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Meet Lafakzuali, a few years after her husband had uttered the words ‘ka ma che’ which under Mizoram’s customary law means ‘I divorce you’ she was determined to provide for herself and her son and thus, started her business of weaving intricate shawls and ‘puans’ (traditional Mizo skirts). Today she employs 4 women and owns 5 looms and her business has seen flourishing success over the years. Mahananda’s story of breaking odds and earning back her reputation is one of awe. After being sold off to a brothel to work as Devadasi, Mahananda escaped as soon as she found out she was pregnant. She was shunned by the society and looked down upon and nobody wanted to associate themselves with her by employing her. Having nowhere else to go, she stumbled upon an organisation which provided her with a microloan to start her sewing business. Today she has successfully employed more women to work in her sewing business and more importantly holds her head high as a successful entrepreneur in the same society which had ostracized her. This essay will concentrate on why we need more women entrepreneurs from rural India and what we as a society can do to contribute. (1)

Challenges faced by women entrepreneurs

Women were never considered a source of income and the concept of ‘women entrepreneurs’ were unknown in the rural areas until SEWA happened. The Self-Employed Women’s Association, a noble initiative started by Ela Bhatt back in 1972 has to a considerable extent helped in ensuring that women stand on their own feet and achieve the financial independence that they had been denied for so long. Sadly enough, there is still a major gender gap when it comes to the number of entrepreneurs from each gender. And some of the major factors in play are illiteracy, discrimination, social barriers, lack of entrepreneurial aptitude, tough competition and low risk bearing ability. (2)

One of the major obstructions in the path of rural women from setting up enterprises is illiteracy coupled with lack of understanding of new developments in technology and absolutely no vocational training. Women; who are primarily expected to cook and clean and take care of their husbands, children and in-laws, receive either nil or negligible support for their entrepreneurial ideas. And this is where the problem lies. Gender discrimination and adhering to gender roles is religiously followed in the villages and overcoming this gender discrimination more often than not, is not looked upon favourably. One important thing which sets apart urban women from rural women is the fact that urban women to some extent enjoy the support of their families and the social circle that they are a part of it however, rural women in most cases receive enormous backlash for trying to undertake any entrepreneurial ventures or do anything which remotely goes beyond the business of ‘taking care of the family.’ Rural women do work as labourers or in the farms only when the dire need to support the family financially arises.

Various workshops have been conducted by the Government in rural areas to encourage women to work however, a World Bank study has found that around 50-70% of the women who work are temporary workers whereas men constitute the larger portion of permanent workers (3). And the primary reason behind this is family ties. Women choose to work as temporary workers mainly so they can fulfil their gender role of ‘looking after the family’, in such a scenario the very thought of having to divert all their time and attention upon a business enterprise seems unfeasible. Divorced and widowed women face the brunt of harsh life when they have to provide for themselves as well as their children. Prostitution and being a domestic help in most cases is seen as the easiest way to make money as compared to entrepreneurship. Mobility is also limited where women are concerned. Women have limited mobility and staying alone in a hotel is often seen suspiciously. And lastly factors like raising capital, preliminary costs of production, tough competition and exploitation by middlemen are the problems faced by women trying to run a business.

Illiteracy as mentioned earlier primarily affects women trying to run a business enterprise; and this where women are exploited by middlemen and moneylenders. Illiteracy coupled with superstitious and orthodox behaviour is a tide which has not yet been overcome. Women are still made to believe that studying will affect their child bearing capability and will lead to departure from stereotypical gender roles. A typical rural father is hesitant to spend money on his daughter’s education and would rather save all that money up for her marriage and dowry. Moreover, women who work as casual labourers do so because of sheer financial crisis and not because of social acceptance of the concept of ‘working women.’ Ignorance of the law, government schemes and lack of vocational training all add up to contribute to the exploitation that takes place. It is inevitable that preliminary losses will be incurred while starting a business venture however, moneylenders and middlemen in the guise of helping these women out; charge them exorbitant rates of interest and fees for their services (4).

Current Government Welfare Schemes: A Paper Tiger?

