What does it take to empower ordinary women in India?

One of the methods that governments have tried over the years is to design direct-benefit schemes exclusively for women.

The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, for instance, gives women below the poverty line a free cooking gas cylinder, along with subsidies paid into their bank accounts. The Centre’s Janani Suraksha Yojana offers maternity benefits in the form of Rs 6,000 to adult women who deliver their first child in a medical institution. There are pension schemes for widows and a variety of state-level schemes offering benefits in cash or kind to women and girls.

The latest to hit the headlines are schemes planned by competing political parties in Tamil Nadu in an attempt to woo women in the run up to the state Assembly election on April 6.

First, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam promised that it would give Rs 1,000 per month to women from families that had ration cards that make them eligible for subsidised rations. A week later, on March 8, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam upped the ante by offering Rs 1,500 per month to the same group of women.

While the parties have not yet offered clarity on who exactly the beneficiaries of this programme would be, PTR Palanivel Thyagarajan, head of the DMK’s IT wing, said the scheme would benefit the women listed in the state’s over two crore family ration cards. “The amount will go to the woman’s bank account directly.”

Both parties have described their beneficiaries as “kudumba thalaivi”, a term that literally means “female head of the family”. It has also been interpreted by some as “housewife”, prompting discussions about whether Tamil Nadu politicians are offering monthly wages for women’s work at home.

Other reports have discussed the financial feasibility of such election promises. If there are to be two crore beneficiaries, then the budget outlay for a scheme providing Rs 1,000 to each beneficiary a month would have to be at least Rs 24,000 crore every year.

An equally relevant discussion, however, is the question of intended impact. Do direct-benefit or cash transfer schemes actually empower the women they are meant for? How much do they improve their lives and give them financial or social independence?

Do women get to keep the money?

In Tamil Nadu, the view among potential beneficiaries of DMK and AIADMK’s promised schemes is clear.

“If the government gives Rs 1,000, half of it will go back to it in the form of liquor sales,” said Antonyammal, a 58-year-old agricultural labourer from Olaiyanur village in Kallakurichi district’s Ulundurpet constituency.

She was referring to the well-acknowledged fact among women in her social group: money given to women is inevitably taken away by the men of their families, who often spend it on local liquor.

Though Anotonyammal and many other Dalit women in the village were happy about the prospect of getting this income support from the government, they say they would not have control over the money that would be credited to their accounts.

“For many of us, not giving the money to our husbands would mean domestic violence,” said Antonyammal.

Women from Tamil Nadu's Olaiyanur village in Kallakurichi district. Credit: Sruthisgar Yamunan

Vanaja, 28, the mother of two girls, said it was imperative that governments not only provide income support to the women but also frame a plan to increase their control over the money. She echoed the view that liquor shops would have to be closed for such schemes to be effective. “Last time, Amma [Jayalalithaa] had promised there would be prohibition in a staggered manner,” Vanaja said. “That promise has been thrown to the wind by those who came to rule after her.”

J Jayalalithaa, six times chief minister of Tamil Nadu, died in 2016 after leading AIADMK for nearly three decades. Her focus on welfare schemes for women gave her party a ten-point advantage among women voters as compared to men. While some schemes involves cash transfers, others sought to create enabling conditions for women, whether through employment in Amma canteens, or breastfeeding stations at bus terminals for working mothers.

Latha, another resident of Olaiyanur village, said while any income support programme would help the family, this was not a permanent solution. “Most of us in the village do not own any land,” she said. “For over 40 years, our village people have been asking for land. But our demands have been ignored.”

‘Women want control over earnings’

According to social workers who have worked with women in rural India, this is the crux of the problem with direct-benefit schemes for women: they provide financial relief to impoverished women and their families, but do they really empower women?

Economists like Jean Dreze believe they offer women a path to be independent. “The economic dependence of women on men is one of the major roots of extreme gender inequality and women’s disempowerment in India. Anything that gives them more independence is useful from that point of view,” said Dreze.

Economic research suggests women use welfare funds differently than men, which promotes both gender equality and social development. But many social activists believe cash transfer schemes alone aren’t enough to shift the power differential between men and women.

“Women want control over their earnings, they want fair and secure livelihoods,” said Madhuri K, an activist from the non-profit Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan in Madhya Pradesh who has worked in rural communities for over 20 years.

In Madhya Pradesh, says Madhuri, cash from schemes meant for women – like the maternity benefit scheme – often goes into the hands of men. “Often, women are dragged mid-labour to hospitals that are far away, even if they could have delivered [their babies] at home, just so that the family gets the money from the scheme,” said Madhuri. “In a deeply patriarchal society, for women to actually benefit from such schemes we need systemic empowerment. Giving a little bit of money here and there is not going to help.”

In rural Rajasthan, a group of Adivasi women from Udaipur district told Scroll.in that their husbands sarcastically used the term “lugai ka raj” or “a wife’s reign” to describe the many welfare schemes targeted at them. While this suggested the men were resentful of the power flowing to their wives, the women pointed out that they had little control over the money since they were not even allowed to step out of their homes without their husbands’ permission.

Aajeevika Bureau, a labour rights organisation, conducted a small survey among rural women in Udaipur last year and found that 50% of them did not know how much money they receive in their bank accounts and from which welfare schemes that came. Often, it is their husbands who accompany them to the bank to withdraw the money and keep most of it.

“But through our education and empowerment programmes with women, we have seen small changes and more awareness among them about their rights,” said Manju Rajput, a programme executive at Aajeevika Bureau.

Dreze said: “I think that by and large the days are gone when women had no control over their own earnings and just handed them over to their husbands. They are smarter than that.”

According to Mirai Chatterjee, a veteran social worker from the Self-Employed Women’s Association or SEWA, collective organisation is perhaps the most effective way to actually empower women.

“Women need any welfare support they can get, so getting money in their accounts is always welcome,” said Chatterjee, the director of SEWA’s social security team. “But empowerment is a very complex and multi-faceted thing and it cannot be achieved just through cash benefits. It happens when women get organised, come together and build solidarity.”