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IGC Panel Discussion on gender: Equality and empowerment

  • Blog Post Date 17 February, 2020
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Kumar Das

International Growth Centre

In August 2019, the India Programme of the International Growth Centre (IGC) – in collaboration with the Women Development Corporation (WDC), Government of Bihar, and the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) – organised a panel discussion on gender in Patna to bring together experts to discuss issues related to equality and empowerment. The panellists included N. Vijaya Lakshmi (WDC, Government of Bihar), Nilotpal Goswami (Accountant General, Bihar), Subhalakshmi Nandi (International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW)), and Pronab Sen (IGC). The session was moderated by Rajan Sudesh Ratna (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)).



Economic growth is a gendered process and gender inequalities can hinder progress towards inclusive growth. Existing evidence shows that unless we consider the gender dimensions of inclusive growth, and policies for inclusive growth address existing gender gaps, there will always be questions about the nature of growth. Instead of questioning the current models of production and initiating steps to correct the distributional bias of growth, policy regimes and frameworks have focused more on measuring equality. With this approach, the current policy paradigm primarily focuses on the rate of growth, not its pattern. Within this context, there is an economic rationale to including gender concerns in the public planning and budgeting process. 

In August 2019, the India Programme of the International Growth Centre (IGC) – in collaboration with the Women Development Corporation (WDC), Government of Bihar, and the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) – organised a panel discussion on gender in Patna to bring together experts to deliberate on issues related to equality and empowerment. In particular, the question discussed was: what can be done to promote gender-equitable, inclusive growth that requires a re-envisioning of the fiscal space? The panellists included N. Vijaya Lakshmi (WDC, Government of Bihar), Nilotpal Goswami (Accountant General, Bihar), Subhalakshmi Nandi (International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW)), and Pronab Sen (IGC). The session was moderated by Rajan Sudesh Ratna (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)). 

Setting the context, session moderator Rajan Sudesh Ratna (Economic Officer, UNESCAP South and South-West Asia Office, New Delhi) remarked that we all have been hearing about the economic growth of Bihar and India, but, unfortunately, the growth is not translating into employment for youth, women, and girls. The Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is important in this context because the goal covers a number of issues linked to today’s panel. The SDG Index of NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) provides detailed information on the indicators and state-wise performance. Overall, India’s performance in the index is 36 on a scale of 100, and that of Bihar is 26. The best score is that of Kerala and Sikkim, at 50. So, there is much to be done. That is recognised by both the central government and the state government. There are a number of issues that need to be discussed and addressed, and this panel represents government officials, think tanks, and civil society organisations, who are currently working in this issue. 

Initiatives by Government of Bihar: An overview 

N. Vijaya Lakshmi (Managing Director, WDC, Government of Bihar) said that to create a fair society, Government of Bihar has taken a lot of initiatives – the recent one being 35% reservation for women in all government jobs. This 35% reservation is also applicable to constabulary and it is remarkable to watch women doing police duty. In terms of political empowerment, there is 50% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). But in addition to all of these, a host of other initiatives have been taken by the state government to provide livelihoods opportunities to women. Under the ‘JEEViKA’ programme, almost 8-9 million women now have access to microfinance. This is a huge opportunity for economic empowerment, introduced by the Government of Bihar. In addition, the WDC, which is the nodal agency for women empowerment issues, has recently launched a women economic empowerment cell. It provides training through workshops and also provides handholding support to the women entrepreneurs for their development and capacity-building. Apart from these, there are many other initiatives taken by other government departments as empowerment is a continuous process. 

What needs to be done? 

Subhalakshmi Nandi (Director of Policy, ICRW) remarked that we have heard a lot about the need for evidence generation and it is important to flag two things. 

First, before the evaluation of the programmes, we should reflect on how they are designed and whose realities do they represent. The focus on women’s experiences in the planning and design of programmes is significant. The existing evidence suggests that women’s economic empowerment (WEE) initiatives are predominantly in the area of skill-building for entrepreneurship. There are some very implicit gendered assumptions and biases in prioritising those kinds of initiatives over others. One of the assumptions is that women need flexible work. Another assumption is that women need to be closer to their homes because of the unsaid reality and that they need to attend to their care responsibilities; and there is also clear patriarchal control on their mobility, beyond everything else. The third assumption is that women want self-employment, even though the data are saying that there is a decline in the female labour force participation. If there is actually a preference towards self-employment, then clearly, women are giving us a message about what they want when they have the opportunity to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), where they have got certain kinds of rights at work. They are not settling anymore for piecemeal self-employment. Are we then responding to some of those realities which are much gendered in their design? 

