Women bear greater brunt of poverty in India’s deeply entrenched patriarchal system

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By Moin Qazi*

A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult.

— Melinda Gates

We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. The global statistics on poverty are numbing. The real brunt has always fallen on women and sometimes it is very cruel. Women are commonly married young, quickly become mothers, and are then burdened by stringent domestic and financial responsibilities.

Women bear the greater brunt of poverty. In India, where a patriarchal system is deeply entrenched, only 13 per cent of farm land is owned by women. The figure is even lower when it comes to lower caste Dalit women who are single. About 12 per cent of India’s female population is classified as single, including women who are widowed, divorced, separated, and older unmarried women, according to the 2011 census.About 41 percent of households headed by women in India do not own land, and make a living through casual manual labour.

Over the years several strategies have been used to empower women .One of them relies on community groups whose members   can be trained and equipped to use their collective strength and wisdom to tackle their problems.

Women and families the world over work tirelessly to end the poverty and hunger in their lives. But it can take much more than hard work. They need new tools to create their own paths forward. They need opportunities that can overcome economic, cultural and gender barriers. It needs multissectoral cooperation to create breakthrough ideas and breakthrough solutions   that break through and break down economic, social and technical barriers.  We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death.

The global statistics on poverty are numbing. The real brunt has always fallen on women and sometimes it is very cruel with them. Gender discrimination continues to be an enormous problem within Indian society. Traditional patriarchal norms have relegated women to secondary status within the household and workplace. This drastically affects women’s health, financial status, education, and political involvement. Women are commonly married young, quickly become mothers, and are then burdened by stringent domestic and financial responsibilities.

In India, self-help groups and panchayat raj institutions, assisted by the voluntary sector, are training rural women in nutrition and financial literacy, connecting them with health providers and financial services. Their food security has doubled. They are using digital technology to provide impoverished farmers with loans and agricultural training. They no longer go hungry; many have bought livestock and even land. They are   enabling shop owners to provide women with safe ways to save, borrow, make payments, and buy micro-health insurance

Empowerment has led to a number of positive changes in women’s own perceptions of themselves, and their role in household decision making women’s self-image and self-confidence was enhanced when they received training on women’s rights and social and political issues. This is a truly uplifting signal of the role women will play in building our future sustainable economy.

When 35 years old unassuming and submissive Rajni applied   for a loan from the bank there was no one willing to back her up as a guarantor. There was great doubt whether she would be able to repay the loan. But this steely and tenacious woman proved the other members wrong. It was at the women’s   meeting at which she and her mother-in-law     first heard of loans being made available to women intending to pursue income-generating activities. They were at once attracted of the soft loans for women of low income households. She discussed the proposition with her husband and together they decided to avail the loan to buy a motor pump for their fields as to increase and better the yield.

The cost benefit was soon worked out. The cost of the pump being high, it was decided that both the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law would acquire a loan each and put it to use for their common benefit. And so each of them took a loan of Rs. 7000 individually. The loan soon became a bonding element to help them emerge wiser.

The pump was installed and soon the waters gushed out of the thirsting land. Now water supply was ensured at the touch of a button. The fields were full with mash-melons, gourds, wheat, rice and other vegetables. Workload happily increased and so did the returns. The whole family got actively involved in the cultivation exercise=–related to sowing, irrigating, nurturing, reaping and selling of various produce according to the time of its maturity. She and her mother-in-law had never felt this close before. The plentiful harvests had given them a sense of fulfillment. Nor were they overtly worried about the return of the loan. In fact, there was hardly any difficulty in the repayment of the monthly installments.

As Rajni led us to her fields not far from the village to show the motor pump, her face was awash with pride and recollections. “All thanks to the motor-pump”, says Rajni, as she carefully wraps it back with the polythene sheet and covers it with a wooden crate. Lightly lapping the box, she looks all around her, surveying the surrounding land. “Yes, we owe it to the pump for our togetherness and plenty”.

For all interventions, the fundamental logic is plain: if we are going to end extreme poverty, we need to start with girls and women. They are the ones who have the grit to lift families out of the pit. People who have pioneered successful social programmes   recognized this potential and sought to evoke it.

During my engagement with programmes for empowering poor women to climb out of poverty, several of my colleagues would argue whether our efforts   have any relevance when we have a vast desert of poverty. Their question reminded me of the story of a boy who found himself on the seashore surrounded by thousands of dying fish. The boy started to pick up one fish at a time and throw them back into the sea. A man watching him from afar came up to him and asked why he was wasting his time. The boy said that if he could save even one fish, he would have fulfilled his purpose in life.

We now have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will. A lot of good programs got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. But several of these programmes were difficult to scale up. As Bill Clinton noted during his presidency, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere.” The frustration is that, “we can’t seem to replicate [those solutions] anywhere else.”

We increasingly have the tools to combat poverty. We know what to do; what we really need is to    summon the political will.

*Author of the bestselling book, “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decade

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