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Women entrepreneurs in Bundelkhand region trigger gender equity, 'well-being of all'

By Dipali Sharma* 

International Women’s Day on 8th March provides another occasion to reflect on the status of women and girls, our progress in achieving gender equity and equality, and the continuing challenges women and girls face.
Significant strides have been made for women’s socio-economic and political empowerment and women-led feminist change for the well-being of all. Thus this day is also an occasion to celebrate the achievements and contributions of women. However, after more than 100 years of celebrating this day, we also need to address how near we are to the goal of women’s emancipation.
The COVID-19 pandemic is said to have taken back several of the past gains. While economies are said to be well on the path of recovery and growth, do we see a proportionate improvement in the status and conditions of women and the goal of gender equality? The data doesn’t suggest so.
As per a report by CMIE, between 2017 and 2022, about two crore women disappeared from the workforce, leaving only nine per cent of the eligible population employed or looking for positions. Average female employment in urban India in 2021 was 6.9% lower than in 2020 and 22.1% lower than in the pre-pandemic year 2019. In rural India, female employment in 2021 was 9.2% higher than in 2020 and only 0.1% lower than in 2019. This data suggests that female employment has suffered a significant reversal in urban India since the pandemic.
Another report by Lancet analyses India’s progress against various indicators of SDG Goal 5 of “Achieving Gender Equality and empowering women and girls” by 2030. It reports that mid-way into achieving the SDG targets by 2030, India is off target on critical indicators like anaemia among women (both pregnant and non-pregnant women), partner violence (both physical and sexual), modern contraceptive use and girl child marriage.
As per the analysis, over 75% of the 707 districts analysed are off-target on these indicators. NFHS-5 data showed significant strides in bringing the number of girl children married before the age of 18 from over 40% to 23.5%. However, this figure remains too high and is an area of concern, particularly as the pandemic has reportedly been an additional push factor for incidences of girl-child marriages.
Lower women’s participation in the labour force and continuing and perhaps higher incidence of child marriages are just a few markers to remind us of the all-around efforts and investments that need to be made consistently. We need action daily and across all spheres - individual, societal and government - to achieve gender equality.
In 2023 the theme for women’s day is #EmbraceEquity, based on the understanding that equal opportunities cannot on their own address the inherent social and economic inequalities that women face. Inclusion requires equitable action that enables all women to participate and belong to the change we must see.
The UN Women have adopted “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality” as the theme for their celebrations, underscoring how innovation, technology and education can lead to gender equality and empowerment for women and girls.
Hope lies in several remarkable initiatives across the country that embrace these values. One such is being led and supported by ActionAid Association in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh across Jhansi, Lalitpur and Mahoba districts. Over the last three years, the initiative has brought together more than 3,000 women entrepreneurs and their families, supporting various sustainable, innovative livelihood models.
The women entrepreneurs have registered Basant Farmers Producer Company with all-women 7-member board. While none of these women has attended school beyond the primary level, they have all fought personal battles to get where they have reached today.
None of these women had even a small piece of land in their name, a prerequisite to registering an FPO. Regular meetings were organised with the partners and in-laws of these women that helped to sensitise them on the idea of gender equity and equality, and who subsequently realised the importance and need for women’s right to property. As a result, one of the partners came forward and transferred the ownership of two acres of land that belonged to him to his wife.
While none of the women has attended school beyond primary level, they have  fought personal battles to get where they have reached
The women’s groups developed seven prototypes and operational details. They took technical guidance and received full support from the local departments of agriculture, horticulture, forest, the Central Agro-forestry Research institute, and the department of MSMEs.
The Basant Farmers Producer Company has set up Basant Community Farmers Resource Centres in each district, which support product procuring, processing, packaging, marketing, branding and quality control. All products are organic and natural. The company has a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp business account and is also into online and mobile marketing.
The initiative has not just led to economic empowerment of women, improved health and nutrition status of women and children, enhanced food security, their children’s education, and reduced migration, amongst other achievements. Still, above all, it has paved the way for social and structural transformation in the status and condition of women in the project area.
It is such initiatives that demonstrate the potentiality that lies in supporting the protagonism of women and feminist leadership. Women’s collectives need to be supported, amplified and scaled up across the country. It is only active women and feminist thought that change the mindsets, break stereotypes, recognise potential, and enable the reaching of aspirations through the voice and agency of women and girls.
Governments and the private sector must invest in women and girls for equitable and inclusive education, health, infrastructure, and gender-responsive public services. Above all, it helps build feminist solidarities prioritising social and environmental gains over financial benefits.
International Women’s Day, every 8th March, calls upon people, societies and their leaders, the Governments and the private sector to come together to help achieve the goal of gender equality, to build a world that is inclusive, equitable and free from bias and discrimination for all. Sustained and collaborative efforts will go a long way in building gender justice and equality and creating sustainable futures for societies as a whole.
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*Director organisational effectiveness, programmes and policy, ActionAid Association

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