In evaluating any society, a good place to start is to ask how it treats its women. The status of women in society has been equated to that of God in Indian society –
Yatra Naryastu Poojyante Ramante Tatra Devataah.
Yatraitaastu Na Pujyante Sarvaastatraafalaah Kriyaah
” – Manusmriti
(The societies where women are revered, Gods reside in those societies. The societies which ill treat their women, any amount of hard work, penance and actions don’t yield any progress.)

Women empowerment has become an important tool of measuring a nation”™s level of development, making ours an age where women”™s issues are being heard like never before. While we are far from applauding the condition of women, there are positive stories that prove things are improving, and a lot more can be done to empower women to lead the life they deserve.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi”™s August edition of Mann ki Baat gave us shining examples of women making our country proud. Be it our talented Rio sportswomen, or a ninety-year old retired teacher wanting to make other women”™s lives better by her selfless act, women across age groups are stepping up to make India a better country for the coming generations of women. Simultaneously, the government has taken a slew of initiatives to empower women and make their lives safer, better and more convenient. Let”™s take a look at what initiatives the government is taking to bring “acche din“ for India”™s women.

The Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojana strikes at the core of our society”™s prejudice against the girl child, and the practice of keeping women uneducated. The program aims at bringing about a change in mindset, which is a process that will take time. It can be accelerated by continual engagement with the areas where female foeticide is rampant. It is good to see that the program continues to be a focus area of the Prime Minister. Even as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had taken concrete steps towards improving female attendance in schools. PM Modi”™s recent appeal to Gram Pradhans for celebrating the birth of daughters in their villages is one example of how age-old practices against the girl child can be challenged and overturned.

For tackling the problem of illiteracy, the “beti padhao” initiative is being taken up through the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana which is a special deposit investment for the girl child and offers 9.1% rate of interest, which is one of the highest available. The money can be withdrawn once the girl turns 18 for making her life better. As of now, 80 lakh accounts have already been opened, amounting to Rs. 3,400 crore.

It is when women”™s issues are given importance by the government as a whole, and not left to one ministry alone, that we can expect long-term, transformational change in women”™s lives. Various steps are being taken across ministries which are empowering women, and therefore, are delivering on the promise of Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas.

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JAM – The three schemes – Jan Dhan, Adhaar, and Mudra,

The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana has been implemented at a record-breaking speed, with the World Bank praising PM Modi for his “visionary leadership.“   With Jan Dhan, India is rapidly moving towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of universal financial inclusion. Being a goal towards inclusive development, it has led to women gaining access to money, and having a say in “˜money matters”™ of their families, something that many women have been denied. As of August 2016, 358 million women (61%) now have their own bank accounts, compared to 48% in 2014, making it the biggest increase in “˜banked”™ women among South Asian countries. In last twelve months, 7.7 crore women have opened bank accounts, thereby giving a big boost to financial inclusion of women.

Social security schemes of the government are helping women sustain themselves and their families at the most vulnerable time in their lives. Through the Jan Dhan, the government can release the funds to the beneficiaries in the most speedy and corruption free manner. Schemes like Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jivan Jyoti Yojana, and Atal Pension Yojana benefit women in backward areas as they no longer have to deal with a system plagued with excessive paperwork and exploitative middlemen.

MUDRA– With bank accounts, comes financial literacy. Being in control of what they earn and save, data shows that more women availing the Mudra and Jan Dhan loans are from states with poor growth. Data from the State Bank of India alone shows that 49% of the entire bank accounts opened under the Jan-dhan Yojana are of women.

The Stand Up India scheme builds upon the financial literacy gained by women from backward areas through JAM. For a developing country like India, the twin schemes of Start-Up India and Stand Up India reflect the government”™s aim of inclusive growth by promoting entrepreneurship in both rural and urban India. For a country with our population size, nurturing entrepreneurs is the best way to tackle the problem of unemployment. The sections of society suffering from unemployment are plagued by gender and caste inequalities. To ensure that oppressed citizens do not get left out of the start-up revolution, the Stand Up India scheme ensures participation of women and SC/ST communities. It also aims at decreasing over dependence on agriculture, and provides loans for entrepreneurs venturing into non-farm activities.

