Chapter 2 The Role of Law in Empowering Women in India

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Chapter 2

The Role of Law in Empowering Women in India

Women Empowerment under

International Conventions

"Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. (...) Empowered people have freedom of choice and action. This in turn enables them to better influence the course of their lives and the decisions which affect them".1

(World Bank and Empowerment)

Empowerment is often suggested as part of the solution to a lot of societal problems, as well as being an end in itself. But, while discussing about empowerment the greatest challenge is to understand what exactly it means.

“Empowerment means individuals acquiring the power to think and act freely, exercise choice, and to fulfill their potential as full and equal members of society”.2

“Empowerment … refers to the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them”.3

Andrew Barlett has described it in a poetic way, “empowerment is like the taste of mango, or the scent of jasmine, or the sound of the waves on the shore; almost everybody can recognise those things for what they are, but almost nobody can describe them”.4

In brief, empowerment is about people taking greater control of their lives.

According to Kabeer, “Empowerment is a process by which those who have been denied power gain power, in particular the ability to make strategic life choices. For women, these could be the capacity to choose a marriage partner, a livelihood, or whether or not to have children. For this power to come about, three interrelated dimensions are needed: access to and control of resources; agency (the ability to use these resources to bring about new opportunities) and achievements (the attainment of new social outcomes). Empowerment, therefore, is both a process and an end result”.5

In the present scenario ‘empowerment’ is considered a process by which the one’s without power gain greater control over their lives. This means control over material assets, intellectual resources and ideology. It involves power to, power with and power within. Some define empowerment as a process of awareness and conscientization, of capacity building leading to greater participation, effective decision-making power and control leading to transformative action. This involves ability to get what one wants and to influence others on our concerns.

The couple of word Women-Empowermentmay be defined as a multidimensional social process that helps women in gaining control over their own lives. It fosters capacity in them, for use in their own lives, their community, and in their society by acting on issues that they define as important. It is multidimensional in the sense that it occurs within sociological, psychological, economic, political and other dimensions. It also occurs at various levels such as individual, group, and community. It is a social process in the sense that it occurs in relationships to others.

According to UNFPA Guidelines6, “The empowerment of women comprises five components- women’s sense of self-worth; their rights to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives; both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create more just social and economic order on national and international levels.”

In the path of empowering women the primary step is to remove gender inequality. The gender equality and women’s empowerment are so mingled that they are considered one and the same thing. Many of the experts consider women empowerment and gender equality as two sides of the same coin: progress toward gender equality requires women’s empowerment and women’s empowerment requires increases in gender equality. Women empowerment and gender equality can only be achieved through gender justice.

The need for women empowerment reflects in the words of Helen Clark, the Administrator UNDP, “Development cannot be achieved if fifty percent of the population is excluded from the opportunities it brings.”

Gender equality or women empowerment is central to economic and human development in a country. Removing inequalities gives societies a better chance to develop. When women and men have relative equality, economies grow faster, children’s health improves and there is less corruption. Gender equality is an important human right.

Almost all the international organisations have advocated in favour of women empowerment for very long, the United Nations has been the pioneer among them.

The Intergovernmental Women Suffrage Alliance 1904; the International Congress of Women 1888; Equal Rights International 1930s; Coalition of International Women’s Organizations 1935; the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women 1995 are some of the movements that have been started for the empowerment and rights of women across the world.

Various efforts by United Nations include:

  1. Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (1958);

  2. Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960);

  3. Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962);

  4. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW (1979) and Optional Protocol to the Convention (1999)
    The Convention is often described as an international bill of rights for women.

  5. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000) recognized that war impacts women differently, and reaffirmed the need to increase women’s role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution. The UN Security Council subsequently adopted four additional resolutions on women, peace and security: 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010). Taken together, the five resolutions represent a critical framework for improving the situation of women in conflict-affected countries.

  6. “Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women by 2015” has been one of the eight goals in the Millennium Development Goals by UN.