The Government over the years has been instrumental in implementing various schemes for skill development however; more often than not some core issues are eventually ignored. Certain factors such as high dropout rate of adult women from educational institutions, unable to balance work and family life, lack of passion to venture into entrepreneurial activities and whether efforts have been taken for including SC/ST and OBC women as well.

The Stand Up India Scheme

This scheme helps not just those who are in planning to start a business but also those whose businesses are in the ‘start-up’ category. Under this scheme; the government has opened refinancing options through Small Industries Development of Bank (SIDBI) at an initial amount of Rs 10,000. Along with that a principal amount of Rs. 5000 crore would be created to ensure the credit guarantee through National Credit Guarantee Trust Company. Along with that they will also be provided with a debit card (5). Besides familiarising them with bank guidelines and technology, they will also know about registration online and how to use e-markets and entrepreneurial practices. To cater to the growing demand Stand Up Connect Centres would be established at the offices of SIDBI and NABARD. With country-wide presence of more than 15 regional offices and 84 branches accommodating more than 600 clusters, SIDBI has a massive reach and it also has plans of joining Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI). In so far no such specific provision for women entrepreneurs has been introduced. The scheme specifically aims to provide easier access to finance but fails to take into consideration financing required by women run enterprises and the unique problems faced by them.

The Start-Up India Scheme

This flagship initiative started in January 2016 by the Government of India aims at building a strong ecosystem for nurturing innovation and start-ups in the country. The scheme seeks to provide a simplified way for providing legal support, fast-tracking of patent examination at reduced costs, credit guarantee fund for start-ups, providing support through a Fund of Funds plan which includes tax exemptions and tax exemptions for start-ups of three years (6). In pursuance of the objective, online portals and mobile applications were set up to resolve queries and handholding support to the new ventures. It also aimed at exempting certain industries from complying with strict environmental regulations. However, inspite of such mechanisms in place the scheme has fallen prey to the usual difficulties behind implementation. Only a handful of start-ups so as to say have sprung up under the purview of this scheme. Moreover, the fund amounting to Rs 10,000 crore rupees which was supposed to be invested in venture capital funds for facilitating further investment in start-ups has not fallen through yet (7). There has been no mention of special provisions or benefits which rural women entrepreneurs would be entitled to. Such schemes are tailor-made for the urban gentry and the rural population especially women do not find a place.

The Self-Help Group (SHG) approach: Is this the only way to ensure women’s participation?

A study conducted by the Voluntary Operation in Community and Environment (VOICE) and submitted to the Planning Commission tries to arrive at a conclusion as to how effective are SHGs when it comes to providing employment and skill development. The study concentrated on four different states from the north, south, east and west and looked into the effective working of the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana (SGSY). In the surveys and field research conducted it was concluded, that most of the activities covered under schemes such as these were traditional and were often not properly implemented. Firstly, the identification of Swarozgaris by the Gram Panchayat was done in a faulty manner and moreover, the funds allocated for the scheme which provided for separate funding for every single infrastructural project, traditional infrastructural projects were preferred over any other kind of activity. The traditional activities identified in the state of Bihar mainly included vegetable and dairy cultivation as well as some traditional activities such as madhubani paintings, makkana fishing and sikimona crafts which facilitated the cluster approach. The report however, found that the participation of women in the SGSY scheme back in the year 2008 was around 59% which was above the target of 40% (8).

The efforts of the SGSY scheme in involving women in its core activities is quite laudable however, the funds allocated were exclusively used for agricultural purposes and no such initiative was taken to broaden the scope of activities from traditional to other sectors such as industrial, healthcare or any other activity which involves skill over labour. In the report cited above, it has been clearly stated that the rural poor who join such SHGs should be provided with orientation programmes in order to facilitate skill development. But a majority of the respondents in the survey who underwent such orientation programmes as part of the scheme did not find it useful since, it dealt with basic knowledge about building a traditional infrastructure which was quite unnecessary. The key ingredient in the orientation programmes conducted which is: inculcating an entrepreneurial mind-set was still a missing spot. When it comes to women, they are again relegated to ‘mere labourers’ which prevents them from flourishing as entrepreneurs and what’s worse; these women are actually okay with being labourers rather than entrepreneurs as long as they are able to make ends meet for their families.

