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Can CSR Bridge The Gender Gap?

Monday, September 30, 2013
By Rishika Kashyap

Rishika Kashyap is Economist, IDBI Bank Ltd.

CSR, today, is increasingly witnessing strategies, work-plans, outlays, formulated by dedicated CSR Think Tanks; and philanthropy is but one aspect of a larger scheme of things. The social initiatives of corporates are penetrating into areas that are essentially subjects of the State - healthcare, drinking water, sanitation, rural infrastructure are progressively being taken up by private players. Albeit at micro levels, CSR is striving to bridge the ‘service delivery gap’ in the country and touching upon ‘key’ state functions in the process. A much talked about area but rarely embraced by CSR strategies is ‘Gender Empowerment’. Empowerment is the first step towards ensuring gender equality – one of the Millennium Development Goals of United Nations (UN). As UN Women puts it, “Equality between women and men is seen as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centred development.”

What corporations can do to address gender inequality?
The term ‘gender’ has not adequately been incorporated into the mainstream discourse on ‘development’. The cause of women often tends to be overshadowed by ‘greater’ concerns such as poverty, education, health etc. Thus, while illustrations of planned interventions in providing sustainable livelihood opportunities, improving the linkages within the public-provided education set-up and offering free medical services are aplenty; one is faced with a dearth of corporate-backed initiatives in the field of gender. Interestingly, lack of gender based interventions seriously undermines the sustainability of other critical interventions.

It is widely held that women are capable of effecting a sustained change and hence the investments that empower them are yielding. For instance, studies have shown that economic empowerment of women improves the health and nutrition status of the family, as women tend to spend more on children and family than their male counterparts. Further, as corroborated by time-series studies, female literacy is associated with decreased infant mortality rates. At the same time, empowerment, livelihoods and job opportunities provide women and girls the foothold to challenge their domestic obligations, improve their networks, confront gender stereotypes and foster their ability to take decisions that directly or indirectly affect them. Hence, in India, where such gender stereotypes are all the more embedded, corporates can provide the much needed opportunity to women to respond to such conventions. To do so, they will first need to view gender equality not only as a means to sustain other initiatives but also as an end in itself. Once that is done, activities that endeavor to empower women and bring about quality improvements in their lives must be formulated.  Corporates should devise programmes that become self-reliant after the primary support is withdrawn. A positive spillover of corporates helping to empower women is that the onus of transforming lives of the less-privileged is shared by the privileged.

 In order to chart out CSR initiatives ideal for women, a good practice would be to conduct tete-a-tete with the intended beneficiaries - an exercise that in the CSR jargon is called ‘stakeholder dialogue’ and is a simple yet powerful tool to gain insights into the lives of target groups, their everyday struggles and opportunities. Such potent insights about the ground realities and day-to-day impediments that the disadvantaged women encounter may not be visible from the vantage point of CSR teams. Thus, it is quintessential to engage women/ NGOs/ CBOs in discussions with the CSR think tanks of corporates.

Organizations may design CSR programs exclusively benefitting women, especially in urban slums and rural areas. At the same time, the existing CSR projects may be augmented with an element of gender. For instance, in developing rural infrastructure, special emphasis may be placed upon women’s everyday role of fetching firewood and water. Programmes supporting education may be adjusted to the fact that girls’ education is still seen as unimportant among several populations and special measures - counseling sessions, nukkad nataks, music activities within the community - may be organized to address this issue. To take the example of education further, it is often observed that girls in rural India tend to skip school simply because the school is located far away from their house and most schools do not have proper toilet facilities for girls. Thus, projects promoting education must also address these features that make education ‘unattainable’ for some. Further still, gender wise quantitative goals may be built into existing projects.

Empowerment of any marginalized section of the society is a long process, requiring sustained external impetus and constant internal friction. Nonetheless, corporates, with their scale of operations, wide outreach and sheer amount of funds can help effect positive changes at the grass root level. The recently passed Companies Bill has provided a thrust to the CSR scene in India. Schedule VII of the Bill advocates ‘women empowerment’ as one of the target areas for intervention. With legislative backing, recommended spending and mandatory reporting, the time is opportune for India Inc to make a conspicuous foray into gender-based CSR.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDBI Bank Ltd. The usual disclaimer applies.

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