Investing in grassroots women’s leadership empowers communities - Hindustan Times
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Investing in grassroots women’s leadership empowers communities

ByHindustan Times
May 24, 2023 12:38 PM IST

This article is authored by Riddhi Shah, chief of strategy, EdelGive Foundation.

Grassroots leaders are essential for the development of communities. Particularly in underserved communities which often experience a lack of access to public services and facilities, these leaders can have a positive influence on mindsets and policies. However, there is a gender bias when it comes to women in leadership roles at the grassroots. Relegated to household chores, women are seldom seen in leadership roles in communities. This is in part because of socio-economic and cultural factors which adversely impact the participation of women as leaders.

Women Leadership(UN Women) PREMIUM
Women Leadership(UN Women)

Women and girls experience gender-based discrimination in several walks of life. This discrimination translates to their families denying them access to education and livelihood opportunities. Even where women gain these opportunities, other issues such as lack of access to sanitation, safe transport facilities, inability to prioritise work over domestic chores, or gender-based harassment at workplaces can lead to them opting out. Without earning opportunities, their financial freedom is compromised. Dependence on family for finances leaves women with less agency and traps them in gender-assigned roles where caregiving is prioritised above all else. These factors fuel gender bias in the economic sphere, where the labour performed by women is undervalued.

With 81.8% the majority of Indian women are employed in the informal sector. Of the 91% of the overall labour force employed in the informal sector, women constitute only 23%. Further, a large part of women’s work in sectors such as construction and agriculture (where women form almost half of the workforce) is relegated to roles that do not offer much monetary compensation and often expose them to hazardous conditions. The gender bias in these sectors is stark. In the construction sector – where women perform physically intensive jobs such as hauling loads of construction material – the wage difference can be to the tune of 200 per day, in favour of men. These are just a few instances of how culturally held beliefs lead to systemic discrimination against women.

The vulnerabilities of women are not intrinsic, rather, they are brought on by prevalent socio-economic and cultural structures. Therefore, the inclusion of women in leadership roles where they can subvert established conventions is paramount. Women leaders at the grassroots have the wherewithal to bring positive impact to communities concerning their social and economic well-being. Women’s representation in these also forces people to reflect on their perception of what a woman can achieve. This opens avenues for tackling intergenerational biases towards women. Incremental changes within communities pave the way for more women to assume roles that are beyond their households, and which have a bearing on the well-being of their communities.

It is important here to note that the lived realities of women shape their perspectives on the requirements of other vulnerable groups (women, children, and the elderly). Their experiences in caregiving and facing discrimination equip them with the understanding that is required to make inclusive decisions which raise socio-economic indicators at household and community levels. A landscape study on women entrepreneurs by Edelgive Foundation found that with an increase in income, women entrepreneurs spent more on their children’s education, clothing, and healthcare. Similarly, many organisations working on climate change, emphasize the inclusion of women in decision-making for disaster management in communities. There are several domains in which women at grassroots can exercise their leadership.

As leaders in grassroots governance through the panchayati raj institutions, women have made significant progress. Their work has changed the way panchayats were traditionally perceived. From a male-dominated group whose primary function was to resolve disputes, women in panchayats have shown that the institution also has the power to resolve development issues. Rita Varma, who became the village head of Kabirpur village in Uttar Pradesh in 2021, instituted measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among the 2,000 residents in her village. She emphasised the use of masks and maintaining hand hygiene and spoke with patients to quell their apprehension about getting tested. She is also collaborating with authorities to initiate a primary health centre and improve sanitation services in the village. Similarly, women in Anganwadi, ASHA and ANM roles play a significant role as frontline health workers. They bring crucial information about women’s and children’s health and education to the community.

While the roles in panchayat or frontline health work are created by the government, there is further scope for developing women’s leadership in the form of entrepreneurship and grassroots women’s organisations. Such leadership further augment the work of panchayats and health care workers by creating additional income and networks for sharing knowledge on issues related to public service delivery, management of shared resources, and building awareness. However, the lack of education, domain-specific information, and knowledge about their rights often serve as barriers to building women’s leadership. Therefore, to encourage the leadership of women, it is necessary to invest in their knowledge, build their capacities and networks.

Capacity building for women has many dimensions. A key objective is to enable women to think of their role in society beyond the confines of patriarchal structures. This can aid women in broadening the scope of what they can achieve. Further, building capacities may take the form of making women aware of their specific roles, responsibilities, and resources available to them. In the case of panchayat leaders, for instance, it is important for them to understand bureaucratic channels and resources available to them. Here, knowledge-building sessions must be provided to them so they can effectively navigate the system and take the correct channels to institute reforms.

Similarly, for building entrepreneurship, women must know about markets, target audiences, effective communication, and technical knowledge for managing finances, logistics and people. Women entrepreneurs at the grassroots often lack information on various schemes and resources which are available to them. Collectivising women’s efforts through self-help groups can also prove to be a catalyst for women entrepreneurship. Therefore, it is also necessary to help them build networks, and guide them on how to sustain them.

Grassroots women’s collectives in India are playing a crucial role in building knowledge, providing a safe space for sharing experiences, and helping women fight against gender-based discrimination and violence. Women’s collectives are essential in fostering interpersonal relationships, learning, and building a sense of security and confidence amongst women. Encouraging the formation of such collectives is an effective way of mobilising women to take up leadership roles by building their self-esteem, knowledge, and informing them about their rights and entitlements.

Empowering women at the grassroots requires a collaborative effort of many stakeholders. From initially reaching out to women to identifying their needs and executing strategies to strengthen them as leaders require investments and participation of multiple stakeholders. The government through reservations has created roles where women can be leaders in governance and public service delivery. However, these alone cannot fill the vacuum of women’s representation in leadership roles. Here multi-stakeholder collaborations guided by CSR and philanthropic funding can help to create further avenues for leadership such as entrepreneurship and grassroots women’s organisations. Women at the grassroots have the potential to address prevailing socio-economic and environmental issues from the ground up. Their leadership can ensure strong, resilient communities which can enhance the nation’s progress.

This article is authored by Riddhi Shah, chief of strategy, EdelGive Foundation.

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