This article has been published in partnership with UNDP India
Recent media stories talk of how Japan is falling short of its pledge for women to hold 30 per cent of the nation’s leadership positions by this year. When this pledge was announced in 2011 with a fancy slogan to “build a society where women shine”, the said rate was 10.6%. Today it has increased only up to 15%. As a Japanese woman, this news has disappointed me but has not really surprised me. How can we have strong women representation in Government, private sector, and political positions, when we are still expecting girls and women to take up the traditional roles as caregivers?
Having lived and worked across several countries — Nepal, Maldives, Tajikistan, Yugoslavia, and now India — one thing remains common in these historically, geographically and culturally diverse countries: gender inequality. Through my work and own personal experiences, I have seen over and over that women’s empowerment cannot happen overnight. Women’s empowerment must be part of the government policies, workplace practices, social norms, education and parenting. It is a slow and long process.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further magnified the gender gaps. Increased burden of childcare, caring for elderly and domestic work are falling on women as the key caregiver. It is estimated that following the lockdown in April, four out of every ten women who were working last year, lost their jobs during the lockdown. Women’s participation in the Indian workforce is one of the lowest in the world with participation declining from 35 per cent in 2005 to 25.5 per cent today and the lockdown has pushed down the numbers even further.
For UNDP, empowering women and increasing their participation have always been a top priority. All our work on economic empowerment has a strong piece on confidence building, negotiation skills, leadership skills. Building confidence and negotiation skills go a long way in addressing gender discrimination and gender-based violence, which are often significant barriers to women’s participation in labour force and other decision-making processes.
Through the Disha Project — a collaboration between UNDP and IKEA Foundation, we have empowered one million women and created a cadre of mentors to strengthen women-led entrepreneurship. The psycho-social support provided as part of this project, includes not only the skills to start their own enterprise but also empowers them to negotiate and fight gender stereotypes at home and in the community.
We have been in touch with the women entrepreneurs we work with and have seen how economic impacts of COVID-19 are felt most egregiously by women and girls, especially those who are already economically disadvantaged or economically dependent on others. Thus, it is even more important now to strengthen the scope for local jobs and livelihood opportunities for women so that they can tide over any possible economic crisis.
While we are re-envisioning women’s livelihoods, we must realize that livelihoods cannot be seen in isolation. While we work closely with rural women across India, we witness the various challenges that stand between them and their economic independence — safety issues, lack of confidence to step out of homes, their overwhelming burdens as caregivers, mobility issues and social norms.
I strongly believe that it is possible to transform this reality. But women cannot do that alone.
We need more leaders, more corporations, and most importantly the men to step up and create opportunities to ensure that every girl, every woman gets an equal chance to realize and grow to their fullest potential. We need to work together to ensure that women are part of all decision-making processes that affect them or matter to them — in parliament, in panchayats, in schools, in community groups, in media and at home.
Women’s empowerment cannot happen overnight. It is a slow and long process — it starts with the family and the community, giving equal opportunities and confidence to girls to stand up for what is rightfully theirs.