Nagrik Dialogue

Women Empowerment- Meaningful Engagements Yield Lasting Results

Sandi Saksena
Empowerment Mentor

The empowerment of women and girls has risen up the development agenda in recent years, championed by powerful financial institutions, the philanthropic wings of major transnational corporations and influential development donors as a sought-after panacea. Universities, think tanks, Management firms, well worded slogans, statements videos talk about commitment inclusion and equality of women!

The post-2015 development agenda was negotiated by global leaders and  include measurable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which the global community must aim to meet by 2030.OK that’s done on the UN Agenda what now?

While the ideals and principles of Empowerment of women are ‘lofty’ most of the time they are bandied about in boardrooms and executive meetings logged in to the minutes of meetings and e mail communication shows forwarding to concerned parties. Come annual reporting time, an audit by the UNGC/UN local body is done of all those who applied for the award,(met the criteria) a winner is chosen media showers attention on winners it goes on to social media, company website under CSR with a crisp message from the CEO cleverly crafted by the corporate communications team that arranges for a radio/TV interview!

Women Empowerment is the flavor of the decade, I’m approached by many who say we want to do something on Women Empowerment When I ask what do you have in mind they reply ‘anything humne website par daal diya hai ab kuch karna hai, kuch award kar dete hai woh accha dikhega. App kisi celebrity ko jaanti hai usko award de sakte hai aur woh cheif guest bhi ban sakti hai. Koi asisa recommend kiiye jiski social media presence ho.

The most bizzare idea of women empowerment – the Stock exchanges in Egypt, Istanbul, Mumbai, Stockholm, Nigeria, Warsaw and New York, for example, worked with UN Women, the UN Global Compact, and the Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative to carry out ceremonies to “ring the bell for gender equality”.

Women are underrepresented at all levels of the global financial system, from depositors and borrowers to bank board members and regulators.

I have attended gala dinners and award ceremonies galore ‘honoring’ women and men who have ‘worked’ towards ‘Empowering women where lakhs are spent on venues, food (that is wasted) entertainment and celebrities (who usually charge for their ‘appearance and endorsement’) . Big Corporate names are splashed across electronic screens and news anchors of popular TV channels vie for interviews with awardees.

Imagine what that amount of money spent on one event could do for the ‘empowerment’ of the women whose data collated and ‘auditted’ as per csr and other norms was used as criteria for the award  How removed are we from on the ground realities?

In the past buoyed by the presence of big corporates who ‘supported’ these event I have contacted them to support causes related to Empowerment of women. I have stared presentations, costs, details……. zero response to calls e mails messages.  I guess I’m not celebrity caliber, that’s ok, Time waits for no one and so it’s best to use time effectively

Women Empowerment, Gender equality, Me Too, all great hashtags on social media and news channels. Focus is on what’s trending, what’s sensational what will build my brand, earn me awards fame and funding. Costly law suits filed by ‘wronged’ rich women take up millions of dollars, (sometimes funded by ‘rights’ groups) lawyers get rich and famous the judicial system is financial sustained, years later theres a ‘landmark’ judgment. Sometimes ‘victims’ are vindicated sometimes not. Time and money could both have been put to better use for women? Sometimes I wonder where are our priorities.

All around the world changes are happening in women’s lives – in many countries, women are discovering new freedoms, exploring new horizons and breaking away from old patterns, constraints and certainties. In the process, they are facing opposition and exploitation, and encountering new forms of oppression. Change is happening, but women’s journeys of empowerment rarely follow the simple linear formula that development agencies and their corporate sponsors would have us believe.

My personal observation is that women are discriminated against in most parts of the world ‘developed’ or otherwise and in many forms and attitudes.

I decide to bring myself up to date on what our(Indian) constitution/ laws  guarantees Indian Women and this is what I found

The Indian Constitution has embodied within itself grandiose and lofty Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and Directive Principles to work towards shaping policies and putting safeguards for women empowerment and women protection.

Mahamta Gandhi said

“To call a woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then the woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her, a man could not be. If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with a woman. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?”

Women’s Rights Under Our Indian Constitution are comprehensive and encompassing, sadly knowledge of these rights are relegated to people who study law, politics, pursue a career in law enforcement. Most times ‘students’ memorize these to pass exams and then all is forgotten

The commitment to inclusion and equality for women is embedded into the fabric of our constitution. It is an integral part of our present government under PM Modi to uplift the women of India and yet so many are unware of their basic rights and live their lives in penury, fear, exploitation, poor health, and so much indignity which is hard comprehend The question is ‘how do we get into the mind of the female’?

 Invest in women and girls.

They have so much potential.

Get them into school,  Get them into work, and poverty will disappear.

Get them into politics, and peace will reign.

Invest in their potential and in their families, and communities and nations will yield the benefits.

Ok question How and what can yield positive results  for Indian women ?

What should be done for the village woman, the city slum dweller, the migrant worker the sex worker, weaver………..?  What is the common denominator is there one? 

I have been actively involved with WEPS in the UAE as part of the volunteer task force, I studied the material and the guidelines which apply anywhere where UNGC has a representation. Guidelines are for corporates to sign up and very seldom does it go beyond that.

In my humble belief

The UNGC is a wonderful guide for all of us to use  to get anyone started on the path of social service. The businesses that understand this challenge and take action will be a step ahead. On 1 January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at an historic UN Summit — officially came into force.

In order to have a lasting  impact where we bring value to the female it has got to be simple and appealing to her, information, guidance, awareness, easily  accessbile at all times. We must move away from the premise that I know what’s good for you so here I am telling you what you should and must do.

