For the past decade, social scientist Suhela Khan has worked at UN Women, leading large-scale transformational programmes on women’s economic empowerment.
Before that, she worked with the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the government of Gujarat to help them formulate and manage their projects and schemes related to the socioeconomic empowerment of women.
Suhela is a Ford Fellow and holds a Master’s degree in public policy from the University of Michigan, and a Master’s in social work from Aligarh Muslim University.
We spoke to Suhela, who is currently country manager for the WeEmpower Asia (WEA) programme at UN Women, about the path to women’s economic empowerment in India and the obstacles ahead.
What are the greatest barriers women in India face when it comes to economic participation and independence? In the years that you have worked toward this cause, how far do you think the situation has improved?
India’s female labour force participation stands at around 20 percent, which is one of the lowest in the world. It has been declining over time, despite rising female education levels and falling fertility.
This does not hint towards a promising situation around women’s access to economic opportunities. Importantly, over 90 percent of women work in the informal or unorganised sector and in certain kinds of jobs and sectors that are unskilled and pay less with little or no implementation of labour laws.
Women in India do 9.8 times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men as compared to the global average of 2.6 times. This limits their prospects for economic advancement.
They not only experience gender pay gap but also face a threat of violence including sexual harassment at public, private and workplaces and now increasingly in digital spaces.
Over the years, the Government of India has taken initiatives to increase women’s participation in the workforce at different levels of organisations. Starting from notifications removing restrictions on women’s right to work at night in factories, in underground mines, appointments as board members to comprehensive maternity benefits and protection from sexual harassment at the workplace, progressive laws and policies have been put in place to change the very fabric of business operations including making worksites safe for women and girls.
Women’s economic empowerment is gaining traction with larger private foundations and global corporations showing an interest in promoting gender equality through their policies and practices.
Please tell us about the WeEmpower Asia program. What are the steps you have taken to encourage private and public sector organisations in India to give women equal opportunity and pay? How effective have the WEPs been in this regard?
WEA is an EU-funded programme to increase the number of women who lead and participate in business in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Its purpose is to advance inclusive and sustainable growth and build more gender-sensitive trade and supply chains between European and Asian markets. We do this through the Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs) focus.
The WEPs outline seven steps for business on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community. We have enabled companies to commit to WEPs and support them in implementation of the Principles that encompasses action around removing all forms of discrimination in corporate policies, strategies, culture and practices.
Within this year over 110 companies became signatories. We are using WEPs Gap Analysis Tool to appreciate the existing status and develop strategies accordingly. WEPs signatories like Capgemini have the practice of capturing sex disaggregated data, which is a step in the right direction.
It is high time that the companies in India adopt global good practices. For example, Next’s Gender Pay Gap report reiterates its commitment to an open and transparent rewards and salary structure.
For women, the professional is deeply impacted by the personal. How has WEA helped encourage women entrepreneurs in India with the major roadblocks and challenges they face in their personal and social environments?
One of the objectives of the WEA Programme is to create an enabling environment for women’s increased access to employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.
The Programme acknowledges that it is not a mere lack of skills, talent, education, or networks that prevent women from excelling in their ventures, but they are constrained by gender barriers to a large extent. Issues such as gender bias and stereotypes, glass ceilings and sticky floors, violence and disproportionate burden of care work compromise their economic pursuits.
To address these, we work with women entrepreneurs in reflecting on these challenges and identifying strategies to address them leveraging their learnings and experiences. The programme also works with investors, corporate supply chains and government, enabling them to adopt a gendered approach to address the needs of and support women owned enterprises.
For example, in partnership with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, we convened businesses, trade unions, civil-society organisations, academia and gender experts, and submitted gender recommendations for the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.
Together with NITI Aayog’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Platform and UN’s Investor Consortium, we brought together women-led enterprises and leading investors to address the gender disparities in startup funding.
How is UN Women creating awareness about women’s economic empowerment in developing countries like India? What are the key channels you use and the groups you focus on for this kind of knowledge-sharing work?
UN Women works with a wide range of stakeholders including National and State Governments, corporates, civil society organisations, women’s rights organisations and networks, sister UN agencies, multilateral organisations who also represent donors and co-creators of UN Women’s programmes in many instances.
