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IGC Panel Discussion: Women’s economic empowerment

  • Blog Post Date 29 April, 2020
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Shivani Chowdhry

University of Texas at Dallas

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Rishabh Mahendra

University of Missouri-Columbia

In December 2019, the India Programme of the International Growth Centre (IGC), organised a panel discussion on ‘Women's Economic Empowerment: Constraints and Solutions’ in Patna, in collaboration with Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI); Gender Resource Centre (GRC); Women Development Corporation, Government of Bihar; and Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3).

The panel comprised Girija Borker (Economist, World Bank), Jonathan Phillips (Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of São Paulo), Tanushree Goyal (Researcher, Nuffield College, University of Oxford), Sheetal Sekhri (Associate Professor of Economics, University of Virginia), Shubha Chakravarty (Senior Economist, World Bank), and Tarun Jain (Associate Professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad). The panel was chaired by N. Vijaya Lakshmi (Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer; Managing Director, Women Development Corporation, Government of Bihar) and moderated by Niveditha Menon (Senior Research Advisor, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies).


To start the discussion, Niveditha Menon highlighted the need of having a conversation around the meaning and relevance of engaging with economic empowerment, not just the idea of it, but also its real-life implementation. She asked the panellists about their understanding of economic empowerment, the definition that they have in their minds, how do they see it being articulated in their own work and in conversations around them, and if the term had any relevance at all. She also raises concerns on its measurement, as it involves both qualitative and quantitative aspects, while also involving indicators that are exogenous to the measurement arena of economic empowerment.

Girija Borker, following the framework established by Naila Kabeer, defined empowerment as the ability and freedom to make choices. Embedded within this conceptualisation is the link between women’s access to resources and their capabilities. She points out that it is very important to understand what choices women actually have objectively and the choices that women perceive themselves to be having. These choices are affected by denial in some cases, where they accept things as they are given, which includes things like intimate partner violence or women having access to lower resources within the household; the other is self-elimination. In her research conducted in Delhi, she found that female students, on average, score higher marks than male students, but are forced to choose lower quality colleges due to safety concerns, as they eliminate certain colleges which they perceive as unsafe to travel to.

Building on what Dr. Borker said, Jonathan Phillips presented his argument that the notion of empowerment cannot be restricted to economic empowerment alone. He contends that along with the economic aspects of empowerment, its political dimensions should also be addressed, as the development of healthy and educated children. For instance, the development of healthy and educated children depends on public services and the role of government; this is not something that women or households can do on their own. Hence, it is essential to understand how women can actually change the way that the government operates. However, in practice, that ability to autonomously express that preference to husbands and other members of the community is limited for married women. Hence, the concept of empowerment needs to be subtle and complex enough to recognise various dimensions, to cover how women actually form their voice and not just how they express it.

In his recent IGC project, he has tried to draw a distinction between empowerment via electoral voting and the ability to form opinions, and to express political power at the local level in Bihar. The latter includes the ability to complain to the Mukhiya (village head) or to go to the block office to demand better public services because there is still a huge gap in what it means to be actually empowered, which would be missed out by a very simple measure of voting. He asks what is needed to be empowered: the political system or the economic system? There are several policies that focus on empowerment, but the existing political and economic system contains a lot of problems, such as corruption, clientelism, elite capture of institutions, etc., and simply empowering women to have the same capacities that men have in the current system will produce a political system which has wider inequality. Empowerment should be such that women can help change the political system for the better, and actually do something different in the way that they demand public goods in place of private transfers, and change the way the people participate and contribute in politics.