My objective is not change but transformation that which  lie beyond limiting measures, Changes in women’s sense of their own possibilities and horizons, and shifts of power that are the precondition for creating a more just and equal world.

If women and girls are really to be put at the heart of development efforts, a good place to begin is to ask not what women and girls can do for development, but what development can do for them. This is an ‘educative’ process which must focus on the social, cultural and religious norms which are deeply embedded in the psyche of the woman. Programs must be designed with the target audience in mind as without ‘buy in’ there is no success. 

Having participated in some  mega projects in India under FOGSI I know what a grass routes programs can do. Padh yatras, medical camps, surveys, entertainment with a message, yes they all worked because they were implemented and monitored well. Most important was the control of how money was spent and where. Financial accountability was strictly enforced. We saw the results as teams were sent back at regular intervals to assess. The programs focused on women in the reproductive years ages 15 to 45. My observation was that education played an important role. Comparing  females aged 15 to 21 in UP and the North East States as an example, females in the North East were far more informed and knowledgeable about their reproductive system and what was basic and important for them as females to remain safe and healthy.  

Programs have to be well thought out and implementation has to be precise and monitored. Hands on involvement is essential.

Over ambitious targets, goals lead to compromise and cutting corners.

The project must be financially viable and financial reporting must be strict 

The process must be on going for at least a year to be successful

Frequent and regular Interaction is essential.

Availability  and Accessibility  of the initiators/instructors/volunteers  is mandatory

This is not a PR exercise and use of print and social media should be holistic and purpose driven

Funding from corporates/ governments/ think tanks/foundations, should be used to develop specific content that can be sent to them. Emotionally Engaging Entertaining Educational specific content  that is both Aspirational and Practical is one of  most effective way to reach the  women we wish to empower. Rural urban slum migrant this is for all.

Today the way we run programs , do business and socialize has changed beyond measure. Attitudes Acceptability Buy In in all demographics economic, urban, rural are morphing at amazing speed! 

Pictures speak a thousand words…….. the power of the internet! Thanks to our present  government led by PM Modi  our people even in remote areas have access to the net

 Internet users up by 7%in urban India, Interesting to note that  digital adoption is now being propelled by rural India, registering a 35% growth in internet users over the past year. There are 251 million internet users in rural India, and this is expected to reach 290 million by the end of 2019  

Most interesting is that the internet usage is more gender balanced than ever before with women comprising 42% of total internet users. 

 The digital revolution is now sweeping small towns and villages  driven by increased accessibility at affordable data costs. The increase in the usage of digital in rural India, where more than two-thirds of active internet users are now accessing the internet daily for  their entertainment and communication needs, and here in lie the most effective tool of empowering the woman!!

Access to information and communication technology  such as the Internet, is an important what I call  pre-condition to strengthen women’s economic empowerment, in addition to enabling them to take part in or influence any process that is critical to the development of policies that reflect their particular needs and interests toward social empowerment.

Accessing unmediated information, on their own terms, can also ensure women understand the services (legal, financial, social) they are entitled to and the possible mechanisms available to them to access these services. Such access is also purported to reduce disparities in levels of political engagement, economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge

My  research and involvement in projects  in India reveal that piecemeal economic and political empowerment programs might give individual women opportunities to improve their lives through loans or training, but they fall short of achieving real and sustained change.

A valuable asset in every home From Idiot box to Empowerment box 

Women’s access to ‘television’ is one of the most powerful indicators of Empowerment. The medium of this content now accessed on phones and freely available on You tube will bring these women in contact with worlds, ideas and possibilities that they might otherwise never have experienced, and will expose them to new tactics and solutions.  It also gives them an opportunity for leisure, something so vital to women’s and girls’ empowerment and so absent from development programs

Access to television in rural areas  has changed substantially in the past few years.  When a village gets access to cable/Internet , villagers tend to watch more TV, and women’s attitudes changed quickly and substantially on

  • Whether the woman gets to make her own decisions about shopping, health, and whom she visits
  • Attitudes toward beating the number of circumstances in which women view beating as acceptable
  • Whether women prefer having male children
  • Boys’ rates of school attendance stayed the same, while girls between the ages of 6 and 10 were 8% more likely to go to school

 Reports indicate that women in India still don’t use smart phones. To reduce the gender gap in mobile internet and mobile money service

Agencies/NGOs/Foundations that focus on Women Empowerment should  work with  the mobile industry and financial institution/banks/ insurance  companies to bring increase accessibility that will not only benefit and socio-economic status of women  but will be a huge ROI for the stakeholders

Digital content I know will works its magic on women by providing them a new televised set of peers and in turn changing their attitudes. Supporting this conclusion is evidence that TV’s emancipatory effects are larger in places where women initially held more traditional attitudes!

The power of relationships and bonding

As an Insurance salesperson in the business for over 20 years I can state that relationship building, bonding, listening gets far better buy in and commitment. No one likes to be told, instructed  what good for them. 

Projects, programs and policies that have this at the center of their strategy  have made a difference, they have done so because they recognized the power of relationships, the significance of recognition and the importance of confronting limiting stereotypes and institutionalizing new norms.

We must be  at the heart of these changes and movements, visionary and committed, collective action by those who truly understand what is at stake women themselves.



Nagrik Dialogue is the face of Nagrik Foundation’s communication skills that comes in the form of a monthly magazine. It will work as a bridge for those working at the grass roots level and those who support them in any form and manner.