December 31, 2023

The Mirage of “Women led” Development

Brinda Karat

THE G-20 Delhi
Summit adopted an omnibus declaration which included a section on “Gender Equality and Empowering all Women and Girls”. Through 17 clauses which reiterate the importance of women’s “leadership and equal participation” in decision-making processes, the declaration resolved to set up a “working group on women’s empowerment.” Given the global reality of continuing discrimination against women and girl children, such a working group to focus specifically on steps to address such existing discriminations can only be welcome. One does though have a kind of déjà vu feeling since recommendations of such “working groups” formed in the past, by and large, remain unimplemented. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals to which all the G-20 countries are signatories have specific targets to address gender gaps. However as the declaration itself admits “At the midway point to 2030, the global progress on SDGs is off-track with only 12 per cent of the targets on track.”

The gender equality section starts with the words “We encourage women-led development and remain committed to enhancing women’s full, equal, effective, and meaningful participation as decision makers for addressing global challenges inclusively and in contributing as active participants in all spheres of society, across all sectors and at all levels of the economy, which is not only crucial for achieving gender equality, but also for contributing to global GDP growth.”  The phrase “women-led development” in the declaration is striking and is the contribution of the government of India which of late has been using the phrase quite often. But there is nothing in the 17 clauses which throws any light on what this phrase actually means.  The 17 clauses reiterate what is well known and documented, namely the various areas including climate change, food security, education, women’s employment, health, nutrition and so on where steps are to be taken to address existing inequalities.

This is not an issue of semantics. When phrases like “women-led development” are used, leaders are accountable to describe what are the parameters of such a development process, which are different from other “non women-led development models. The truth is that the development models adopted by countries describing themselves as ‘democracies”, mainly western developed countries, have led to obscene inequalities across the globe, between countries, between the rich and the poor within countries, and between men and women. The core of this model remains the discredited “trickle down theory” in which big business continues to enjoy State subsidies through tax concessions, bank loan write offs, subsidies in land availability, cross country concessions for the free movement of finance capital on the premise that it will lead to more investment, creation of employment and so on. The “no governance is good governance” model, has removed government regulation, dismantled and sold off public assets, privatised strategic industries.  All this, as we know, has been done in the name of “reform.” The G-20 declaration reiterates this commitment. It says “(We agree to) Pursue reforms... We recognise the critical role of private enterprise in accelerating growth and driving sustainable economic transformations.” If the macro model of development remains the same, where then does women-led development fit in?

On March 7, 2023, the Press Information Bureau of the government of India put out a bulletin with a list of government schemes meant to benefit women under the headline “From Women’s development to Women led development.” Just as “reform” is the cover for aggressive profit maximising models of capitalism, so also the phrase “women led development” listing government schemes,  conceals the reality of a trend of decreasing government investment in projects and schemes meant for women’s development. The gender budget was started in 2005-2006 as a result of women’s struggles for budgeting accountability in the share of national resources allocated to address multiple layers of gender discrimination. What was meant to be a tool to identify and plug the gaps through prioritised investment, has been reduced to nothing but an accounting exercise. It has two parts –the first part A which includes schemes which are 100 per cent for women and part B which include all government schemes where at least one third of the expenditure is supposedly for women. Women led development should mean a substantial increase in the total amount of the gender budget. It should also reflect in a much bigger component in the expenditure in part A rather than Part B. However on both counts, the opposite trend dominates. Firstly, the total gender budget for 2023-2024, was reduced from 5.2 per cent of the total expenditure the previous year to 5 per cent. On an average, there has been no substantial increase in the gender budget since its inception, which has remained between 4 to 6 per cent. What is of greater concern is that, in 2023-24, the very year that the phrase of women led development was coined, the expenditure in Part A, was at its lowest at just around 39 per cent of the total, while part B which includes expenditure on all manner of projects made up 61 per cent of expenditures of the gender budget. In other words, wholly women specific schemes are just about 40 per cent of an already inadequate budgetary allocation.

A critical area recognised as being a prerequisite for women’s development is her economic independence. India’s record has been going from bad to worse in the field of women’s waged employment that is considered to be the most secure. The share of women in regular waged work fell, according to an analysis of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (NSO) from 21.9 per cent in 2018-2019 to just 15.9 per cent in the post pandemic period in 2022-2023, highlighting the disproportionate effect in loss of employment for women. There is no change in the reality that over 90 per cent of women are in the unorganised sector with no job or income security. The central government itself has proved to be the worst employer. The largest number of women are employed in flagship schemes of the central government. Almost one crore women work in anganwadis, and as ASHA workers, as mid day meal scheme workers, as facilitators and so on. However despite onerous work tasks critical to these service oriented schemes, these women are the most exploited, paid ‘allowances” which are below even minimum wages, and not recognised as government employees. According to the PLFS survey, the share of women engaged in agriculture has increased sharply to 64.3 per cent in 2022-23 from 55.3 per cent in 2018-19. This includes and is mainly unpaid work on family farms. The budgetary allocations for paid work mandated by law in rural work projects through MNREGA have been drastically cut down by the central government. This has a most negative impact on women who constitute between 50 to 80 per cent of workers in several states. So here is a novel model of “women led development” which cuts resources for women and follows policies which lead to an increased burden of unpaid work for the female work force.

The reality is that women, particularly women from historically oppressed and exploited communities of dalits and adivasis, are bearing the brunt of the economic policies of the present central regime of handing over the country’s national resources to the richest one per cent who now control over 40 per cent of the country’s wealth. This is corporate led development, certainly not women led.