Addressing the problem of ‘Skill Development’

As previously mentioned, the Government’s efforts in ensuring steady economic development has fallen short due to lack of skill development. Training and skill development programmes specifically designed for women and dealing exclusively with the unique problems faced by women is the need of the hour. The Start-Up India, Stand Up India and the SGSY schemes have all failed in addressing this issue. Agreeably, these schemes have made it easier for entrepreneurs, men and women alike to launch new ventures and get faster access to credit but for poor rural women who do not know about the existence of these schemes and also lack the requisite aptitude to venture into newer fields which does not involve sewing or cultivation or artistry is a challenge which the Government is bound to address (9). Probably, an MSME alongside a cluster approach would be able to address this issue. Micro, small as well as medium scale industries (MSMEs) which focus more on non-traditional activities would be the first step. Depending upon the kind of industry such an MSME is operating; women can be trained and supervised either through smart classes or via Skype lectures where face to face communication isn’t possible. Specific lectures and practical training involving industrial motivation campaigns, entrepreneur development programme, a practical approach to management of enterprises and other specialized programmes which deals with the specific industry (food processing and technology, catering, hospitality etc.), learning the basics of marketing and advertising and effective resource management are crucial when trying to develop an entrepreneurial aptitude. Lectures coupled with field visits should be helpful in skill development. More importantly, women should be instilled with a sense of responsibility


Addressing the crucial work-family balance

The crucial work-family balance does not come as a surprise and especially in the rural parts of the country. Men work as daily wage labourers or as small entrepreneurs selling meat and vegetables and the task of looking after the family is usually delegated to the women. Rural men do not understand or rather believe in sharing familial responsibilities and are averse to this idea in most cases. Understandably, women are discouraged from working, and even those who are working are unable to put in as much efforts or long hours as compared to their male counterparts. Entrepreneurship requires complete attention and most women are unwilling to take this task up due to the abovementioned commitments. Women are also unable to take up assignments abroad or keep up with advancements in technology due to absence from onsite workshops and seminars (10).

A possible solution to this would probably be family orientation programmes. Addressing a problem such as that would require efforts starting from the grass root level. The in laws and the husband should be informed about their role in child rearing and the responsibility is not the mother’s alone. Moreover, as has been previously mentioned, apart from the Stand Up and Start Up schemes, the Government can launch online entrepreneurship portals specially crafted for rural women or ‘work from home’ ventures such as Gharkamai (11). As mentioned previously, vocational training and Skype lectures could also be provided free of cost, an online platform could be built where women can meet other like-minded women and can come together to launch new ventures. Online portals can also give them sufficient information about credit facilities, obtaining contact details of suppliers etc. In such a manner a women would probably be able to balance work as well family life together. Single, divorced or reclusive women who are heavily dependent on their parents or have to resort to prostitution or a domestic help should be reached out to and they should be the target audience for such entrepreneurial ventures. Adequate support from the family and training to these budding women entrepreneurs would not only help in the long term economic development in the country but more importantly will help rural women to stand on their own two feet as self-sustaining entrepreneurs.

Shifting focus from traditional and handicrafts industries to service sector ventures

Textile industries along with pottery, weaving and traditional arts and crafts are some of the few industries where both men and women seek employment. However, in most cases they are employed as daily wage labourers and the meagre income is not sufficient for them to make ends meet. Women for that matter seek to stay away from the industrial and service sectors as those options are not open to them. In most cases women do not even know the existence of the services sector. It is practically impossible for rural women to set up law firms or medical clinics without proper training and education however, a section of rural women can be trained to become nurses and further they could be given incentives to pursue higher studies alongside their work. In many situations unmarried women silently suffer repressive working conditions and meagre wages to support their children and old and sick parents. In such cases, women are unwilling to complain or leave their jobs and would be averse to the idea of learning something new and providing their services. The Government with the help of NGOs and the Panchayats can devise new schemes which train such helpless women to provide professional services. This way the focus could be shifted from the handicrafts industries as well textile industries which is already marred by disguised unemployment (12). This would probably be the first step towards the introduction of the services sector. Simple services such as that of catering or event management will help them learn management skills. Women can also be made supervisors in factories for enhancing their management skills as well.

