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Women in India: why collective action matters now more than ever

Women's groups in India have the power to redress inequality and bring about lasting change, but how has Covid-19 impacted the gains made to women's empowerment?

Across the globe, women as citizens remain under-represented in political spaces. Nowhere is this more evident than in South Asia. Yet a political movement by women -- a “silent revolution” -- is mounting. Not only are women gaining access to spaces long seen as outside women’s domain, but through their collective action they are ensuring that their voices are heard…

For decades, women in India have been largely absent from public life and substantially under-represented in political institutions. As a country founded on the ideals of localized democracy, this has meant that the voices of roughly half of the population have been absent from political dialogue. Yet the last several decades have given rise to a “silent revolution” in the role of women in public life. Women have collectively acted to demand access to politics and grassroots women’s movements have emerged and effectuated important political change.

The current Covid-19 crisis threatens to undo the gains made to women’s social and political empowerment. The return of male migrants to their households may decrease women’s autonomy and economic opportunities and the coincident economic crisis has led to widespread job loss disproportionately affecting sectors dominated by women. As shown in an April 2020 survey of 40,000 Indians, women’s employment fell by nearly 40% post-Covid as compared to 30% for men – and women reported much higher domestic workloads following the lock down.

The need for women’s collective action

How can women gain access to political institutions in the face of persistent social norms and consequent backlash? Through collective action amongst women that challenges male political authority inside and outside the household.

Over the past several years, we have seen a rise in women’s collective action. The recent spate of development programs aimed at women’s economic empowerment have presented an unanticipated and unintended opportunity to foster women’s collective action. In India, Self-Help Groups – small, federated, village-level micro-credit groups of women -- have become a cornerstone of policy aimed at women’s empowerment, becoming the largest poverty alleviation program in the world with more than 70 million women participants. By bringing women together, these microcredit groups have the potential to bring about social and political change.

I’ve shown that the mere introduction of these groups leads to women’s collective action and doubles the number of women that participate in politics. These women’s groups act as laboratories for democratic deliberation and provide women with an institutional space to experiment with political voice and civic engagement.

The power of women’s collective action

When women collectively act, they often target their action to redress inequalities in the representation of women and women’s interests. Qualitative evidence from interviews with more than 100 Self-Help Group members suggests that women’s collective action is often oriented towards two core goals: reducing the incidence of violence against women and demanding more effective and programmatic delivery of core public services such as water, sanitation, and food security.

In the wake of Covid-19, Self-Help groups have also taken on the important role of preparing rural India for the health crisis and providing important relief services. In an example of the extraordinary organizational power of these women’s institutions, Self-Help Groups have produced more than 165 million masks, 500,000 liters of hand sanitizer, and nearly 500,000 other personal protective equipment. They have disseminated information about Covid-19 and necessary health and safety measures to every corner of India. They have opened and managed more than 120,000 community kitchens to combat hunger in the face of severe economic hardship.

Grassroots movements of women across India have gone beyond expectation and sought to fill the gaps where the state has been found wanting, demanding improved public goods provision and in some cases even taking on the delivery of important public services.

Importantly, if this invigorated collective action amongst women sustains beyond the lock down and can be channeled to address the long-term economic challenges that will strike women particularly hard, while also elevating women’s status in their communities, it is possible that the Covid-19 crisis may disrupt long-stable equilibria.

Continuing the momentum

We are at a moment in history, in part due to the gendered inequalities laid bare by a global pandemic, to learn about the constraints on women’s political representation, the process of redressing gender inequities in the face of persistent patriarchal norms, and ultimately the power of women’s collective action. In this moment, providing women with autonomy from their households and spaces for collective organization may help to ensure that their specific needs are not lost amidst the dual crises brought on by Covid-19 and to ensure forward movement in creating a more gender equal society.

Soledad Artiz Prillaman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University whose research spans the intersection of comparative political economy, development and gender. She is also a researcher on the Economic Development and Institutions collaborative research programme led by Oxford Policy Management. You can read the full paper here.