This article is part of our Rural Reset series, where we evaluate forward-looking, long-term solutions to the issues and challenges facing the people of rural India. Check out our LinkedIn page every Wednesday to find proposals for innovative solutions in the areas of education, gender and livelihoods.
Women are the backbone of rural society. From their crucial roles as caregivers and mothers to their high levels of participation in the rural workforce, it is clear the importance of these women to the functioning of their communities. But in spite of their important contributions, rural women remain highly disadvantaged in comparison to their male counterparts.
Rural women encounter numerous barriers to success. One of these barriers is unequal access to education and healthcare. A study from 2017 found that rural women are 2-3 times more likely to be illiterate than men from their same communities. This discrepancy stems partially from a prioritization of male children in sending children to schools. More than 23 million Indian women also drop-out out of school each year because of improper access to menstrual care and hygienic facilities. These conditions lead in part to an over-representation of women in the informal sector and un- or underpaid labor roles.
Rural women also experience inauspicious conditions inside of the household. That same study from 2017 found that in some parts of India, as much as 46% of rural women find themselves in child marriages, and 31.2% of these women experience frequent intimate partner violence. Deeply embedded norms around the “proper” behavior of women influence such violence with over half of men surveyed as part of a report on gender-based violence suggesting that they are justified to beat a woman if she “leaves the home without permission.”
While these numbers suggest a bleak outlook for the millions of women who live in rural areas, this is not to suggest that progress has not been made. Today more Indian women than ever before are accessing education, receiving healthcare, participating in the workforce and free from violence in the home. However, it is clear that there is still a long way to come before rural women are able to thrive, free from gender-based obstacles and challenges.
Below we briefly introduce three ideas that we believe have the potential to improve the lives of women in rural areas and build a better, more equitable rural society. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the interventions necessary to make real the promise of rural gender equality. However, these ideas do have the power to make a serious difference in the lives of rural women.
The call for more female leaders in rural society
India has long been a superstition-ridden society where there is an invisible cloak of culture binding women, especially in rural areas. Time and again, government schemes and projects have been initiated to focus on uplifting the status of rural women. However, the impact of these actions has not seeped through deep enough. One reason for this is that it is not considered natural or culturally appropriate for women to stand up and seek what they desire. All through history, women have been told what to do and what not to do. And more often than not, men have been the ones dictating the norms. By simply altering this dynamic and increasing the prevalence of female leaders and role models, we can observe a real change for women.
The Census of 2011 showed that 81% of the female workforce in India live in rural areas. This statistic proves that these women are the real drivers of the fastest growing economy in the world. It is human nature to seek answers, help or validation in all our actions. Having someone to follow, provides us with the motivation and a little nudge in the right direction. And this is exactly what the rural Indian women need. Strong role models can help to bring about political, economic, social and financial independence for women in rural areas of India.
Universal Access to Menstrual Care, Period.
Periods are not a new phenomenon. But for millions of rural women, the onset of menstruation is associated with a significant decrease in quality of life. Lack of access to menstrual hygiene is the fifth biggest killer of women in the world each year. And for those who continue to live with poor menstrual care, monthly periods can mean pain, infection and the use of materials such as sand and wood shavings in lieu of menstrual pads. The stigma around menstruation in rural areas can also take a psychological toll on women as they are forced to drop-out of school and restrict their participation in family and religious rituals during their monthly cycle. Every woman deserves to live with the dignity that proper menstrual care provides.
Achieving universal access to menstrual care, particularly for women in rural areas, would therefore significantly improve women’s overall health and allow them to participate more fully in society. While periods may only last a few days, their impact on the lives of rural women can be felt throughout the entire month. Through proper education and access to care, these women can live more fully throughout all of their days.
Mind the Gap: Rural Women and Technology Access
In our increasingly digital world, access to technology and the internet is no longer optional. Over the last few years, broadband internet access has emerged as on-par with other public utilities such as water and electricity in its necessity to participate in the economy and society at-large. It is no secret that residents of India’s large urban centers have much more wide ranging access to internet services than the 65% of the population that reside in rural areas. Just as pervasive, but less widely-discussed, is the gender disparity in internet and technology access. As more of our daily lives move online, women, and particularly women in rural areas, are being left behind.
Closing the gender tech gap is one of the most urgent and important ways to improve the status of rural women. As it currently stands, only 29% of India’s internet users are female. While limited rural connectivity and access to internet-enabled devices are factors in this disparity, traditional social norms and the prioritization of male children also play an outsized role. Therefore, we must ensure that more areas are digitally connected, and also that more women are given the ability to take advantage of this connectivity. Digitally literate women are able to attain a higher level of education, become economic contributors and participate more actively in their communities. By closing the gap, we open the door to a new world of opportunities for rural women.