One of the strategies that we adopt is to document the learnings and share it with stakeholders and people through our online and social media platforms. We also convene the stakeholders to disseminate innovative strategies adopted with an objective to leverage them inform their replication and scale up as well as identify advocacy priorities.
For example, under WEA, we have launched CEO Conversation Series where we regularly organise an online live chat with CEOs who committed to WEPs to highlight and share their practices on promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in their company to also demonstrate their thought leadership and create a peer-influence network.
What are the steps that you think the Indian government must take to improve availability of credit to women in family firms in both informal and formal sectors to promote entrepreneurship among them?
As per FINDEX 2017, 23 per cent of adult women in India lack access to financial services with women making up 60 percent of the unbanked adults in India. Women-led micro and small enterprises remain outside the fold of digital financial services, with only 29 per cent women account holders in India using digital payments compared to 42 per cent of male account holders.
Persistent gender biases in market institutions act as a major impediment to women entrepreneurs accessing credit. MSME loans are often against property as collateral. At present, women have unequal access to assets such as land, property, livestock and finances, placing women entrepreneurs at a disadvantage when compared to their male counterparts.
In a recent study by UN Women India to assess the impact of Covid-19 on women-led micro, small and medium enterprises, 71 percent of the respondents reported having not obtained any formal loan before the Covid-19 pandemic.
This aggravates challenges for women’s businesses by making them ineligible to benefit from the Government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat stimulus package as it requires prior history of loans.
There is a need to develop a new financing scheme/product to meet the emerging financing needs of women-owned businesses while at the same time initiating steps to sensitise bankers, MFIs and other financial institutions on addressing gender biases.
The average Indian woman is bound due to social, cultural and economic factors to her family. How far can laws and policies change deep rooted social and cultural codes that deny women their own agency, rights and property as equal citizens? What are the protocols that you recommend to help women inherit property and enhance their position in society?
Progressive laws, policies, and regulations, if implemented effectively, have a tremendous potential to challenge the status quo. However, they need to be coupled with conscious strategies to address structural barriers that prevent women to realise their rights and entitlements.
What we have learned through UN Women’s programmes on promoting women’s economic empowerment is that for women’s recognition as citizens, rights-holders and economic agents by themselves, community and state are critical in facilitating women’s access to and ownership as well as control over productive resources.
How can governments help in improving pay parity among women in India? This is a problem across job segments.
Through research undertaken under WEA Programme to analyse gender responsiveness of policies and practices by the government and corporates in India to promote women’s employment and entrepreneurship, we learnt that countries like Great Britain and France have legislation that requires companies with a certain number of employees to report on the gender pay gap.
We found that International and Indian companies that report gender pay in Great Britain and France as required by law have not adopted this practice in India.
Clearly, legislation on the gender pay gap in the UK and France appears to provide companies the requisite push to examine prevailing gender inequalities in employee ratio, earnings, and bonus.
At present, there appears to be no such legislation in India requiring companies to do so, and companies do not feel obliged to collect, analyse or report on gender variations in employee earnings and bonuses.
Government could introduce specific regulation under the Code of Wages Act, 2019 to mandate companies – based on either the number of employees or listing on a stock exchange – to report on the gender gap in pay. There is also a need to encourage companies to make public the pay scales for different grades as part of their annual reporting requirement
Why did you choose to work in the development sector and what are the changes that you have observed over the years in the work of women’s empowerment? How has your work in UN Women impacted you personally?
I come from a small town in Uttar Pradesh and have been fortunate to have parents with progressive values who invested in my and my siblings’ education and ensured equal opportunities for me and my sister. While growing up, I observed the discrimination that girls face in access to opportunities within my extended family and in the community. This enabled me to decide the focus of my higher education as well as work priorities.
In my past 13 years of work on women’s empowerment, I have noticed a greater recognition of gender equality and women’s empowerment as a human-rights imperative, a pre-requisite for sustainable development and an essential element for economic growth. This surely is a powerful impetus for all stakeholders and players for their work on gender equality.
Working with UN Women has been a very enriching experience both personally and professionally. The opportunity to work with exceptional and dedicated team members, partners and women who are a part of UN Women’s programmes strengthened my feminist convictions and nurtured my potential to work in this very critical area of gender equality and women’s empowerment.First published in eShe magazine