By Krishna Ballabh Chaudhary
The Coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down. What seemed impossible yesterday is becoming a routine process day by day. Universities would not have thought of giving online lectures and nor the students, who now have to attend online sessions to complete their course. Firms that were not willing to give a single working day as work from home have adapted to it in no time. The world is seeing rapid changes and this has opened a door to many possibilities. Emergency situations can bring changes in hours which would otherwise have taken years. This raises hopes for sustainable development, especially in countries like India.
The traditional system of production at homes where families used to own and control the mediums of production went into capitalist hands with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. This marked the end of the self-sustainable model of production. Production got its new meaning and became synonymous with surplus. The new work settings were not meant for those with domestic responsibilities and men washed their hands off of even the last one. The divide widened and women were no longer supported in any of the domestic works which included farm as well as off-farm activities. Home-based production, due to its inability to produce surplus at par with the factories, got devalued. The impact of those changes are so profound and long-lasting that women still struggle to start their own enterprise.
With only around 14% of total entrepreneurs being women in the country(1), it was very difficult to imagine a sustainable future(2) before this pandemic. The goals of sustainable development can’t be achieved leaving half of the society lagging behind.
In order to solve a problem, the first step is identifying the reason behind it. It is not very difficult to know why women’s participation as entrepreneurs is this low. The primary reason is the patriarchal family and associated societal norms. In the extreme cases, women are expected to remain within the four walls of the household and their participation in any activity outside is highly retorted upon by the family members. Moving forward, in cases where the family has become a little more liberal, larger societal norms play a vital role in not letting women enter into entrepreneurial activities. The families allow them at most to do a regular job where they have to go to an office, work there and come back.
Other major hindrances in pursuing entrepreneurial activities are the unavailability of mentorship, the lack of awareness about the opportunities, the difficulty in accessing formal financing and poor customer management skills, all because of their structural exclusion leading to lesser experience. Even if some women get ready to start their own business, there is no one to guide them. As they generally lack ownership over any property due to the traditional system, they also have to face hurdles in getting loans. Most of the time they have to approach their family members to provide them with collaterals so that they can get loans, but this leads them to seek permissions in every matter related to their ventures.
To see growth in the number of women entrepreneurs, we need to walk a long way working towards changing the mindset of society and facilitating women in availing loans to support them throughout their ventures are a few efforts to be counted that need to be ensured. Several government and non-government agencies are working towards attaining these. Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme of International Labour Organisation and government’s Trade Related Entrepreneurship Assistance and Development (TREAD) are few of them supporting women at various levels while starting their businesses or establishing an enterprise. Swayam Shikshan Prayog is an NGO working diligently towards uplifting rural women. Biz Sakis (3) – trained by Disha project, a partnership between UNDP India, IKEA Foundation and India Development Foundation is also supporting women at physical and psychological levels to build their own enterprise. These efforts need to be intensified with the help of more organisational participation.
The current situation has brought an opportunity to focus on household-based production. What COVID-19 has brought as an incentive is that the market for hand sanitizers and hand wash is going to expand. Area coverage as well as sales on these products will increase permanently. As the habit of people is changing, there will be more demand for these items in villages and small towns. Many migrant labourers, who are also husbands of the group of women talked about in the article, have come back to their villages. As they are now unwilling to go to the urban areas(4), women can get their support in every aspect, from production to household activities. Their unwillingness can be found in the reactions given by them to The Print, where Kailash Yadav says “Ab Delhi kabhi nahi jayenge. Yahin kheti-baadi karenge, noon-namak khaenge (I will not go to Delhi again. Will pursue farming here, live on salt).”(5)
Though it is very difficult to change the patriarchal mindset of the society, we have to understand that without deconstructing patriarchy, it is impossible to reach the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015. A systematic effort is needed. Once it is achieved, it will also reduce migrant worker’s vulnerability for income within the village, which if not addressed, is sure to pose a challenge to the government bodies.
The immediate need is that with a bit of relaxation in lockdown, Government provides Panchayats(6), Blocks and Districts with resources to guide women in starting their enterprise. Currently the focus can be on items like sanitizers and masks and there can be training for the whole family to produce these items. But in the long run, other items that can be considered for production include most of the daily needed items such as soaps, toothpaste, processed raw grains and flour. These items can be prepared at home without any need for manufacturing plants and with little input. While these immediate measures need to be taken now, they must not be confused with the final solution. As the society progresses, the needs and solutions based on ever-emerging problems need to be assessed and addressed on a regular basis.
The training has to be accompanied by counselling services for the husbands and other family members of the women. Counselling must include topics like providing support not only in the production process but also in household activities. Without teamwork from the partner and other members, women would get double-stressed with excessive workload. If the need for providing training in cooking and nurturing the family is felt for some particular households, it can be provided using the method of peer-learning. Here, women will explain their role to each other’s family members. As women have been performing these activities traditionally, this training will not require much outside resources.
As Yuval Noah Harari has rightly observed “Every crisis is also an opportunity,”(7) the COVID-19 pandemic could behold many. The issue of sustainable development is a very old one and can’t be solved if strong and consistent will is not shown by all. The government, the NGOs and all the civil societies have to come together to stand strong in these times. Together they have the potential and can help in increasing the presence of women in the entrepreneurial arena. The situation demands a long-term view and the emerging society will be led by those of us who’d be more far-sighted.
1. Data from the Sixth Economic Census conducted by the National Sample Survey Office under the ministry of statistics of the government of India.
Business Standard: Women Constitute Around 14% of Total Entrepreneurship In Country
2. Sustainable future holds sustainable development as defined in Brundtland report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” International Institute for Sustainable Development: Sustainable development.
3. The Biz-Sakhi curriculum and training is developed with the support of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), Government of India, the National Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development (NIESBUD), and the Tata Institute of Social Science. United Nations Development Programme: Helping women give back to their communities: Biz-Sakhis
4. The problem of reverse migration followed by unwillingness of migrant workers to go back to the cities is not new. It has been the failure of the governments to create enough opportunities at those times that forced them to go back everytime.
6. Panchayat is a term generally used for Gram Panchayats, which are the lowest tier of the local self government bodies in India. They generally comprise one or more villages depending upon the population. The size of panchayats vary from state to state.
Cover image by Atharva Tulsi
About the Author:
Krishna Ballabh Chaudhary is currently pursuing his bachelor’s in Social Work with specialization in rural development from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur (Maharashtra).