New Delhi/Chennai: In the end it was a small government advertisement she came across in a local Tamil newspaper on an otherwise uneventful day 10 years ago, which triggered the transformation of B. Rajeshwari from a homemaker to a self-employed professional running a small jewellery business of her own in Coimbatore. Undoubtedly it was a life altering experience for her, but even more important was the change in Rajeshwari’s perception of herself.

It was an advertisement of the state government’s programme for the socio-economic empowerment of women—Mahalir Thittam or scheme for women. Rajeshwari recalls how she swung into action the same day, making her way to the district collector’s office in Coimbatore. “I just wanted to do something on my own and financially support my family. I was well aware that as my (15-year-old) son grows, we would find it difficult to manage the educational expenses with my husband’s earnings, which is still not very stable."

Rajeshwari, 48, received training in jewellery making from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Coimbatore. “Even though my initial training was in jewellery making, I haven’t limited myself to just this." Rajeshwari has been making bags, disposable plates made from areca leaves and tumblers, and has also sometimes taken small-scale catering orders for school and college functions.

On an average, she is able to supplement the family income by Rs3,000-4,000 a month. The sum may not be large, but Rajeshwari is unruffled; for her the empowerment and the associated experience matters far more.

“I travel around the district for work and sometimes even to other states. This is something which I couldn’t have imagined doing myself," she says.

Women empowerment

Launched in 1997-98, Mahalir Thittam was implemented with the support of NGOs and deployment in a network of self help groups (SHGs).

Like Rajeshwari, the women, who are part of the group, are imparted skill development training, enabling them to set up their own businesses.

It is not the only successful women-centric scheme from the state government; it is one among many, making Tamil Nadu unique in state sponsored gender empowerment.

In 1987, the state government introduced financial assistance to pregnant women who are poor. The idea behind the Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Maternity Benefit Scheme (DMRMBS) was to compensate for wage loss during pregnancy, help them in getting nutritious food and avoiding low birth weight babies.

Analyzing the scheme, a 2010 study by Public Health Resource Network, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and Tamil Nadu-Forum for Crèche and Childcare Services pointed out that DMRMBS was “nearly universal in application, with hardly any exclusion, no evidence of corruption or leakages, and (with) few difficulties reported in applying for or getting the money or opening bank accounts."

This scheme was implemented by Tamil Nadu more than two decades before the centre introduced The Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, a maternity benefit programme providing conditional cash transfer for pregnant and lactating women of 19 years or older.

In 1992, during her first stint as chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa launched the cradle scheme under which young mothers could leave their children under the government’s care. Families that did not want a girl child were invited to leave them in cradles outside social welfare centres. The aim was to address the state’s skewed sex ratio and check large-scale sex-selective abortions.

In 2015, the state government inaugurated more than 350 breastfeeding rooms at bus terminals across the state—the first in India. It then set up breast milk banks in seven government hospitals across the state.

Not surprising then that Tamil Nadu has India’s second-best record in minimizing infant mortality and maternal mortality. As per the Sample Registration System Survey (2014), the Infant Mortality Rate of Tamil Nadu decreased from 24 in 2010 to 20 per 1,000 live births in 2014. And the Maternal Mortality Ratio, during 2014-15 in Tamil Nadu was 687 maternal deaths amounting to a MMR of 67 per lakh live births as against an MMR of 90 in 2010-12.

The method

The state’s remarkable record on women’s empowerment is no happy accident, instead it is the outcome of meticulous planning together with a sustained makeover of the social justice system.

“To see why policies for women are persistent in Tamil Nadu, we need to study bureaucracy. It is very systematic, and the bureaucrats here are trained as deliverers, not just planners. This approach by the bureaucracy in turn helps the political parties in power. There is mutuality in recognizing that their responsibility is much higher than party cadres’ social movements. It is also important to note that the bureaucracy itself has seen transformation due to the reservation policy, and is hence highly sensitive to the social class they have come from," says S. Anandhi, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai.

The first half of the 20th century saw the rise of many mass movements aimed at mobilizing the lower castes in the southern states, especially in Tamil Nadu.

As Neeta Pillai from the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi says, “Women’s issues and women were a central part of the social movements that took place in Tamil Nadu. The policy makers took these social issues into account and made policies accordingly." This led to greater democratisation of public services—making it available to the underprivileged communities, castes as well as women.

The results are visible. With 73.4% of its women literate, Tamil Nadu—third among larger states after Kerala and Maharashtra—has India’s largest number of establishments run by women, according to the Economic Census 2012. The state has among the lowest crime rates against women and children. It introduced all-women police stations—a concept that picked up in the rest of the country only after the 2012 Delhi gangrape.

In March this year, the country celebrated the passing of The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which raises paid maternity leave for women employees in the organized sector to six months. But the fact is that Tamil Nadu increased maternity leave for women government employees from six to nine months in September last year.

In addition, the government offers schemes like Amma baby care kits (a kit having basic essentials like a towel, mosquito net, an infant mattress, napkin, baby shampoo for mothers delivering in government hospitals), gold for economically backward women (Thalikku Thangam Thittam, gold for marriage scheme, launched in 2011) or those providing grinders, mixer-grinders and table fans to families.

However MIDS professor Anandhi broaches circumspection. “Women cannot talk about re-entitlement but only accept what the state can offer them. Women take on several responsibilities through these schemes, but are not entitled to their rights."

Anandhi is right, yet the success story of Rajeshwari cannot be overlooked. Not just because what it has done for her personally, but the multiplier effect it is generating. For someone who has studied till class eight, Rajeshwari has assisted over 300 women in becoming financially independent.

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