Several events over the years have “shaken” the country, but after a few weeks of crescendo, citizens have to move on. The Delhi rape case, while it occupies high mindshare now, is likely to meet with the same fate. The reason behind this phenomenon is that average citizens have to revert their attention to routine existential issues and carry on with their lives. Tactical steps allow a sense of closure but rarely solve the root cause. The steps taken by the police in the rape case are laudable but most address protecting the “weaker” sex rather than empowering them and removing the “weaker” tag.
The only meaningful and long-term way to empower women is economic empowerment. Simply put, more wealth needs to be put into the hands of women by making strategic long-term structural changes in addition to immediate tactical ones. Studies prove that societies where gender diversity is equitable are not only safer, but economically vibrant. States with higher ratio of educated working women fare significantly better in all parameters.
Women in developing countries such as India begin almost with a triple strike. First, they are denied an equal chance to be born. Society is gunning for them from the fetal stage. If they are lucky enough to survive infanticide, girls are undernourished compared with the male child. The next disability lies in the terms of differential treatment when it comes to education with far more female drop outs from school than males. And girls who manage to surmount these barriers next face far more daunting challenges at the workplace. Ironically, while women constitute a majority in rural and urban labour workforces, their incomes are substantially lower than men.
This problem is further aggravated in urban and semi-urban work settings. While the number of working women in certain sectors such as banking, teaching, etc., are somewhat respectable, several others such as manufacturing have no more than token representation and are almost out of bounds for them. Schemes targeting the girl child such as pre- and post-natal care, nutrition, scholarships, etc., contribute towards creating a “push”, but what is also required is a “pull” towards systematically creating opportunities for women in the mainstream semi and urban workforce. And this is where the private sector needs to be co-opted by both government and society at large. Here are some ways to achieve this.
Depending on the sector, private firms must be incentivized for achieving improved gender representation within defined periods. This could be in the form of tax reductions or reduced interest loans for companies that show measurable increased opportunities for women. Efforts such as childcare centres at workplace, some flexibility in working hours, opportunities to work from home, etc., will add lakhs of women to the workforce literally overnight, as these factors currently keep them away.
Companies can create product branding that shows consumers that they are being produced by a women workforce. Such “certified” labelling will enable buyers to make a conscious choice in supporting these ventures as well as accelerating gender equity in competing organizations.
Conscientious organizations should take the lead in including measures of gender equity into their bottom line reporting as well as their corporate social responsibility measures—not as largesse but with a realization that such steps make strategic business sense in the long run. In turn, investors must reward such steps by supporting such companies.
Unfortunately, the current mindset works in the opposite direction. After every instance of rape or molestation, the typical response is to ban women from being employed after a certain hour or to provide them with escorted home drops. Such measures though well-meaning and even necessary in certain cases, essentially drive up the cost of employing women, and are thus counterproductive in the long run.
At an individual level, consumers don’t realize that they in effect incur an economic cost for every such incident. Here is how that happens. In an ideal business environment, students living and getting educated in tier III or IV towns “export” their employability into tier I cities. This way they earn several multiples of the cost of their education and upbringing which is lower in tier III/IV cities. But when such instances hit the national narrative, parents from tier III cities are reluctant to send their children into what they rightfully perceive as a dangerous environment thus removing the value chain that “produces” talent at a lower cost and engages them at higher. The resultant higher cost of talent in tier one cities coupled with incidental costs of provisioning them with secure transportation etc., is eventually borne by the end consumer.
While safeguarding 50% of our citizens is undoubtedly a national, social and individual responsibility, the only meaningful and sustainable way of removing the tag of the weaker sex is to empower women economically. And unless the case is advocated from a business perspective—which is rightfully meritorious, every measure will be viewed as a sop or a cost addition. And that is just systematic debilitation in the guise of empowerment.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.