A shift from traditional industries to other sectors is very much required as it will increase employment as well as entrepreneurship opportunities for the rural poor. A few ways by which the service sector can branch out to rural women is by encouraging cooperatives to set up branches in small villages and adopt gender sensitive policies and increase women’s participation. Moreover, Government schemes encouraging female land ownership for both farming and non-farm activities can also help women set up new ventures. Educated rural women who are probably doctors or lawyers could be given cheap bank loans to set up their own clinics and chambers and provide services to their villagers. The cluster as well as the  SHG approach can also be followed where a group of women could come together through a common platform and set up small industries (traditional or non-traditional) and eventually expand it further (13).

A Case Study of the Mulkanoor Women Cooperative Dairy as an ideal model for women entrepreneurs

The Mulkanoor Cooperative Rural Bank and Marketing Society (MCRB) has been a successful model meeting all needs of the farming community under one umbrella. The Bank has been instrumental in promoting thrift groups in villages especially which employs women and encourages women entrepreneurship. Now, the cooperative society is managed completely by women. The cooperative initially started out as Mulkanoor Mahila Podupu Sangam and for running the dairy cooperative the organisation first covered upto 8,486 members in 68 villages but has now increased upto 14,000 members in 102 villages. The cooperative society has been instrumental in providing the required exposure to rural women when it comes to managing and supervising an enterprise and has contributed in the much required skill development. The Cooperative Development Federation (CDF) had lent upto Rs. 4 crores to the society to be repaid in instalments and with a meagre interest rate. Collection and distribution of milk which has been one of the most activities of the Union had gone up from 24.2 lakh litres from the year of establishment upto 64.67 lakh litres three years later. The cooperative’s activities has branched out to providing technical services such as artificial insemination, insurance to milch animals, provision of grass seeds and medicines worth lakhs of rupees etc. The cooperative society avails direct economic benefits and has expanded its services as well as provided employment to hundreds and thousands of women across villages (14).

Such a model has also been followed in many other villages but has been mainly agricultural and handicraft centric. The Government should persevere to introduce more industrial and service oriented ventures and propagate vocational training. Women entrepreneurs should be introduced to the endless possibilities that online platforms have to offer. The hidden potential inside rural women should certainly be tapped into for economic prosperity and most importantly as an important goal of ‘women empowerment’.

SEWA and its role in empowering women entrepreneurs

A business training intervention in conjunction with SEWA Bank was conducted and this training workshop which took place in the city of Ahmedabad had 170,000 women participants who worked various odd jobs such as tailors, vegetable vendors and incense stick makers (15). The SEWA Bank has been instrumental in providing these women with basic financial literacy programmes which covers basic accounting skills, interest rates and life cycle planning. The curriculum which is prepared by Freedom from Hunger emphasizes on financial prudence and encourages women to avoid excess debt and avoid frivolous spending. The study referred to above referred, took a samples of 597 women between the ages of 15-50 from both Hindu upper castes, schedules castes and tribes and Muslims. The study sought to analyse the number of restrictions placed from each background ad SEWA’s help in overcoming those restrictions. Inspite of the various training programmes and workshops conducted by SEWA, the increase in savings or earnings showed no significant difference. As per SEWA’s statistics most women who do end up in entrepreneurship do so when they have no other means of supporting their families and it is looked upon as the last option available (16). Ever since, the Industrial Policy of 1991 women entrepreneurs have been receiving training and help from Entrepreneurship Development Programme (EDPS) as well as Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO) which has been carrying out setting up of SSI units to provide technical support and eventually SEWA has mobilized the finances available from Banks in order to set up small scale industries using the Cluster approach. However, the organisation has not yet been completely successful in shifting the focus from agricultural to the industrial sector but the steps required for that to happen has already been set in motion (17). SEWA has been instrumental in detailing the kind of business that would work for women who have to juggle their personal lives as well, assessing the market, networking, financing, educating and obtaining professional consultation. The organization’s work in setting up a platform for women entrepreneurs to demonstrate their capabilities and probably in a few more years the rural industrial sector will see and equal participation from men as well as women. 