The Cairo Conference in 1994 organized by UN on Population and Development called attention to women’s empowerment as a central focus and UNDP developed the Gender Empowerment measure (GEM) which focuses on the three variables that reflect women’s participation in society – political power or decision-making, education and health. 1995 UNDP report was devoted to women’s empowerment and it declared that if human development is not engendered it is endangered a declaration which almost become a lei motif for further development measuring and policy planning. Equality, sustainability and empowerment were emphasized and the stress was, that women’s emancipation does not depend on national income but is an engaged political process.

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (PFA) was adopted by governments at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, this document sets forth governments’ commitments to enhance women’s rights.

Following are the remarks of Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the forty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women marking Beijing +10 which clearly explains the need for women empowerment or gender equality:

“Sixty years have passed since the founders of the United Nations inscribed, on the first page of our Charter, the equal rights of men and women. Since then, study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health - including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would also venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.

But whatever the very real benefits of investing in women, the most important fact remains:  women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and from fear.”7

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created “UN Women”, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. In doing so, UN Member States took an historic step in accelerating the Organization’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women. The creation of UN Women came about as part of the UN reform agenda, bringing together resources and mandates for greater impact.

Grounded in the vision of equality enshrined in the UN Charter, UN Women, among other issues, works for the:

  • elimination of discrimination against women and girls;

  • empowerment of women; and

  • achievement of equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security8.

Considerable efforts have been made internationally but the efforts within our country are numerous and continuous since our struggle for freedom against the British Raj. It was during that period women emancipation was initiated by some of the male reformers to improve our societal structure, educational and health standards.

The inception of Mahatma Gandhi in the National freedom movement ushered a new concept of mass mobilization. Women constituted about 50% of the country’s total population, he, therefore, involved women in the nation’s liberation movement. The mass participation of women directly in the freedom struggle was the great divide in the history of (Feminist movement) empowerment of women. They shed age-old disabilities and shared the responsibility of liberation of their motherland with their counter parts. The freedom of India thus became synonymous with the empowerment of women. In this context the date of India’s political freedom (15th August, 1947) is a landmark in the history of women empowerment in India. It brought in its wake a great consciousness in our society for human dignity. It was realized that every citizen of independent India be accorded equal treatment under the law.

Women-only organizations like All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) emerged. Women were grappling with the issues relating to the scope of women’s political participation, women’s franchise, communal awards, and leadership roles in political parties.

The Indian National Army (INA), which was set up by Subhash Chandra Bose, was one of the most genuine and fearless movements undertaken by Indian men and women under the able and remarkable leadership of this great patriot. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose recruited around 1000 women for the Rani of Jhansi Regiment from different South East Asian countries. Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan, who was a medical practitioner by profession, led this regiment. The women in the regiment were given the same training as that was given to men. Even their uniform was similar to the men soldiers. The real impact of the INA may not have been in military terms, but it had a deep psychological impact on the women of India.

While there was significant number of women patriots who stood by Gandhiji and the Congress in the non-violent movement, women of Bengal and from other parts of India also participated in a vital role in various armed revolutions. Women played a major role in the Lahore Students Union of Bhagat Singh and the Kakori case. The Mahila Rashtriya Sangha was established by Latika Ghosh in the year 1928. Veena Das who shot at the Governor of Bengal, and Kamla Das Gupta and Kalyani Das were all active within the respective revolutionary groups. Women courageously participated in violent and non-violent movements of Indian independence.

The women in freedom struggle of India excelled as speakers, marchers, campaigners and tireless volunteers. They actively participated in the processions and rallies conducted by the Indian political parties. They always fought for Hindu-Muslim unity. The contribution of women in freedom struggle of India is truly remarkable and is difficult to define in words.

Women’s participation in the freedom struggle developed their critical consciousness about their role and rights in independent India. This resulted in the introduction of the franchise and civic rights of women in the Indian constitution. There was provision for women’s upliftment through affirmative action, maternal health and child care provision (crèches), equal pay for equal work etc. The state adopted a patronizing role towards women. Women in India did not have to struggle for basic rights as did women in the West. The utopia ended soon when the social and cultural ideologies and structures failed to honour the newly acquired concepts of fundamental rights and democracy.

It is really a matter of concern that in independent India the women are not given their due credit and their participation in all the walks of life is not as remarkable as during those days of struggle.

