Our government policies should be such as to facilitate easy credit for women farmers and entrepreneurs, says Patricia Mukhim
On 28-29 December the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin and the Ajmal Foundation hosted a meet at Guwahati to discuss issues related to the plight of Muslims in India, with particular reference to their status in Assam. I was part of a panel captioned “Empowering women as key agents of change”. The word “empower” has become synonymous with the word “women”.
It almost seems as if women&’s empowerment is a natural process that will happen because of a few policy initiatives such as the setting up of a national commission for women and state commissions for every state, and some variable attempts at reserving seats for women in panchayats. But on the whole, the status of women — Muslim women in particular — remains unchanged. A closer study will reveal that religion and religious tenets where patriarchy is well entrenched is a great hindrance to the mental and psychological liberation of women. And unless the mind is liberated to think new and progressive thoughts, a woman remains mentally stunted and incapable of empowering herself, for at the end of the day a person can only empower oneself; no person can empower another.
What women need are supporting structures in the form of good policies, inclusive of governance that ensures women participate in decision-making at various levels, a liberal domestic sphere where a woman is respected and given her space to pursue any career she chooses and even to continue her studies if that is truncated by marriage. Above all, the religion a woman is born into and adopts must recognise that she is an individual and not just an appendage of a male member (daughter, wife, sister, etc). Most women today are burdened by care-giving roles — looking after husbands, children, in-laws, etc. Why should care-giving be the sole domain of a woman? If there can be male nurses then this surely beats the stereotype that only women make good nurses.
Education is a key resource for enabling women to empower themselves. Education enables them to make informed decisions about their lives and careers. An educated woman enjoys or should enjoy greater social and financial mobility because she enjoys the freedom to take action about how to live her life, whom to marry, at what age to do so, etc.
Unfortunately, two-thirds of the world&’s illiterate population are women. Of the millions of children out of school, the majority are girls. Higher education is important as it empowers independent thinking and decision-making. However, women need equal opportunities because the transition from education to work is often not a natural process. Even if women are better educated, most employers prefer to employ men on the plea that the organisation would suffer unnecessary loss of mandays due to maternity leave availed by women. This is especially true of private organisations. So unless there is an organisational gender policy that a certain percentage of employees should be women, the employment ratio will always be skewed.
I had mentioned this earlier but it merits repetition. In science and technology women are under-represented. Statistics from across the world and in this country show that few women are heads of scientific or technological institutes. Women are under-represented in research and development, in academia and in public and private sector companies Globally only 29 per cent of women are researchers in any field, although there is enough evidence to show that men do not necessarily have a better intellect, the gender stereotyping persists that men are better at mathematics and science and women are better in the humanities and care-giving fields. Like they say, it&’s all in the minds and changing mindsets is perhaps the toughest challenge.  
The only way to empower women is for the state to develop their competencies and ensure equal access to all fields of education. Capacity-building by state institutes in the fields of agriculture, etc, tends to focus on male farmers only. Hence women lose out in every which way we look at it. Yet more women have been known to be engaged in rice farming than men.
The recent inflationary trends and soaring food prices affect women&’s health and nutrition. Often we forget that many women living below the poverty line eat only once a day so that other family members get enough to eat. As a result they suffer severe malnutrition. A malnourished young mother gives birth to malnourished children. A child suffering from vitamin deficiencies is unable to develop its cognitive abilities. The reason why there are so many school dropout s is because parents pull their children out from school due to poverty or because the kids cannot cope with the syllabus.
Hence, when women are supported to empower themselves all of society benefits and families are healthier. There will be less maternal and infant mortality rates. More children will go to school and agricultural productivity will improve. This leads to an increase in incomes, which in turn makes communities more resilient.
One thing that women do not have easy access to is credit. Our government policies should be such as to facilitate easy credit for women farmers and entrepreneurs. Economic empowerment is important because only women who earn their own income can challenge social and gender relations and bring in gender equality. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report for 114 countries where data is available says that advances in gender equality correlates with higher Gross National Product.
However, it is also important to improve the environment for women in the workplace. Violence against women extracts heavy costs in extra health and mental health care and results in low productivity. The USA spends $ 5.8 billion a year extra in health and mental health care. Canada spends $1.16 billion a year. In India, the amount is not yet quantified but considering the rise in sexual violence and rape, the legal and health care costs would be phenomenal.
What about women in politics? It is useless speaking of women&’s empowerment if politics continues to be male-dominated. The state needs to create agencies for the political education of women. Women&’s political platforms will help expand their constituencies. But the state can do only so much. Women should first be given space to speak within their homes and listened to with respect. Only someone whose voice is respected in the home can speak with conviction outside. Women need to run for and win elections. It is unfortunate that the 33 per cent Reservation Bill for women in state assembles and Parliament continues to be resisted by male politicians in this country.  
There are some areas where gender discrimination persists. Religion continues to be that domain. Teresa Rehman, a journalist-entrepreneur, while sharing her views at the recent Afmi conclave, said that as a Muslim woman she faced discrimination within religion. While she has travelled widely and been part of international fora, where she can speak her mind, she found that as a Muslim woman she was excluded from Waqf Boards and committees for Haj pilgrims, which were all male-dominated, even though a substantial chunk of pilgrims were women.  Perhaps as far as Islam is concerned, giving women an equal share of politico-religious space might be its biggest challenge. 

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