A Key to the Empowerment of Rural Women in India and Bangladesh

Women in the rural areas of India and Bangladesh face multiple barriers while gaining access to education, health facilities and basic needs. Though it may appear to be easy, practically implementing a community-based project for gender development in the rural areas of the neighbouring countries is quite challenging. It requires a substantial amount of time, patience and resilience to bring the disadvantaged women together and build common ground. It is crucial to understand that for a rural woman, having social capital is more valuable than having a financial capital or natural capital. Caroline Moser, an academic specializing in social policy and urban social anthropology, has mentioned in The Asset Vulnerability Framework that people in poverty have the potential to be characterized as ‘managers of complex asset portfolios’ ranging from financial assets, natural assets (derived from the natural environment), personal assets (skills, knowledge and health), social assets and both collective and individual physical assets (infrastructure and household goods).

Source: Image from Canva

Social Capital as an Asset

Social capital is a multi-dimensional concept which has been introduced by the American political scientist Robert Putnam in his book Making Democracy Work. Social capital is centered on social relationships which are useful to measure the development of an economy underlying the qualitative aspects instead of quantitative. Nevertheless, feminist scholars believe that the theory, in general, has failed to take into account the gender differences that might persist in society. They draw attention to adopt an inclusive approach in the concept of social capital by eliminating gender bias and promoting the role of women in civic engagement, norms of reciprocity and generalized trust.

Challenges of Rural Women in India and Bangladesh

The article primarily intends to explain how social capital can act as a solution to the challenges faced by rural women of India and Bangladesh. They need to engage with a community that promotes collective action to empower themselves. Merely having powerful connections is not social capital. It is more about being part of your community, understanding their struggles, listening to them and coming up with relevant solutions as a group. Although there are no exclusive statistics for the rural women due to the fact that their employment is not formally counted, it would be logical to comprehend their lack of accessibility to basic facilities by estimating the literacy rate of rural women in India and Bangladesh. According to UNESCO’s 4th Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE), the disparity in literacy rates is lesser for rural women than for rural men with the increase in age. This has been demonstrated below.

In the case of India, the literacy rate of women according to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation is 58.75% and rural men is 78.57% explaining a gap between the gender which has grown close compared to previous years. Although the correlation of the literacy rate between the rural men and women has improved significantly for both the countries, it is important to acknowledge that there are still many ways to improve the accessibility of basic resources for rural women.

Social Capital as a Solution

Community-based projects do not have to be confined to a single social issue. It can cover a range of issues that rural women in a specific area face. A study has been conducted by Development Economics Professor Wendy Janssens in Women’s Empowerment and the Creation of Social Capital in Indian Villages to establish the fact that trust and cooperation are mutually exclusive when it comes to implementing community-based projects. In the context of Bihar, where women are dependent on traditionally held beliefs and superstitions, the author provides a statistical analysis of how women can benefit from social capital by a collective engagement of Mahila Samakya group, introduced by the Government of India in 1988. The quantitative data shows the benefits to be limited based on current observations despite the fact that it has the potential to increase social capital. However, if a community-based project is implemented with active facilitators, it could empower women; keeping in mind that the benefits will not come immediately.

ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) has set a great example by initiating a social enterprise by working as an interface between the community and the public health system. By mobilizing the rural women to be aware of their reproductive health and well-being, it promotes a room for improvement in certain aspects such as training, health infrastructure and so on. In the case of Bangladesh, Grameen Bank has set an example of bringing economic benefits by collectively engaging women to improve the accessibility of loans in financial institutions. To leverage the social networks, it expanded the networks by being involved in common activities such as gift-giving, child care and so on. In addition to that, BRAC (An international development organisation based in Bangladesh) has worked to promote community-building among the rural women in Bangladesh which has generated a positive impact on the empowerment of women. More than 9,000 women have contested in the local election since 2002 and around 2,903 have been elected at the grass-root level. To empower the rural women in India and Bangladesh, they should be mobilized which will, in turn, contribute to the development of the nation.

Source: Image from Canva

Social capital is an important area that deserves the attention of the government, economists and development practitioners since economic benefits do not come only by increasing the GDP of a country. Social and cultural aspects of a country are also important indicators to measure the success of the development of a country. Instead of adopting a common ground on what should be an ideal theory, it would be useful to bring women from different backgrounds together to find solutions to the problems that women in rural areas face regularly. Social capital is an asset that empowers women by bringing them together and by building trust and understanding within the community. Therefore, without hesitation, many community-based projects should be implemented to improve the social capital of women with resilience and patience.

The author, Jafreen Alamgir, is a member of Team ulaunch from Bangladesh.

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