End Notes

  1. Josceline Anne Mascarenhas, ‘How 3 women entrepreneurs from rural India are creating opportunities for others’, published on 7th March 2015, available at https://yourstory.com/2015/03/rural-india-women-entrepreneurs/
  2. Garima Mishra and Dr. U.V Kiran, ‘Rural Women Entrepreneurs: Concerns and Importance’, 3 (9) International Journal of Science and Research, published in September 2014, available at https://www.ijsr.net/archive/v3i9/U0VQMTQ0MQ==.pdf
  3. Kittur Praveen, ‘Development of Rural Women Entrepreneurs through Workshop Training’ 3 (2) Research Journal of Management Sciences, published in February 2014, available at http://www.isca.in/IJMS/Archive/v3/i2/3.ISCA-RJMS-2014-006.pdf
  4. 4. Sreenivasa Rao Behara and K. Niranjan, ‘Rural Women Entrepreneurship in India’, 15 (6) International Journal of Computational Engineering and Management, published in November 2012, available at http://www.ijcem.org/papers112012/ijcem_112012_02.pdf.
  5. Neeti Vijaykumar, ‘5 Ways the Stand Up India Scheme Could Benefit Aspiring Women and SC/ST Entrepreneurs’ published in The Better India on 5th April 2016, available at http://www.thebetterindia.com/51130/stand-uo-india-scheme-benefit-women-scst-entrepreneurs/
  6. Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, ‘The Start-up India Scheme: Salient Features’, published on 25th July 2016, available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/mbErel.aspx?relid=147661
  7. Livemint, ‘Start-Up India’s Flaws are Beginning to Tell’, published on 11th April 2017, available at http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/O0pYk8coMMU5AWMkS76bbK/Startup-Indias-flaws-are-beginning-to-tell.html
  8. Voluntary Operation in Community and Environment, A Report on the Success and Failure of SHG’s in India – Impediments and Paradigm of Success, published in 2008, available at http://planningcommission.gov.in/reports/sereport/ser/ser_shg3006.pdf
  9. P. Sindhu and S. Nirmala, ‘Role of MSME in Women Entrepreneurial Development’, 2 (4) International Journal of Research and Development, published in 2014, available athttp://docplayer.net/4396905-Role-of-msme-in-women-entrepreneurial-development.html
  10. Richa Agarwal, Dr. A.K Mishra and Dr. Pankaj Dixit, Gender and Work Life Balance, 4 (1) International Journal of Science, Technology and Management, published in September 2015, available at https://www.ijstm.com/images/short_pdf/1444548397_540D.pdf
  11. Prof. Neelima Prashant Warke and Dr. Parag A. Narkhede, ‘women Empowerment: Skills Enhancement through Encouraging Entrepreneurship’, 3 (1) Tactful Management Research Journal, available at http://tmgt.lsrj.in/SeminarPdf/301.pdf
  12. Noella Richard, Handicrafts and Employment Generation for the Poorest Youth and Women, UNESCO Intersectoral Programme on the Cross Cutting Theme on Poverty Eradication especially Extreme Poverty, Policy Paper No. 17 (2007), available at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001567/156772e.pdf
  13. Food and Agricultural Organization, Rural Women’s Entrepreneurship is Good Business: Gender and Rural Employment Policy Brief, published in 2010, available at http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i2008e/i2008e03.pdf
  14. Dr. P Raji Reddy, Women entrepreneurship in Rural Areas – A Study of Mulkanoor Women Cooperative Dairy, 5 (2) IOSR Journal of Economic and Finance, published in September 2014, available at http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jef/papers/vol5-issue2/F0525256.pdf
  15. Erica Field, Seema Jayachandran and Rohini Pande, Do Traditional Institutions Constrain Female Entrepreneurship? 100 (2) The American Economic Review published in May 2010, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27804976.pdf
  16. T. Vijayakumar and B. Naresh, Women entrepreneurship in India – Role of women in Small and Medium Enterprises, 2(7) TRANS Asian Journal of Marketing and Management Research published in July 2013, available at http://www.tarj.in/images/download/AJMMR/TAJMMR%20JULY%202013%20COMPLETE%20PDF/7.2,%20T.Vijayakumar1.pdf


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