Stand Up India will focus on educating women in how to run businesses and provide accessible Stand Up Connect Centres in order to encourage participation. The program has the potential to uplift a huge chunk of women employed in low-skilled sectors such as manual labourers. “Stand-Up India scheme facilitates bank loans between Rs. 10 lakh and Rs. 1 crore to at least one SC or ST borrower and at least one woman borrower per bank to establish a greenfield enterprise.” If the enterprise is owned by multiple people, a woman (or a SC/ST) must have at least 51% of the shareholding and controlling in that enterprise. Read more how Stand-Up India is going to benefit women in 5 ways here .

 

Stand Up India Website
Stand Up India Website

The Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan takes on the ambitious task of making India a clean country by October 2019. The government aims to ensure sanitation facilities to every family – a toilet in every home equipped with proper waste disposal systems, access to clean drinking water, and overall emphasis on cleanliness of public spaces. Improvement in hygiene means healthy citizens, and for rural Indian women having a toilet in their homes means living a life of dignity. It is no wonder that women have been active participants of the Clean India Mission. Be it a sixteen year old girl demanding a toilet by going on a satyagraha, or a group of female Rajasthani construction workers who received training from an oil MNC in constructing toilets.

In demanding toilets, women are breaking many barriers, from the simple one of raising their voices to picking up the shovel, building toilets on their own, and becoming literate as they acquire skills on the way. As India takes strides in improving cleanliness, it is accomplishing many other goals in the field of women empowerment.

The government”™s “˜Power for All”™ target is a crucial piece in the development story of India. Recognising energy access as a right, the government aims not only at universal access, but round the clock, affordable access to electricity. India is on track towards achieving this ambitious goal, and one of many examples of progress is that India is now a power surplus nation for the first time since independence. Electricity is being reached to the remotest corners with the Grameen Vidyuteekaran programme, and stories from every village include women”™s voices of satisfaction at the reduced burden in their household work. The rural electrification mission has also played a role in introducing rural women to clean energy. Since many villages on the Power Ministry”™s 1000 days agenda are too remote for the grid to reach, off-grid solutions are being used to power these areas.

As solar energy is lighting up these villages, it is also opening new avenues of employment for women. CSR programmes like Solar Saheli in Rajasthan, engages women in distributing solar solutions in their villages, which has helped bring “respect, empowerment and income to women”, says Sawai Madhopur MLA, Princess Diya Kumari. Another programme that is spreading clean energy access and employing rural women is IIT Bombay”™s Million SoUL program. The program aims to distribute one million Solar Urja Lamps (SoUL) to students across India, thereby improving literacy rates. Women are being trained in assembly of these lamps which will help improve literacy and employability among women. Since energy access impacts a host of factors like domestic work, safety, health, and education, women empowerment is getting a big boost as electricity wires connect rural India to the benefits enjoyed by urban citizens.

Along with electricity, access to clean cooking is necessary for providing a decent standard of living to India”™s rural households. In Pradhan Mantri LPG Subsidy PAHAL Yojana, the government has eliminated shortcomings and leakages of the past, and has ensured transparency in implementation through Direct Benefit Transfer. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana aims to provide 5 crore LPG connections registered in the name of women in BPL (Below Poverty Line) households. The scheme will give a huge boost to preventive health care, and also empower women by giving them ownership of such a crucial asset of their household.

As our nation crosses milestones of development, more women will require an environment where they can feel safe while travelling. To make this possible, the government needs to be sensitive to the needs of women passengers.

Ministry of Railways has made progress in this area, as it has been making headlines for coming to the aid of women passengers in distress. The control room of Indian Railways is very prompt in replying to messages on social media, and resolves issues at the earliest possible. Many women travelling alone have benefited from the Railways security helpline number 182. Besides delivering timely response, the ministry has responded to the need of the hour and installed CCTV cameras at 983 stations, putting the Nirbhaya Fund to good use.

Recently, the Maternity Benefits Bill (2016) was passed by the Parliament. This bill increases the maternity leave (fully paid) of women from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. The bill also protects the employment of pregnant women and mothers. This will benefit more than 20 lakh women who are working in the organised sector.  The bill also provides 12 weeks leave for adopting mothers and makes it mandatory to provide creche facility for the employers where the total number of workers is 50 and above.

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Going through the several steps being taken, it is clear that consistent efforts are being taken to make women equal partners in India”™s progress. As the slogan goes, “Empowered Woman, Empowered Family“.

Arushi Bahuguna & Kshitij Mohan