Re-imagining Gender Equality and Women in Leadership Roles

‘Women are not lagging behind; men are missing’

Gender equality implies equal opportunities for both men and women in economic, political, education, social and health spheres. One of the critical aspects of achieving gender equality is women’s empowerment. However, it is a well-known fact that women have less access to basic and higher education. Women have fewer opportunities for economic growth and participation. Not only is their political representation abysmal, women are subjected to greater health and safety risks.

Sharing her views on gender equality and women empowerment is Chetna Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, India’s first bank run for women and by women.


How would you define gender equality?

It is a broad subject. A few years ago, I was interacting with some rural women to understand their idea of equality. I distinctly remember my conversation with a woman named Laxmi Shellar from Mhaswad village in Satara. She was a promoting member of Mann Deshi Bank. I asked Laxmibai Shellar, “How would you feel equal in the society?” Her answer still reverberates in my mind. She smiled and answered, “I would feel equal if whatever money I earn I can spend as per my wishes. I would feel equal if I am able to wake up in the morning at a time I wish to not because I am supposed to. If my household property has my name too, I would feel equal.”

Laxmibai’s simple answer summarizes the idea of gender equality. It implies a woman’s control on her finance, property, decision-making and also her body. A woman should be treated equally not only in behavior towards them but also in terms of ownership of property and finance. They should have all the freedom to do what they want to; even smaller things like not waking up early or eating before the male members in the family, is a luxury for women. A woman should not only be treated be dignity but should also be considered intelligent and wise to take her own decisions.


Which are areas where you feel women lag behind due to gender discrimination?

Many years ago, I came across a woman named Kantabai, who worked as a blacksmith and earned for her family. She stayed on the street with her family. She shared that she wanted to save a part of her daily income and put it in a bank. However, the banks were not ready to open her account because the amount was miniscule and hence not affordable. She couldn’t keep her money at home as she had no control over her finances.

Kantabai represents many such women in the society who are controlled by their fathers and brothers in the house they are born in and later, when they get married, they are controlled by their husbands. Even if they are earning, they have no control on their income. Women, as daughters and also as wives, are denied ownership of assets and a say in decision-making. It is one of the main reason women lag behind. These tangible issues need to be addressed for women empowerment. Mann Deshi Bank provides its women – hisab (capital), hunar (skill) and himmat (courage). Here, capital implies lending and savings, courage implies developing Desi MBAs and skill implies linking women to the market.

There’s no denying that the country has slowly begun to take note of these issues. Introduction of paternity leave for husbands is a move in that direction. But the men in the society need to utilize this paternity leave in taking care of the child and allow the mother to relax. All in all, I would say women are not lagging behind but men are missing.


Is the government doing enough to address gender inequality?

No. If one goes to the revenue office and witnesses how the land transactions and property registration is done, one would understand why I say the government is not doing enough. If government is sensitive enough, it would make it mandatory to have names of husband and wife both on the property papers. In revenue offices, it is commonly seen in case of inherited properties that the daughter who is about to get married, forgoes her right on the property in name of her brother. Why? It needs to be non-transferable. 

We have 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj but not in Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha. Because people who are sitting there, do not want their seats to be challenged by women. If women are left out of policy-making, it is going to affect the policies. The same is happening in the corporate world too. I am surprised to see corporate fathers creating a legacy for their sons but not their daughters.

While there are many people who are against government intervention, I strongly believe that it can work wonders. For instance, India struggled with the problem of female foeticide for decades. Finally, government had to intervene and make sex determination test a punishable crime. This was urgently needed. It’s not just about justice for women but also about a just society. Thus, I feel, in order to bring any kind of change in the society on a larger scale, government has a big role to play. Interventions like reservations and quotas or stringent laws, cannot be a permanent solution. These can be introduced temporarily for the desired changes and can be lifted once the goals are achieved and the society seems ready. 

There are many women who are able to climb the success ladder without crutches, which is highly admirable. But there are women, especially from the rural sector who do not have enough opportunities and may need hand-holding and crutches. And reservation or quota can be those crutches. In a country like India, women are coming forward very aggressively and government must tap this opportunity. It’s time we bring our women in the mainstream.


Mann Deshi has worked for women empowerment for decades. Can you enumerate some successful models that can be replicated on a larger scale in the country?

