Development Goals was spelt out through the speech and commitment made by Prime Minister of India at the UN Summit for the adoption of post 2015 Development Agenda. In his speech the Prime Minister said, “Today, much of India’s development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals.” Further with reference to empowerment, he said, the attack on poverty includes not only expanded conventional schemes of development, but also a new era of inclusion and empowerment, turning distant dreams into immediate possibilities. He further spoke about new bank accounts for 180 million; direct transfer of benefits, micro enterprises and micro finance, drawing on the strength of digital and mobile applications with the focus on basics, housing, power, water and sanitation for all. These are important not just for welfare, but also human dignity. Development is intrinsically linked to empowerment of women and it begins with a massive programme on educating the girl child that has become every family’s mission.
He clarified these are goals with a definite date, not just a mirage of hope. Thus the broad agenda towards empowerment with reference to SDGs in India is set.
The Prime Minister’s constant emphasis on inclusion and inclusiveness is at the root of developmental efforts progressing in India. Sincere, honest and transparent efforts to achieve overall development for all with no exceptions are clearly visible. The Prime Minister’s historic speech makes it amply clear that overall human development has much to do with making structural changes to conquer the inequities and exploitations that characterise society. This in turn constitutes an efficient and effective blend of meeting “basic needs” and equipping people with “capabilities”. Efforts aim at planning and intertwining capabilities created now with a bigger expansion of capabilities in the future. Possible conflicts between immediately enhancing capabilities i e meeting basic needs and long-term expansion of capabilities in the future i.e economic prosperity cannot be ruled out and need be addressed in time.
Though SDGs cover all human beings, for the purpose of this article and due to paucity of space, I will limit myself with some important schemes launched in recent past to enhance opportunities for women empowerment.
The Government of India has recognised, amid others, two important ways to empower women: Economic empowerment through participation in economic activities and opportunities and second through mitigation of educational deprivations. The schemes chalked out and implemented broadly address these requirements and thereby endeavour to ensure that women gain equal rights, opportunities and access to resources. The first and foremost thing is their safety, security and economic empowerment. Towards that end, schemes like Mahila Police Volunteers (MPV) envisaging engagement of Mahila Police Volunteers in States/UTs who act as a link between police and community and facilitate women in distress; Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana empowering women below poverty line and protecting their health by providing LPG cylinder free of cost.
Working Women Hostel (WWH) ensures the safety and security for working women by providing safe and conveniently located accommodation. Pradhan Mantri Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna aims at economic empowerment of girls by opening their bank accounts and enabling their parents to save funds for their female child’s education and marriage. Under this scheme the account can be opened at any post office or a branch of an authorised commercial bank in India between the birth of the girl child and till the age of ten by a parent or guardian. The account offers 8.6 per cent interest with the girl child able to operate the account once she is ten years old and the account allows for fifty per cent withdrawal at the age of eighteen for higher education. Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana aims at prioritising housing for women. Launched in 2016, Mahila-E-Haat is a bilingual marketing platform intended to help aspiring women entrepreneurs, NGOs and self-help groups to showcase their services and products. Mahila Shakti Kendra was launched in 2017 to provide women with opportunities for skill development, employment, health, nutrition and digital literacy.
Each Mahila Shakti Kendra working at National, State, District and Block levels, provides an opportunity to women to approach the Government for their entitlements through capacity building and training. Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana that came into being in January 2015, drives at generating awareness and improving the efficacy of welfare services for girl child. Most important components of the scheme include addressing the issue of declining child sex ratio, gender-based sex-selective eliminations and protecting survival, protection and education of the girl child.
These schemes resonate well with the sustainable targets on gender equality and are marked by inclusionary coherence. For example, the Government has identified ending violence against women and providing security and safety to women as a key national priority. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme aims at equal opportunity and education for girls; Sukanya Samridhi Yojana aims at prosperity of girl child and Janani Suraksha Yojana provides safe motherhood intervention under National Health Mission with the objective of reducing maternal and neo-natal mortality among poor pregnant women.
The most novel feature of these schemes is generally these don’t flow from a common perception that problems faced by women are cases of more general difficulties of the deprived and marginalised population. Each and every scheme with its distinct identity and full-fledged mission is intended for girls and women and aims at establishment of a just society for women without any discrimination.
The crux of recent efforts in India in the field of women empowerment is reduction of women inequality and injustice by providing them resources and opportunities and equipping them with decision-making power including political powers. Onora O’ Neill suggests, “a serious account of justice cannot gloss over the predicaments of impoverished providers in marginalised and developing countries.” That is an important lesson for policy makers who plan for creating a just society or making society less unjust. An emerging New India very well addresses the issue raised by Onora O’ Neill. The concept of a just society is firmly embedded in the multi-peaked idea of a New India.
(The writer, a retired Additional Deputy CAG, is a poet, writer and columnist. His fourth book “Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant”, a semi-autobiographical account, published in 2019 by Rupa Publications, New Delhi, has been getting international acclaim)