Although women in India did not have to struggle for basic rights but many problems still remain which inhibit these new rights and opportunities from being fully taken advantage of. For example, India’s constitution also states that women are a “weaker section” of the population, and therefore need assistance to function as said equals.

There are also many traditions and customs that have been a huge part of India and its people for hundreds of years. Religious laws and expectations, or “personal laws” enumerated by each specific religion, often conflict with the Indian Constitution, eliminating rights and powers women legally should have. Despite these crossovers in legality, the Indian government does not interfere with religion and the personal laws they hold. Indian society is highly composed of hierarchical systems within families and communities. These hierarchies can be broken down into age, sex, ordinal position, kinship relationships (within families), and caste, lineage, wealth, occupations, and relationship to ruling power (within the community). When hierarchies emerge within the family based on social convention and economic need, girls in poorer families suffer twice the impact of vulnerability and stability. From birth, girls are automatically entitled to less; from playtime, to food, to education, girls can expect to always be entitled to less than their brothers. Girls also have less access to their family’s income and assets, which is exacerbated among poor, rural Indian families. From the start, it is understood that females will be burdened with strenuous work and exhausting responsibilities for the rest of their lives, always with little to no compensation or recognition.

These traditions and ways of Indian life have been in effect for so long, that this type of lifestyle is what women expect and are accustomed to. Indian women do not take full advantage of their constitutional rights because they are not properly aware or informed of them. Women also have poor utilization of voting rights because they possess low levels of political awareness and sense of political efficacy. Women are not informed about issues, nor are they encouraged to become informed. Political parties do not invest much time in women candidates because they don’t see much potential or promise in them, and see them as a wasted investment.

There is a poor representation of women in the Indian workforce. Females have a ten percent higher dropout rate than males from middle and primary schools, as well as lower levels of literacy than men. Since unemployment is also high in India, it is easy for employers to manipulate the law, especially when it comes to women, because it is part of Indian culture for women not to argue with men. Additionally, labor unions are insensitive to women’s needs. Women also have to settle for jobs that comply with their obligations as wives, mothers, and homemakers.

While striving for women empowerment it must be kept in mind that empowering women doesn’t mean empowering them in technical area only. The notion that women is being highly educated and employed are empowered, is a myth. Dependent women are not empowered women.

When they manage to survive, they are made to live without dignity due to various types of crimes against them. It only proves the point that the societies’ mind-set is still against girl child. Even the educated and economically well off sections are not free from this ‘son preference attitude’. It is because Indian society’s cultural mooring is very strong. Thousands of married women suffer in silence, because domestic violence is rampant. The abuse takes physical, mental, emotional and economic forms. For the sake of the society, women sacrifice a lot and bear a lot of mental, physical and emotional stress. Even if a woman lives in an abusive domestic environment, she will hesitate to come out of marriage in spite of her economic independence. This situation is due to strong addiction to culture and tradition. Such patience is exercised not only for the sake of society and children, but also due to lack of confidence to live as a single woman and face the challenges of life. Women have to awake from deep slumber and understand the true meaning of empowerment.

Despite tremendous progress made toward gender empowerment, significant challenges still face women throughout their lives.

One major contributing factor is the system of patriarchy in society that places male and females in different and unequal positions. The gender system is reinforced through different aspects of life, such as interpersonal behaviour, law, and politics. Nobel Lauret, Dr. Amartya Sen emphasises that the empowerment of women is one of the main issues in the process of development and more importantly, that “the factors involved include women’s education, their ownership pattern, their employment opportunities and the working of the labour market”9.

In the same book he quotes, “since there is considerable evidence that women’s empowerment within the family can reduce child mortality significantly”. This clearly shows empowering alone can take care of so many issues that society faces.10

The all-round development of women has been one of the focal point of planning process in India. The First Five-Year Plan (1951-56) envisaged a number of welfare measures for women. Establishment of the Central Social Welfare Board, organization of Mahila Mandals and the Community Development Programmes were a few steps in this direction.

