Women at the cutting edge of sustainability

Well-equipped: To meet the challenges

Their leadership skills have come to the fore in India’s sanitation initiative. This can extend to coping with climate change

Research from the world over suggests that when women contribute, economies grow. Yet the socio-political set-up in many developing countries does not provide a favourable environment for women to work to their full potential. On average women in the labour market still earn 24 per cent less than men globally. A recent study by Accenture Research shows that the gender pay gap in India is as high as 67 per cent as a man on an average earns $167 compared with $100 by a woman. India has amongst the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world — well below what is observed in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is a serious impediment to our growth story. A 2013 study conducted by the World Economic Forum highlighted that a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how women are educated and enabled to access the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.

Empowering women and promoting gender equality is also crucial to accelerating sustainable development. As the UN Women position paper on the post-2015 development agenda notes, women’s empowerment and gender equality have a catalytic effect on the achievement of human development, good governance, sustained peace, and harmonious dynamics between the environment and human populations.

Agents of change

Women are not only vulnerable to climate change they are also effective actors or agents of change in relation to both mitigation and adaptation. However, discussions have been mostly focused on how susceptible they are to climate change and how their knowledge and expertise can be used for better programmatic outcomes. The discourse now needs to shift to ways of creating climate change mitigation and adaptation into avenues of economic empowerment of women. Tribal uneducated women from Udaipur, Rajasthan were transformed into green entrepreneurs making solar lamps. Similarly in the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, women (often illiterate) are trained to manufacture and maintain solar panels in a 6-month programme. Such efforts need to be replicated and scaled up into viable business models to turn women into green leaders.

An example of women leading the way can be best seen in the context of the Swachh Bharat Mission which aims to create an open defecation free India by 2019. Women understand the health benefits of clean ways and sanitation once explained to them; they embrace the need for toilets for these reasons and the risks to their security as they otherwise go to fields under cover of darkness. In many States women sarpanchs have scripted success stories and made a difference in their villages, making them open defecation free by building toilets and creating awareness. The mission has also raised people’s aspirations leading to the demand of better toilets which offer more than just the conventional toilet structure. To complement the government subsidy microfinance has proved to be an important instrument. Women are at the forefront of these interventions with credit being directed to women self-help groups (SHGs).The success of the micro-lending programme by Gramalaya in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, highlights how the development of a water and sanitation loan fund and the mobilisation of women’s SHGs are able to reduce barriers to access credit and increase investment in water and sanitation facilities.

Limiting the understanding

At the policy level an absence of gender disaggregated data severely limits a sound understanding of women’s roles and representation in decision-making. The evolving policy framework around sustainable development would also need to be careful not to further existing gender roles. For example, the latest gender guidelines released by the ministry of drinking water and sanitation caution against stereotyping women by limiting their role as behaviour change agents in sanitation. It also highlights the importance of making the behaviour change messaging (around promotion of toilet use) gender-sensitive as it was seen that some existing campaigns inadvertently propagated gender stereotypes like “men are custodian of women’s dignity”, “women should not step out of their houses”, etc.

As India aims to transition on the path of sustainable development, the current policy focus on the green economy provides a historic opportunity. Much would depend on how soon the policymakers switch from regarding women as a disadvantaged group to powerful decision-makers with insights to drive strategies for a better future. The key priorities to making this a truly transformative agenda for women should inter alia include enhancing their role in private and public decision-making; enhancing access to finance; training and capacity building on technology; and capturing gender disaggregated data for better policy interventions. Green economy by itself will not change the underlying anomalies such as women’s limited access to productive inputs like credit, land, technology, etc. After all, creating equal opportunities for women is not only a development imperative embedded in human rights, it is critical to accelerating sustainable development.

The writer is Chair, FICCI Water Mission

Published on September 18, 2017

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