Second, some of her recent work, based on global literature review as well as field work in Nepal (culturally and contextually not very different from Bihar) on the unintended consequences of programming of WEE shows the link between WEE and gender-based violence (GBV). It has been documented in many research studies, particularly in micro-finance programmes, how GBV goes up in the initial stages of women’s engagement in those programmes until there is a supportive mechanism which can help to reduce it. So, GBV is an unintended outcome of programmes that are not gender responsive. The GBV can happen in both forms – domestic and public – because in many ways, the women’s participation in economic life and public life is increasing. The second important thing is, time poverty. Again, taking the example of micro-finance programmes, she stated that women’s time poverty goes up simply because they have to now not only look after their homes, but also have to be part of all of meetings etc. Then she raised concern over the gender aspect of the programme design. The third impact is continued labour market segregation. Because of the understanding that women will continue to want flexible and close-to-home jobs, the trends in the labour market are also reinforcing that. The fourth is the co-option of women in income-control and decision-making. If it is not factored into the design of the programme, nothing is going to change. Incomes may go up, but the actual control of it does not really change, and may have negative impacts on health and well-being of women. 

An auditor’s perspective

Nilotpal Goswami (Principal Accountant General, Accountant General, Bihar) noted that the state of Bihar has almost 72 different schemes which are focused, directly or indirectly, on gender, and of the 52 odd grants that the state currently gives, 19 are especially dedicated to gender. Out of 44 departments, around 19 departments are doing something or the other on gender. Then he stated that he is actually reeling out these numbers because there is a gender budget and there are these schemes in Bihar, which means there is an intent to improve the situation. With this intent, Government of Bihar recently implemented alcohol prohibition, which has huge impact on gender. While summarising, he stated that gender needs to be understood in terms of different layers, and emphasised the need for convergence of existing schemes. He asked two questions to the researchers and practitioners: Are we converging our resources properly for the existing policies to get to the right direction, and what the outcomes are of these schemes? 

What is at the root of the problem? 

Pronab Sen (Country Director, IGC India) remarked that the root of all problems is information, and stated that there are 19 departments which are currently working on issues linked to gender, which also means that there should be 19 different information streams because every government scheme has attached with it a management information system (MIS). He emphasised the convergence of existing MIS systems to get a clear-cut information on status of these schemes, which is currently missing in the system. For him, empowerment is not necessarily about sending out money, though it may be important, but particular kinds of interventions in health and education are certainly important. For practically all governments in India, the record, in terms of dissemination of information to whoever are the intended beneficiaries, is extremely poor. The net result is that most of our schemes tend to be very hit-and-miss, and a very small fraction of the intended population is cornering everything. From the Census data or the SECC (Socio-Economic Caste Census) data, we get a rough idea about the magnitudes, but when we actually look at the beneficiary list, we will hardly get 17-20% of the intended beneficiaries. Now, what happened to the rest? Currently, we do not know that. It can well be the case that they are getting self-selected. A group of people are cornering it and we are simply feeding that in the system. Unfortunately, in the government, information is fundamentally unimportant, and we should talk about it a lot more. 

Key commitments by the Government of Bihar  

N. Vijaya Lakshmi said that the policy landscape has now shifted towards Direct Benefit Transfer (DBTs). There was earlier a criticism that the middle layers are actually not giving these benefits to the intended beneficiaries, but there was a lot of other leakages also. It is now very early to assess DBTs’ performance in Bihar; maybe by next year, people may get a chance to analyse how DBTs are performing. Dr Vijaya Lakshmi in her presentation emphasised the work of Government of Bihar on gender equality and women empowerment. As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), Bihar made remarkable progress in all the indicators in past 10 years. It only happened because of the Government’s commitment towards women empowerment. With the State Policy for Empowerment of Women, 2015, the state government launched many other schemes for encouraging girl child’s education. For reducing GBV, the Government of Bihar has already established Mahila Thanas and special cells for women. Under the ambit of social protection, the Government of Bihar launched popular schemes like Balika Cycle Yojana and Mukhya Mantri Kanya Utthan Yojana. These initiatives and policies actually helped the government to achieve its objectives. As per NFHS-3, 69% of girls got married before the age of 18, but currently as per NFHS-4, the figure has improved to 42%. The state government launched a huge campaign to end child marriage in 2017. The state government is very much determined to bring down the child marriage from 42% to 20% in the coming next 2-3 years. Bihar has also made remarkable progress in reduction of spousal violence though it is still high. The government implemented total prohibition of alcohol in the state in 2016; spousal violence has come down drastically. Gender Resource Centre (GRC) has conducted a study and has found that total prohibition has really made an impact on reducing domestic violence. In addition to all of these, lots of other initiatives were taken by the Government of Bihar to provide livelihoods opportunities to women. 

She added that we cannot just focus on economic empowerment alone; unless we focus on social empowerment, we would not able to get desired results from WEE interventions. The Government of Bihar has important and effective programmes like Gram Varta, which talk about health, nutrition, and sanitation initiatives. Bihar has already made the beginning for empowering women; things are changing but they are still a work-in-progress. 

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