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Empowering Indian Women Needs Innovation – And Social Enterprises Are Showing The Way

As Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “To create one’s own world takes courage.” Against the backdrop of a male-dominated society, this aphorism takes on a greater significance for Indian women looking for means to earn a livelihood. Across India, the gulf between men’s and women’s average rates of labour force participation is startling.

1. According to the World Bank, 79% of men as compared to only 27% of women are a part of the workforce in India.

2. This places India in 120th position among 131 nations in a World Bank report, when it comes to the participation of women in the workforce. What’s more? Participation levels have been on the decline since 2005.

3. Out of 323 total executive directorship positions (generally considered as a prerequisite for becoming CEOs) on the Bombay Stock Exchange 100, only eight are held by women.

A recent study by the British Council sheds some light on the matter. It found that in India, “concerns about women’s safety are strong and often genuine while flexibility, availability of childcare and adequate pay are important given social norms that require women to reconcile work with household duties.” Although tensions between a woman’s role in her life at home and work are not endemic to India, the problem is especially damaging in a country where a conception like child-rearing being the sole domain of women has been deeply embedded in many minds. There is considerable social and cultural pressure forcing Indian women to remain at home.

Businesswoman Anu Aga adds, “There is a tendency to give greater importance to a man’s job than a woman’s job in India. So, companies are not willing to make special allowances to integrate women after they take a break for becoming mothers.” For women in low-income families, the situation is particularly grave, as their inability to find employment both exacerbates and is exacerbated by their financial conditions. Many do not have the educational background or requisite skills to pursue employment in other areas and are therefore limited to household work. Financial standing also has considerable implications in the social context. This is because self-reliance provides women with more decision-making authority within their families and communities.

Stunted by cultural norms (in a society that frequently sees women as simply homemakers, cleaners, mothers, daughters, and wives) and a lack of financial independence, women in low-income communities are ill-disposed to break the cycle of their poverty. Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. Great strides are being made in the realm of women’s empowerment, with social enterprises leading that charge.

The social enterprise strategy combines a social mission with its commercial activities – a trait that sets it apart from traditional non-profits. The self-sustaining nature of this hybrid organisational structure has made it an increasingly attractive model.

AfterTaste, Chindi, and Iwasasari are three social enterprises in India (among the many) working towards women’s empowerment. These organisations share the common goal of enabling disadvantaged Indian women by providing them opportunities to earn an income as artisans, and assisting the development of skills necessary for financial independence. In doing so, these organisations are also shattering social barriers for women with little education and formal training.

Each of these social enterprises leverages a unique element to empower women:

1. Space: Chindi creates a safe space for women to channel the skills they already possess (sewing, knitting, embroidering) to earn an income. A positive work environment is a crucial factor in encouraging participation in the labour force.

2. Art: “Art is such a strong medium,” says AfterTaste founder, Shalini Datta. During a fellowship at Teach for India, she recognised the power of the arts to inspire and engage. Having created the products from scratch by themselves, women are the agents of their own lives.

3. Fashion: ‘Upcycling’ reflects much of the spirit of social enterprise, as the practice’s focus on sustainability is at the heart of its business model. This idea of sustainability also resonates symbolically for Iwasasari’s mission to help women earn a recurring income.

In the last few years, the budding social enterprise industry has greatly contributed to efforts in women’s empowerment. While the industry is still fairly young, it should also be viewed as holding tremendous potential for transforming the lives of women all over the world. In India, approximately 33% of the total number of social enterprises are focused on women’s issues. The emerging sector is not only a source of employment for many women, it is also a mechanism of empowerment in itself. In fact, according to the British Council survey, 75% women reported having an increased sense of self-worth after starting a social enterprise, while 64% of them stated that their confidence had also spiked.

When The Guardian asked a panel how we can encourage more women to work in the space, those in the industry agreed that it was all about creating awareness and supporting education. For Ogunte CIC founder, Servane Mouazan, it is important to “encourage women to think about the journey ahead and the potential for women to climb up leadership roles and be in paid executive roles. A large space given to mentoring and ‘sponsorship’ within organisations also helps.”


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        As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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        A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

        A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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