N. Vijaya Lakshmi talks about the journey of public policymaking for women and children, and gender issues in India, which started with welfare. In the beginning, there was no welfare at all, but slowly, with the five year plans, it started with welfare, and then moved to development, and after that to empowerment. She remarked that doing welfare is showing sympathy towards someone, which is paternalistic in nature, unlike empowerment, which lets women make their own choices. On the complex issue of measurement of economic empowerment, she mentioned that a lot of work which women do as caregivers, nurturers, and providers for the family is not measured in terms of economic value, and it may have so much of other value: the emotional value, the social value, the family bonding. This is something which people are now talking about, that is there is a vacuum created inside the house ever since women have started coming out in search of work that gives them money. Earning money is something that can be attributed to economic empowerment of women. She also highlights the issue of wage difference for women and men doing the same work along with the unaccounted or unnoticed work that women do, and suggests that a methodology needs to be developed to measure this unnoticed work which has not been given monetary value.

Tanushree Goyal said that it is useful to have a definition for women's empowerment for two reasons: (a) it gives us an idea of what we have to chase even though it might be fleeting, and (b) it also gives us something to remain critical of. What we gain and lose from discussions on empowerment has been highlighted as a contrast between the kinds of empowerment we are making visible and the kinds we are deeming as invisible. She remarks that what most of us think when we think about empowerment, in the language we use in defining empowerment, focuses a lot on individuals, that is, are individuals empowered? Do they have the capacity? Do they have the ability? She suggests that our focus should shift to institutions and questions such as: Are institutions empowering people or are they actually disempowering them? She believes thinking about how institutions can be empowering in practice, should be a useful reference point.

Tarun Jain said that gender relations are about human relations, and positive human relationships happen when there is respect; there is a positive interaction when people help others grow instead of putting them down. He said economists tend to focus on health, education, employment opportunities, etc., but need to look at other spheres where human beings interact with each other. He added that we need to consider human relations as critical along with the spirit in which those human relations are being held.

Sheetal Sekhri called economic empowerment as a means toward an end, which is to empower women. To define empowerment, she quoted Tagore’s famous phrase, empowerment is “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”. She further said empowerment is when women can say: ‘I have the ability to make my own choices. I have the ability to try and figure out what I want and within my economic and social constraints. I am able to achieve that personalised goal for myself. My society, my social structure supports me and there is a State that protects me in feeling realised, fulfilled.’ She asserted that measuring such an idea of empowerment is really difficult, and that we should think about a holistic and comprehensive view of how we want to measure these things. She also added that such discourse should keep happening for perpetuity even when we grow as an economy or society.

Shubha Chakravarty presented a working definition of women’s empowerment provided by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), that is, “the capacity to make one’s own choices and the power to take action on those choices”. She says that the capacity to make one’s own choices deals with knowledge, skills, cognitive and non-cognitive resources, and this definition captures both the internal and external dimensions of women’s empowerment. Internal dimensions include self-esteem, self-confidence, and the knowledge to make choices, and the external dimension is the power to take action on those choices. She said that women’s economic empowerment has three dimensions. First is income generation because money is a critical part and is a very empowering thing for women to have in their hands. Assets is the second dimension of women’s economic empowerment, which includes financial assets and land along with other intangible assets like endowments, rights, health, education, and the like. And then the third aspect is access and control over economic resources, that is, if a woman has access to the job market, or if she can leave her home and go to the places that she needs to go to, or when she earns money, does she actually control what happens to that money, etc. Social norms govern the differences that we see in men’s and women’s access to income generation, assets, and control over resources. She suggests that there is a need for programmes that address things like social norms or their internalised aspects, and to understand their psycho-social aspects.

Niveditha Menon questioned: what needs to be the focus while talking about social norms – attitudes or behaviour – or individuals, State, or the social structure? The kind of violence women face at home, workplace, and public places are not different from each other. She expresses the need to talk, not just about women, but also about the different ways in which gender has taken over as a larger social construct. She then questioned the panellists to answer from their experience about what has worked – an individualistic or a collective group approach? She believes an answer to this will stop us from taking the path where we have failed.

Responding to the first question posed by Menon, Sekhri calls economic empowerment as women benefitting financially through measures like micro-credit, cash transfer, or some other income-generating activity. She has found in her research that when such economic empowerment happens, it actually leads to worse outcomes for women in terms of backlash and puts them in perilous positions. There is a significant and positive correlation between working outside the household and domestic violence for women. She even goes on to say that there is no point in empowering women if there is no safety net attached to it. Safety nets come in the form of giving them confidence to assert themselves to be able to take decisions especially on issues that they are facing.

