Of beginnings, means and ends


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IN over a decade of formulating various conceptual and empirical approaches to empowerment, the appropriateness of the term has primarily been understood contextually. Some scholars and practitioners argue that this dilutes the term and thereby reduces its likelihood of satisfying certain practical needs of women. On the other hand, there is a growing consensus on the positive support that practical needs can provide to the strategic concerns of women, and hence endorse empowerment as a process that must be textured, be historically and geographically specific, and measured in the lived experiences of women. A mid-way stance is that empowerment must not be seen merely in instrumentalist terms, but rather as an active tool which, if well used, can facilitate change with justice (Afshar et al. 1998).

In India, notwithstanding these differences, conceptual and practical, empowerment has gained an unprecedented acceptability both as a term and process – in theory, practice and policies related to development. Nonetheless, issues related to the measurement of outcomes and means of empowerment often raise critical concerns among the practitioners and academicians. As the end goal of empowerment remains elusive, varying degrees and levels of success have been accorded to different empowerment models. This paper addresses some of these issues through illustrative case studies of organizations of women workers in the unorganized sectors of the economy, highlighting the differences in approaches to empowerment within the dominant model of economic empowerment.



Organizations that work for the empowerment of women tend to focus on the material conditions to which women are subjected, and make conscientization central to their organizing (Calman 1992). The successful models of organizing women for economic empowerment show that it can serve to promote shared knowledge, mutual trust, self-help, reciprocity and solidarity among women, which in turn can increase women’s participation and bargaining power in local institutions. In other words, most of the economic approaches to women’s empowerment are political in nature and necessitate changes in the power relationships in the economic as well as the social and political spheres. The motto of the women’s movement is rephrased to the economic is political, as any change in the economic transaction in the everyday lives of women, either at home or the workplace, implies structural or political changes (Carr et al. 1996).

At the same time, there exists a complex and multi-dimensional relationship between the labour markets in the unorganized sector and poverty1 (Jhabvala 2000). This relationship has assumed further significance in the aftermath of new economic policies. Taking cognizance of this relationship, efforts have been made to address the vulnerability of women through interventions in the labour markets by both state and non-state agencies. The literature on direct and indirect attack on women’s poverty through various types of interventions in the labour market provides many insights into the problem as well as highlights successful mechanisms of redress. In addition, they stress on crucial linkages between the various facets of a woman’s life to unravel the vicious cycle of poverty – low socio-economic status leading to poverty and poverty reproducing lower status.



The inability of established trade unions to organize informal workers belonging to the lower social and economic strata of society creates space for NGOs to intervene in the informal economy. These interventions have largely been welfarist and based on the delivery of various development schemes. Compared to the large numbers of NGOs in the country, very few have formed member based organizations (MBOs) with even fewer relating to women workers. One reason may be the aid bureaucracy that influences their programme orientation mostly favours welfare programmes with direct beneficiaries and quantifiable impacts. Moreover, different NGOs seem to prefer non-union MBOs, the most popular being cooperatives. Most MBOs of women workers are concentrated in defined sectors – primarily social forestry, watershed development, minor forest produce collection and so on. This paper analyses the experiences of ten such organizations.



The formation of a particular type of MBO can be traced to its motivational aspect. In the specific context of this study, a common feature is that most MBOs originated as an activity of an NGO with the support NGOs playing a significant role in the functioning of the organizations.





Category of

Main Activity





BGKS Karnataka


Support NGO – Women’s voice

Domestic workers

Demand for minimum wages and physical and social security

Social protection of domestic workers

ASP Andhra Pradesh


Support NGO – DAPPU

Dalit agricultural workers

SHGs and micro enterprises

Empowerment of dalit women

AS Orissa


Support NGO – Agragamee

Tribal MFP collectors

SHGs, society for processing MFP

Empowerment of tribal women

SMS West Bengal


Support NGO – JSK

Agricultural workers

Demanding minimum and equal wages, EAS

Empowerment of agricultural workers

KKPKP Maharashtra



Scrap collectors

Demand to be notified as cooperative society for procurement

Empowerment of waste pickers

SEWA Madhya Pradesh


SEWA Bharat Ahmedabad

Self-employed(beedi workers)


Empowerment of self-employed women workers


Co-op. Society

Support NGO

Handicraft workers

SHGs, employment generation

Empowerment of handicraft women workers

Co-op. Shillong

Co-op. Society

Group initiative


Tailoring unit

Alternate income and employment generation

AMM Maharashtra

Trust and Society

Individual initiative

Tiffin makers

Access to credit, employment generation

Empowerment of women

Trade union collective Tamil Nadu

Alliance of ten trade unions

Institutional initiative

Plantation and agricultural workers

Enhancing participation of women members and IGP

Integrating women members in rural workers’ organizations


The matrix below makes clear that common features among the selected MBOs relate to the legal status, the motivational aspect that preceded the formation of MBOs, and the constituency of workers (whether drawn from a single or multiple occupational category or from a social or ethnic group). The activities, perception of the problems of women workers and approach towards workers’ rights vary with the purpose, strategy and process of organizing followed by each type. Moreover, each type of MBO reflects not only the ideology behind organizing but also the objectives, strategies and goals of a particular form of intervention.