In the second Five-Year Plan (1956-61), the empowerment of women was closely linked with the overall approach of intensive agricultural development programmes.

The Third and Fourth Five-Year Plans (1961-66 and 1969-74) supported female education as a major welfare measure.

The Fifth Five-Year Plan (1974-79) emphasized training of women, who were in need of income and protection. This plan coincided with International Women’s Decade and the submission of Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India. In 1976, Women’s welfare and Development Bureau was set up under the Ministry of Social Welfare.

The Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980-85) saw a definite shift from welfare to development. It recognized women’s lack of access to resources as a critical factor impending their growth.

The Seventh Five-Year Plan (1985-90) emphasized the need for gender equality and empowerment. For the first time, emphasis was placed upon qualitative aspects such as inculcation of confidence, generation of awareness with regards, to rights and training in skills for better employment.

The Eight Five-Year Plan (1992-97) focused on empowering women, especially at the grass roots level, through Panchayat Raj Institutions.

The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1997-2002) adopted a strategy of women’s component plan, under which not less than 30 percent of funds/benefits were earmarked for women-specific programmes.

The Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) aims at empowering women through translating the recently adopted National Policy for Empowerment of Women (2001) into action and ensuring Survival, Protection and Development of women and children through rights based approach.

In our country, a National Policy for Empowerment of Women was formulated and adopted by the government on 20th March, 2001 so as to bring about advancement and empowerment of women and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and to ensure their active participation in all the spheres of life and activities.

Today, the empowerment of women has been recognized as the central issue in determining the status of women. The government of India set up a National Commission for Women through an enactment by Indian Parliament in 1990 to safeguard the rights and legal entitlement of women. The 73rd and 74th Amendments of Panchayat and Municipalities for women, lays a strong foundation for their participation in decision making at the local levels. According to the National Policy for Empowerment of Women-2001, India has also ratified various International Conventions and Human Rights Instruments committing to secure equal rights of women. Key among them is ratification of the Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1993.

Some women have landed highly respectable careers and achieved international fame. However, this is not the norm throughout the country; such modernizations and the women behind them face serious resistance from anti-liberalists. The country is still severely male-dominant and unwelcoming to such movements that go against sex and gender traditions in India.

The statistics also point out that women are still far behind the men in India. Gender discrimination still persists in India and lot more needs to be done in the field of women’s education in India. The gap in the male-female literacy rate is just a simple indicator. While the male literary rate is more than 75% according to the 2001 census, the female literacy rate is just 54.16%.

The women are underrepresented in Indian politics. The candidates fielded by the various political parties are still dominantly male: women account for only five to ten per cent of all candidates across parties and regions. This is the same broad pattern that has been observed in virtually the 12 previous general elections in the country. The political empowerment of women still has a long way to go.

“When women move forward the family moves, the village moves and the nation moves”. It is essential as their thought & their value systems lead the development of a good family, good society & ultimately a good nation”.  Indian government has taken several steps towards empowering women. Empowerment of women also requires participation and co-operation of men as they benefit by having educated mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. The economic empowerment will allow raising women’s self-awareness, skill development, creative decision making and it may also lead to produce better citizens and a new and modern India.

Although significant improvements has been observed in last few decades in the status of women. A lot of efforts have been made by the central and state governments through their plans, policies and programs to up-lift the status of women and to bring them into main stream.

1[Online] available from

2 UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), [2000]

3 Kabeer, Naila. 2001. “Reflections on the measurement of women’s empowerment.” In Discussing Women’s Empowerment-Theory and Practice. Sida Studies No. 3. Novum Grafiska AB: Stockholm.

4 Entry Points for Empowerment, A Report for CARE-Bangladesh, June 2004

[Online] available from

5 Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women's Empowerment. Development and Change, Volume 30, Number 3, July 1999. Blackwell Publishing [Online] available from

6 United Nations Population Fund Guidelines for Women's Empowerment [Online] available from

7 [Online] available from

8 [Online] available from

9 Amartya Sen; Development as Freedom, Alfred A. Knof, New York, 1999, p 101

[Online] available from

10 Amartya Sen; Development as Freedom, Alfred A. Knof, New York, 1999, p 109


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