Tanushree Goyal remarks that issues such as harassment or violence are not just cultural or norms-based issues, but they have an economic side too. When people are asked about the kind of choices they make with things like child marriage, they term it as Samaaj Pratha (social norms). It is rather forced marriage, and the only way to deal with such a social problem is through law. However, moving away from the social norms becomes a cultural issue in India, which makes things more difficult, but institutions that make and implement laws can fight them. Things like increasing police capacity may not be cheap, but does influence incidence of child marriage, and is very effective in the long run. She finally suggests that there is a need to recast the language (example, calling it samaaj pratha) that has been used to defend several acts that disempower women.

Continuing to talk about social norms, Tarun Jain remarks that it is very difficult to change them especially when you are an adult; hence, who you are at 20 is basically who you will be for the rest of your life. Therefore, he suggests that we work with kids as they are open to change and to learn new ways of doing things. For social change to happen, social movement is required, and most social movements are led by the youth. Hence, it is important to teach children ideas that are right and progressive. Results from his work on changes in social attitudes with school children in Haryana show that, like girls, even boys are open to change and progressive ideas, though girls are more open than boys. He suggested awareness and teachings can be done through media, mass media, and celebrities, as that will have a long lasting impact.

N. Vijaya Lakshmi says that it is relatively easy to implement economic empowerment programmes rather than social empowerment programmes. Despite several efforts taken by the governments to imbibe women’s economic empowerment in the system, it has been really difficult to curb various social norms for things as small as ghoonghat (veil). She believes such changes will take time, but by providing women money in the form of income through various activities like agriculture, animal husbandry, goatery, fishery, etc., does lead to their economic empowerment. Supporting Jain’s point about working with young people, she highlighted the gender empowerment module that has been introduced in schools in Class 6 to make children understand what gender is, when they are very young. Having said that, she also stressed on the fact that it is not an easy task, neither a short-term task, to bring change in social norms. It is time consuming and requires multiple steps from policy-design to policy-implementation stage, only then a wider section can be reached. Unless we fill in all these gaps and in a comprehensive way, it is not easy to implement social empowerment programmes. To conclude, she said bringing such a change may be tough, but it is doable.

Moving away from ‘supplying’ economic empowerment, Girija Borker brings in the issue of access. She says one can provide facilities, but what matters is access, which can be possible only when women can move around freely and feel safe while doing that. She cited some numbers — in Indian cities, 79% of women reported feeling unsafe in public spaces and over 84% women say that they actively avoid certain parts of the cities to feel safe. This fear of unsafety affects women in a lot of spheres such as accessing healthcare, education, and jobs — starting from actually looking for them to entering and staying in the labour force. She says that a lot of policies have failed mainly because of safety concerns. She concluded by asking a couple of questions, which will play an important role in framing these policies and these were: if we need more police to be involved, and will we need a redressal system when someone feels unsafe.

Shubha Chakravarty suggests building up a basic model both for women’s livelihoods, like the SHG (self-help groups) model, and for adolescent girls. Such a model would involve community mobilisation, training of certain skills, access to finance, etc. to generate some income. She says that there is growing evidence which suggests that these comprehensive models work and lead to socioeconomic empowerment of women, but they are costly. The per-head cost is a lot more than a standard health intervention or interventions in a lot of other sectors. She suggests that there is a need to include psycho-social interventions and to engage men and boys, as without any engagement of men and boys, it will be considered retrograde. She also suggests that behavioural impacts of changing norms should be first assessed before implementing them. To conclude, she pointed out that there is a need for women-centred projects, but she also says there is a lot more work and evidence required on the neutral projects (not specifically women-centric) as we do not have any sense of what the impacts of those are on women’s empowerment in a quantitative sense, or how those impacts compare to those from more women-centric models.

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