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Empowerment of women in North East
— Dr Sunil Kr Saikia
Empowerment is a multi-dimensional process. It is a process that helps and assists people, both men and women to realise their identity, becoming aware of the capacity and potential and strive for success, happiness and peace of mind. It also enables them to gain self confidence, have access to resources, creates a desire to achieve and express, free from irrelevant customs, traditions, practices and prejudices. Empowerment has been defined as a process through which men and women increase their access to knowledge, resources, decision making power and raise their awareness of participation in their communities to reach a level of control. In case of women, the ultimate objective of such empowerment is to create large scale awareness with the active participation of women themselves. Such empowerment could be in social areas or economic or political or other areas. In other words, empowerment is influenced by a host of socio-economic, political and cultural factors. Socio-economic status would therefore be a ranking of an individual by the society he/she lives in terms of his/her material belongings and cultural possessions along with the degree of respect, power and influence he/she wields.

In recent times empowerment of Women has become a serious area of study, because women form a large component of human resources of our country. They are potential contributors towards development of social, economic, cultural and political activities of an area or the country. However, to improve the socio-economic conditions of women, one of the viable strategies, quite often talked about, is the role of enterprise to empower them. Enterprise development has been considered, among other factors, a powerful tool to eradicate poverty, especially among women, both rural and urban as they are at the lowest rung of poverty ladder in our country. Economic empowerment of women means to ensure income generation activities for women with both forward and backward linkages and also provision of training, employment, with the ultimate objective of making all women economically independent and self reliant. Women around the globe are finding new options for growth and development in self ventures– skill, knowledge and adaptability are the thrust areas for women to emerge into business ventures. In this aspect, the hidden entrepreneurial potentials of women have gradually been changing with the growing sensitivity to their role and economic status in the society. But there are many challenges. In general, it is found that women lack confidence and strength, though the situation is changing. Still more, many a woman finds it difficult to access the market as they are not fully aware of the changing market conditions, and fail to face the hard competition in the market. Moreover, their lack of mobility makes them depend on middlemen so much so that they rarely get the right return. This calls for women entrepreneurs being exposed to the realities of a market to acquire skill and knowledge in all functional areas of business management, which would help in developing a good business network.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2004, women work on average more than men, when both paid employment and unpaid household tasks are concerned. In rural areas of the developing countries surveyed, women perform an average of 20 per cent more work than men, or an additional 98 minutes per day. Women earn 10 per cent of the world’s income and own only 1 per cent of the world’s wealth, despite making up 49.5 per cent of the population. Women are also under-represented in all the world’s major legislative bodies. An ILO Report also states that women are almost 50 per cent of the world’s population, utilise two-thirds of the worlds work hour, produce half of the world’s food supply, receive 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than one per cent of the world property.

1n India also, women comprise nearly half of the national population of our country, i.e. 933 female per 1,000 male. Hence, the development of the country is inescapably linked with the status of development of women. Economic empowerment is one approach to enable women to realise their inherent knowledge, skills and competencies for creation of small business enterprises. There are shining examples from the developing countries to illustrate women entrepreneurs who started small and grew to large enterprises. In India, various Ministries, Institutions and Organisations have been working for the upliftment of women through implementing of various schemes like–SGSY, SJSRY, NORAD, IMY, RMK, etc. A few big NGOs like AWAKE (Karnataka), MAITRI (New Delhi), SEWA (Gujrat) UMEED (Ahmadabad), CARE (West Bengal) etc have been engaged for social and economic upliftment of women in India.

India’s North East which is also known as the land of the eight sisters, collectively account for about 8 per cent of the country’s geographical area and roughly 4 per cent of its population. As per the last 2001 census, the total population of the region was 38, 495,089 with 19, 874, 535 male and 18, 620, 554 female. The women population is around 50 per cent as the sex ratio is 940 female per 1,000 male in the region (all India 933 female per 1,000 male). The region is also characterised by the relatively high women literacy rate 63.4 per cent against all India average female literacy of 54.2 per cent (women literacy rate of Milorarn is as high as 95.8 per cent), high decennial growth of population, low urbanization (except Assam, Nagaland and Mizoram) and contrasting population density (13 persons per sq km in Arunachal Pradesh where as in Assam and Tripura it is as high as 340 and 304 respectively). Economically, the plain areas of the region are more active than the hilly areas. However, in the hilly areas, women are comparatively more enterprising than the male counterparts. According to third small industry census (2001-02), 20.03 per cent micro enterprises in the region are owned and managed by women entrepreneurs as against 10.11 per cent in the country. This is mainly because the tribal women are mostly dominating the markets in most of the hilly areas of the region. Accord to study made by IIE, Guwahati in the North East, major’ of trained women (54 per cent, started their enterprise at the age of 26-30 years; while 49 per cent untrained women started their enterprises at the age of 31-40 years. The study also revealed that 48.1 per cent trained and 29.4 per cent untrained women entrepreneurs are married. Similarly 49 per cent trained and 31.2 per cent untrained women are married. Again, 32.5 per cent untrained women enterprises are widow whereas 1.6 per cent trained women entrepreneurs are widow. In the formation of self-help groups (SHGs), women SHGs are dominating in the region. Out of about 3.72 lakh SHGs, already formed in the region, more than 55 per cent SHGs are owned and managed by women. In Assam also, out of total 1, 70,779 SH , more than 93 thousand SHGs are belonged to women.

There are a few government level organisations/institutions and NGOs which are working for the development of micro enterprises for the women in the region. However, a concorted effort by such institutions and organisations has not been noticed so far in the North East. It is observed that finance is one of the key factors for entrepreneurial development for women. Lately, micro financing is a major tool for development of women enterprises. The micro-financing sector in North-East India has only recently begun to grow rapidly. This is mainly due to active engagement of NGOs with the public and private sector banks, financial institutions etc. During the year 2008-09, NEDFi alone has been providing micro finance to 23,418 beneficiaries, out of which 21,033 beneficiaries were women (i.e 189.8 per cent). Today there are more than 360 NGOs in the region providing micro-financial services to the people, especially to the lower income women groups in the region. Sustained long run achievement of empowerment of women would become a reality if necessary changes in the socio-economic, political and cultural changes take place.

Although women in the country constitute the majority of the total population, i.e. 495.74 million representing 48.3 per cent of the total population in the country and almost similar percentage of women in the North East, women are yet to contribute to their full potential to the entrepreneurial world at large. Therefore, in the interest of long term development it is a necessity that they are empowered.
(The writer is Head (CEDM), IIE, Guwahati)