Beena Paul, a trained mason and a part of the construction industry in Kerala and also the president of the Self Help Group [SHG] that undertakes construction work in the city of Ernakulam which includes renovating parking areas, construction of houses in the panchayat, and many other important construction activities, finds herself grateful to NRLM [National Rural Livelihood Mission] for providing her a platform which has helped her not only in terms of income but also in gaining confidence and in meeting more women like her. Just like her, Singampalli Durga from Andhra Pradesh works along with thirty-five women in the horticulture industry. Together, they were trained by the horticulture department and have grown a new variety of turmeric which is sold to the TATA Trust and the market, benefiting them financially as well as in becoming more confident.

These were a couple of life stories that were shared at the Gender Samvaad-Gender Dialogue for Equity and Equality, launched on 16th April 2021 by Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary, Department of Rural Development under India’s largest livelihood program -Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana- National Rural Livelihood Mission [DAY-NRLM] in collaboration with IWWAGE [Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy]. It is a joint event organized as a bi-monthly webinar to spread awareness regarding the gender interventions by NRLM and also to gain fruitful insights from States and the field (including from gender experts and academia) The event was held under the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, aimed at advancing the vision of an Atma Nirbhar Bharat, which was launched by the Prime Minister to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence.

DAY-NRLM was launched as Aajeevika- National Rural Livelihoods Mission by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India in June 2011. The program aims to enhance the socio-economic condition of the rural poor by creating Self Help Groups [SHG] and by facilitating the enhancement of their livelihood by helping them with improved access to financial resources, information, skills, tools, and knowledge which would foster their household income and also empower them to achieve increased access to rights, accountability, and public services. The Joint Secretary of NRLM, Nita Kejriwal emphasized the gender interventions initiated by NRLM following two kinds of strategies which include building the capacity of all the staff members and cadre and creating institutional mechanisms for addressing gender-related issues. With these points in consideration, NRLM along with IWWAGE has created SWAYAM [Strengthening Women’s Institutions for Agency and Empowerment] which is being implemented in four States- Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand to establish institutions such as gender resource centers in collaboration with SRLM and also to assess the effectiveness of such institutions.

Alka Upadhaya, Additional Secretary of the Department of Rural Development, highlighted the importance of advocating women’s rights and urged the women to find their voice via the provisions established by NRLM. She emphasized the creation of a social network of safety for young girls and women so that more and more skilled women do not hesitate to accept jobs. The need to widen the coverage of insurance especially to the women of the society by virtue of them being entitled to it is an important step towards creating economic and social security for them, as highlighted by her. Another point which was made during the Gender Samvaad launch was the need to spread awareness about rights of the women and urge them to voice their opinion as well as ask for their entitlement.

The event was followed by certain remarks given by Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development on how it is essential to decrease the gender gap between men and women which is highly prevalent in our society, to achieve gender equality. He illuminated the fact about how the workforce comprising women has been decreasing in our country as compared to men whose share in the GDP is more than that of women, unlike other countries like China and Vietnam where women have been active contributors to the economies. He also believes that most of the domestic work done by women needs to be valued and be given high regard in society. 

The event included showcasing a short film launched by the Joint Secretary of NRLM, Nita Kejriwal, depicting various actions undertaken by DAY-NRLM and also highlighted the support given by IWWAGE in advancing the strategies by NLRM. Along with a short film, a compendium of case studies was launched at the event to exhibit the instances of strength and hard work shown by the women of Self Help Groups. The compendium along with other resources can be accessed at the Gender Samvaad webpage hosted by IWWAGE.

The Samvaad provided a great platform for all the experts in the field of gender and livelihood and women’s economic empowerment to gather together and have an insightful panel discussion on gender mainstreaming and transformation of societal makeup. Gender mainstreaming is an approach towards the formulation of policies concerning not only women but also men and other kinds of gender. This concept was first adopted in 1985 at the Nairobi World Conference on Women and was adopted as a strategy in international gender equality policy at Beijing Platform for Action. In 1988, the Council of Europe defined gender mainstreaming as, “The reorganization, improvement, development, and evaluation of policy processes so that a gender equality perspective is incorporated in all policies at all levels and all stages, by the actors normally involved in policy-making.” 

The experts at the panel discussion, held as a part of Gender Samvaad, highlighted the importance of participation and representation of women to facilitate social transformation. They believe that overcoming barriers in the institutions concerning women and the enhancement of the institutional strength of women as well as the creation of social protection systems is vital for attaining gender equality. One of the panelists, Renu Golwalkar, highlighted her observation at a project she had worked with which was on providing financial as well as vocational training to women wherein she had noticed that most of the women weren’t supported by their husbands and also weren’t given the choice as to how to allocate the income they had earned. Through this example, she highlighted three major points. First, women’s economic empowerment is also about exercising their choice, rights, and decision making especially when it comes to their financial resources. Second, in addition to financial and vocational skills, women should be trained with life skills, negotiation, communication as well as digital skills. Third, and most importantly, it is important to engage men in this process of women empowerment by challenging the negative notions of masculinity and patriarchy since a gender-transformed society could only be achieved when all kinds of gender come together and create awareness regarding the same. A gender role transformation requires taking certain steps that result in every woman living with respect and dignity as highlighted by Lakshmi Lingam, an expert at the panel discussion, “Women should start feeling maan-sammaan.”

Apart from formulating gender-specific programs, it is highly essential to take steps and move towards a gender transformative society, as highlighted in the panel discussion. Creating a gender transformative society calls for involving gender in decision making, challenging gender norms, and addressing inequity present in the society. Moreover, it is important to regularly monitor the progress made in the process of gender transformation and empowerment by formulating effective indicators or measurements of women’s economic empowerment such as gender markers or indices. Identifying activities and work specifically undertaken by women and giving them value is an effective method by which their economic capabilities and capacities can be enhanced. 

Gender Samvaad is an effective platform to brainstorm on the issues concerning gender and evaluate the roadmap followed by various States and Countries towards achieving gender equality. With the coming together of various gender experts, resource persons, as well as the women of the Self Help Groups together at a particular platform, Gender Samvaad enables critical thinking and analysis of important issues and questions that need to be addressed with full sincerity. It’s a great initiative towards diversifying the dialogue surrounding gender and advocating women’s empowerment.

Today, as a society, we have indeed made certain progress in creating an equal space for women. However, there is still a long way to go which requires us to continuously carve out a roadmap towards gender role transformation and at the same time reflect upon the journey.

With an initiative like Gender Samvaad which enables synergy between experts and stakeholders and a platform for rural women to voice their opinion and insights, one can expect greater awareness and a call for action towards the enhancement of women and thus the society at large.

By Shailja Vikram Singh, Research Associate, Policy, LQF