Why women hold the key to India’s economic future

Why women hold the key to India’s economic future

Global Risk Insights sat down with Sevi Simavi, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, to discuss the topic of female empowerment in India and what it means for the nation’s economic future.

“Empowering women to participate in India’s economy would add $2.9 trillion to the nation’s economy”

GRI: Why is female empowerment important for India’s economic future and growth?

Simavi: There is a clear correlation between women’s empowerment and economic growth. As things currently stand, women generate just 17% of India’s GDP. But, according to research by the McKinsey Institute, empowering women to participate in India’s economy on an equal basis to men would add a staggering $2.9 trillion to the nation’s economy by 2025. In fact, according to the same research, India, more than any other country in the world, has the most to gain by closing the gender gap.

Of course, that’s the macro picture. If we look at the impact of women’s economic empowerment on a micro level it is even more inspiring. Put quite simply, when a woman is able to earn and control her own money, she has greater control over her own life and the lives of her children. Research shows that women invest 90% of their earnings back into their families – that’s money spent on food, healthcare, schooling. New research from Ernst & Young also shows that women entrepreneurs are powerful job creators – even outperforming their male counterparts on this front. This is why we need to put women at the centre of development and economic growth in India.

“India needs to recognise the huge potential of its women entrepreneurs”

GRI: What steps is India taking to promote female participation in the work place? What are the main barriers?

Simavi: Worryingly, the gender gap in labour force participation in India has actually widened by 7% over the past ten years. Figures from the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report show that, currently, only 29% of women participate in the workforce, compared to 83% of men. India is taking steps to address this, but more needs to be done to break down the barriers which prevent women from assuming a full role in the labour force.

The barriers are many. First, women need to be supported to balance their family responsibilities with work. A recent survey found that a quarter of Indian women quit their jobs after having their first child. There have been some proactive signals from the government – calls for companies to provide childcare facilities for employees and a plan to double maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. But there is still no paternity leave, nor are parents entitled to flexible or part-time schedules. On top of this, women perform almost ten times the amount of unpaid care work that men do.

Second, India needs to recognise the huge potential of its women entrepreneurs. In May, the government launched a scheme called Stand Up India as part of its efforts to support entrepreneurship among women. It’s a promising sign, and the scheme will provide women with training and access to loans – crucial tools for business success. At the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women we focus on empowering women entrepreneurs in what we call the ‘three C’s’: confidence, capability and access to capital. One of our current projects is supporting 550 women in the Satara and Pune districts of the Maharashtra region to grow their micro enterprises into profitable and sustainable businesses. We are matching the women with mentors, supporting them to access new markets and networks, and linking them to financial services. We know that, with the right tools and support, these women can transform their enterprises into thriving businesses and become financially independent.

Third, there is a significant gender gap in access to technology. Globally, women are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone, and in South Asia the situation is more severe – with women being 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. In some villages in India, women have even been banned from owning or using mobile phones. In our increasingly digitalised world we depend on connectivity to find work and access vital information. For women entrepreneurs, technology can open a door to the resources which are so crucial to running a successful business – information about markets, and access to banking services and online learning opportunities. Closing the gender gap in access to technology will depend on a number of things – affordability, for example, and investing in women’s digital literacy.

“Creating businesses out of nothing”

GRI: Can you share with us an inspirational story that you lived through or witnessed which involved a woman breaking barriers and empowering themselves against the odds, in India or anywhere in the world?

Simavi: During my time at the Foundation I have been honoured to meet a huge number of inspirational women. One woman I will always remember was from the Chikhodra village in Gujarat – her name was Shantaben. She was a saleswoman with an agricultural cooperative: she would buy lentils and spices from the cooperative and sell them to households in her village. The money she earned was a crucial source of income for her family. I met her because we were working with the Self Employed Women’s Association and the Vodafone Foundation in India to design a mobile technology project to support the cooperative. We created a mobile app that allowed saleswomen like Shantaben to place orders and manage their sales using a basic mobile handset.

Before the app, Shantaben would have to place orders for products by travelling from her village to a processing centre – a journey of up to seven hours. There was no guarantee that she would get the products her customers wanted because the processing centre could not forecast demand. And, she could only get two bags of goods – the maximum she could carry back to her village on her shoulders.

After Shantaben learned how to use the mobile app she started placing her orders remotely. Because she was able to get the products that her customers wanted her sales increased threefold. Shantaben has used this extra income to hire transport to collect her produce, and is also paying for her grandson to go to school.

Every day, women like Shantaben are working against the odds, creating businesses out of nothing and using their success to benefit others. Their stories are hugely inspiring to me.

Sevi Simavi is CEO of Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a charity which aims to empower women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies. Simavi has over ten years of global public policy and financial sector development experience gained in over 50 countries across the globe through work at the World Bank Group and the private sector. Her expertise includes business and financial regulation, institution and capacity building, women’s entrepreneurship, emerging markets and results measurement. Simavi has an LLM from Georgetown University.

About Author