Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Educate and Empower Women to Catalyze Inclusive and Equitable Development

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, CMD, Biocon

Over the past few decades, I have come to see India's development model as a work in progress. Slowly if not always surely, we have improved some parameters of inclusive development. However, deep-rooted systemic challenges remain unaddressed. We need to act with resolute will if we are to realize inclusive and equitable growth. It is in this context that we need to seriously look at one issue that receives much lip-service but very little real attention: The empowerment of women.

Across the world, educating and empowering women has time and again proven to be the catalyst for rapid socio-economic growth. Conversely, societies where women are repressed are among the most backward on most parameters of development. We seem to be somewhere in between – a work in progress. The message for our society and government is loud and clear:
If we want to ensure socio-economic development for one and all – as we say we do – educating and empowering women to achieve their true potential is critical.

India is home to over 15% of the world's population and women make up almost half of that number. The development indicators that measure the quality of their life are improving: Maternal mortality rates are declining, women’s literacy rates are increasing and more women have access to healthcare and education. But change is heartbreakingly slow when seen in the context of the continuing discrimination and violence women encounter in this country. India ranks 113 (out of 135 countries) on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. According to India’s 2011 census, the sex ratio for children under six was 914 females to 1,000 males, a disturbing decline from 927 in 2001. The ranking of Indian women in economic empowerment is 0.3 where 1.0 is equality.

This is a dangerous state of affairs for any society. The lower economic status of women is alarming enough; their decline in the gender ratio is morally reprehensible. By denying women the opportunities they need to actualize their potential, we are underutilizing the human capital we must leverage in order to progress. Women are undoubtedly the foundation of the basic unit of society – the family. Even in traditional roles they demonstrate immense innovation, skill, and intelligence – in addition to hard work and commitment. If we can effectively harness these attributes, India can effectively roll out a virtuous cycle of inclusive and equitable growth. The education of women is therefore key to unlocking this potential.

In India, where close to 70% of the population lives in rural areas, access to educational opportunities are limited. Moreover, poverty puts the girl child at a greater disadvantage. Add to this the social attitudes towards women, and it is obvious that we need a multi-pronged approach to ensure universal women’s education.

In addressing this issue, we have an opportunity to transform the foundation of education, and rural education in particular. E-infrastructure can deliver relevant education to empower both genders in an efficient and equitable manner. E-education can address the dual challenge of quality and capacity as well as enable our youth to leapfrog into the internet age.

Skills development and life lessons in basic necessities like healthcare and sanitation are also integral to education. When we educate and empower one woman, we set off a chain reaction that transforms the life of her family and the community she lives in. An exemplary model is the network of ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers created under the NRHM. As trained female community health activists who engage with villagers, they have played a crucial role in improving the health of women and children across India.

Equally important is vocational training that can be the key to women’s economic independence. The inspirational efforts of Sewa (the Self-Employed Women’s Association founded by Ela Bhatt) and other successful self-help groups have seeded the spirit of entrepreneurship in hundreds of women. Sewa’s women members are path-breakers, redefining themselves even as they add value to their families and the nation. Empowering women in this manner can enable inclusive socio-economic development and transform India.

In India gender barriers start operating from birth. These prevailing societal perceptions are often the biggest hurdle that shape women’s perception of themselves and society’s expectations of their role. Across all strata of Indian society, people still believe that women are capable of performing only certain types of jobs and that marriage must take precedence over career. This mindset, of both men and women, needs to change if any progress is to be made. We must focus on the girl child and break stereotypes to help her go beyond the traditional mindset and set free her potential.

Take women in science as a case in point. The societal mindset is that women are less capable of understanding science, although all evidence is to the contrary. I faced seemingly insurmountable road-blocks on my path to building Biocon into the institution it is today. As a young woman with hardly any work experience in a male-dominated business environment, it was challenging to set up a biotechnology enterprise to say the least. I can credit my success to my education and upbringing that had helped instill a strong sense of self-belief and a never-say-die spirit in me. Today, I am proud that Biocon is an equal-opportunity employer where women thrive in every role including scientific research. While we do not believe in hiring women for the sake of their gender, we provide the facilities and environment they need to ensure that they are enabled and empowered.

I believe that by neglecting the development of women, we will compromise the future of the nation. By investing in women and their education, we are investing in our present and future. This is a promise we need to keep.


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