In March, when the fear of the pandemic had begun, Mann Deshi decided to rope in rural women in making of masks. To date, over 300 women have joined this initiative and produced more than 4 lakh masks worth over Rs 50 lakhs. All this happened without the women gathering at one place, without attending any training programme physically but only through sharing important information via audio/video calls. There’s a lot to learn from these women who proactively created a virtual mini-course of sorts on mask-making and made Whatsapp groups to coordinate and sharing information. Here we had 300-plus women producing over 4 lakh masks working in their respective homes. Generally, a production of this scale requires a manufacturing unit that includes land, machinery and manpower. The success of this model has proved that there’s a need to rethink, redefine and reinvent the manufacturing process to make it a low-cost shared economy model. There’s also a need for the micro sector to redefine its manufacturing and production process.  

Another model that deserves a mention here is Mann Deshi’s pension plan which was designed by us in 2007. There’s an interesting story behind this plan. Sometime in 2006, we had a bank customer, an old woman named Paryagabai who would visit the bank in the beginning of every month only to withdraw the interest from her term deposit amount. One day, I asked her on what she spent her withdrawn amount. Medicine – she answered. She shared that she does not want to be a burden on her kids and hence is supporting herself with the income she made during heydays. It struck me that Paryagabai was the real financial planner. She had designed a pension product for herself.

Mann Deshi decided to launch a similar pension plan for women like Paryagabai. Mann Deshi alongwith an organization named Seva came together to design the product and scale it. UTI became the fund manager of the product and we got experts’ advice banking sector professionals associated with SEBI and RBI. Later, based on our pension product, the Atal Pension Yojana was designed. To be replicated, models should have the capacity to be scaled up and they also need support on the policy-level.

Mann Deshi runs Chamber of Commerce for rural business entrepreneurs where they scale themselves. For instance, recently, after the lockdown was announced, one of our members of Chamber of Commerce lost her fruits business. She decided to start a grocery business but knew nothing about it. That’s when other women came forward to mentor her and help her setting up her business. This proves that we don’t have to have solutions coming from top to bottom. People at the bottom can also think and find solutions. These are real success stories and models. When these stories and voices reach policy level, they will add value to the policies.


You shared stories of a few rural women who are leaders in their own right. On a macro level, women leaders are still in minority. How do you think we can make more women ready to take up leadership roles?

It’s true that in public life there are very few women leaders and the numbers are decreasing. I would share an example of a woman named Savita who was the president of a district council. She had got this position through 30 % reservation for woman. She had contested for the seat on the insistence of her husband. During her tenure she did a relatively good work as the president of district council. I happened to meet her during an occasion and asked her what’s her plan for the next tenure as her five-year tenure was about to get over. She confidently said that she would like to contest for the next election too. I asked her wouldn’t her husband want to contest for the election? She said, “I will convince him because I want to contest again and do more work.” What’s noteworthy is that the reservation for women helped her get an entry into politics. And now she was ready to contest in open category against male candidates.

In our country, attaining a political position requires power of muscle and money. It’s definitely not an easy road for women to tread on. However, I do believe if one wants to changes the rules of the game, one needs to be in the game. There are several people who enter into politics to serve the people and country. Unfortunately, politics is regarded as a corrupt and dirty profession in our country. Our democracy needs to mature to encourage and bring more women into politics. During the current Covid 19 crisis, some of the countries which handled the situation most efficiently are ruled by women leaders. We need to celebrate and support such women leaders.  

Mann Deshi Bank is a first rural women’s bank in India. It was started more than two decades ago to facilitate rural women save money. Without any external support or investment, we started this bank more than two decades ago solely with women’s capital, women’s savings and women’s credit. After 22 years of our establishment, when I was going to co-chair Davos, I asked our women what should I talk about at Davos during my presentation, they told me, “We all set up this bank 20 years ago and proved we are bankable. We sacrificed our dividends to make it a strong institution.”

Mann Deshi Bank has been able to empower more than half a million women. During ongoing pandemic situation, our women reinvented the manufacturing process of producing face masks. Through our Business School and Chamber of Commerce, Mann Deshi women are everyday producing 1000s of masks and have sold more than 5,00,000 masks so far. This whole production was carried out without any big manufacturing unit, no high-cost overheads. The process involved use of virtual tools for skill and capacity building. The women produced masks at their respective homes, which were later collected, aggregated and dispatched. This way, these rural women have reinvented the process of production and functioning of micro-enterprise.

Mann Deshi Bank has a revolving fund wherein when a woman takes a loan, she repays it so that other women can take that loan. In a way, they are building a chain of women entrepreneurship. They are creating a world of enterprise where capital and businesses both are owned by women. They are not job-seekers but job-creators.

The above examples clearly prove that when women were given an opportunity to lead, they can redefine the banking sector as well as the enterprise and micro enterprise sector. Now, with the social stock exchange, I do foresee that if women are allowed to lead they can come with a lot of innovative ideas for the social sector.