The understanding of gender plays a crucial role within this context. The need of a separate space for women workers was felt because existing gender ideology disadvantages women across the work space, in the community and home. These disadvantages range from unequal wages, lack of political space for articulation of needs, recognition of work, lack of care services like maternity benefits, crèche at work, sexual harassment at work place, domestic violence, lack of access to credit and productive assets, casualization of female workforce and feminization of low skilled and less remunerative work.

The general strategies of organizing workers such as rights awareness and conscientization, developing solidarity and leadership qualities and creating space for democratic participation and protest cannot be applied in the case of women workers without recognizing their cultural muteness, subordinate gender roles and position in the family, lack of access to and control over resources including their own earnings, and constraints on mobility faced by women even when they are workers. However, indicators of gender empowerment in the organizations of women workers from a rights perspective tend to be complex.

First, both the legal status of the organization and the socio-political contexts of its geographical work area show significant variation. So does the social and economic status of the women workers across the spectrum of activities or within a specific sector. Thus worker’s rights become context and gender specific. For example, even the right to work becomes a crucial issue when social and religious taboos prevent women from entering the labour market. Similarly, the right to livelihood takes priority as it is intrinsically linked to women’s access to natural resources, viz. collection of minor forest products. Access to credit, freedom from exploitative middlemen and freedom from harassment by law enforcing authorities also assume priority in other circumstances. As is clear, most organizations prioritize one issue over the other for strategic or pragmatic reasons. The accompanying table provides a matrix of activities that are undertaken by the MBOs under each theme.



Economic Empowerment


Gender Empowerment

* Articulation of work, specific exploitation at workplace and with regard to main economic



* Awareness of legal rights like minimum wages, equal remuneration etc.


* Demand generation systems for specific state intervention support for entrepreneurial activities

* Access to credit


* Formation of savings and credit groups


* Training for skill upgradation


* Training for alternate employment pportunities


* Implementation of income generation programmes


* Technical and financial


* Development of leadership qualities among the lower cadres of members


* Position of women leaders in the structure of the organization

* Citizenship building and consolidation of solidarity through participation in public meetings, and collective bargaining for civic rights and basic needs


* Participation in decision-making and planning for the organization and behaviour

* Awareness of the existence of gender ideology vis-à-vis discrimination of women in the immediate context of their work, community and family


* Realisation and resistance building against the most overt forms of gender discrimination


* Changes in personal attitudes


Our profile of selected organizations shows that each MBO has identified a specific constituency of workers. Also that the organizational form developed and the design of strategies and priorities of activities largely depend on this constituency building of the MBO. More specifically, the interpretations of the material context of women’s lives play a critical part. However, as most MBOs work with lower income group women engaged in the informal sector belonging to socially disadvantaged groups, the initial focus is on how to address their low income levels.

Though the socio-political context and the specificity of the constituency influences the activity line of the MBO, a linearity seems to be discernible across the different MBOs. This can be expressed as follows. Citizenship building through a demand generation system runs throughout the activity line and is therefore not included.

Identification of constituency —› understanding and interpretation of material reality —› identifying the main cause —› awareness creation about the same —› formulating solidarity for action —› launching of various protests, campaigns, advocacy etc —› formation of SHGs —› provision of loans for consumption and production needs —› support for entrepreneurial activities —› implementation of income generation programmes.



Articulating worker’s rights seems to facilitate an easy shift to other rights, namely rights as women and citizens. Unions, in our case studies, have fared better in terms of gender awareness. Their initiatives on equal remuneration, minimum wages, EGS, EAS, welfare boards and social protection encompass a wider canvas of related issues for further discussion and action. The realization of many of the demands by the unions, however, remains low since they do not constitute a political priority for the state. Unions thus, in the long run, face a challenge of efficacy. In fact, unions in our case studies viz. BGKS and SMS, already face this challenge. The struggle by the SMS for minimum wages, equal wages and implementation of EAS in favour of women involves a large number of women who are aware of the significance of the struggle. While they are willing to continue the struggle through the union, what concerns them more is a lack of employment opportunities and low wages in the off season which they want addressed. Before long, unions will have to respond to this demand of creating employment or income generation for its members.



Most cooperatives and societies try to address the poverty of members on a priority basis. Given the narrow distinction between low income and their plight as informal economy workers, the resulting overlap can cause major distortions in the outcome of activities undertaken. In many cases it was noticed that the common identity as being poor was the defining one. This identity of being poor was articulated in a non-gendered way; there is often a total dismissal of gender problems by attributing immutability to gender hierarchy. This creates a classic chicken or egg dilemma. First poverty then gender or first gender then poverty. Though most MBOs claim to simultaneously address this concern, in many cases gender has obviously taken a back seat.

Whether priority is given to poverty or workers rights, weaving the rights of a citizen along the activity spectrum is common to all types of MBOs. Demand generation for better delivery of services, infrastructure improvement and stake-holding in development planning have had a wider resonance. However, the MBOs need to take care to not fall into the trap of imposing the identity as beneficiaries rather than citizens.

Economic empowerment implies access to credit for meeting consumption and production needs, involvement in economically productive activity, control over income, access to and control over productive assets like land and autonomy over personal choices. MBOs address all these dimensions through the dominant model of SHGs and income generation.



However, self help groups or credit models exhibit certain obvious lacunae as they link women only to credit and productive activity. For example, if women take loans for their men to invest in land over which they share no rights, nor have control over agricultural products, then economic empowerment through this model will remain limited. Alternatively, however, some argue that this dependency of men on women for credit is a beginning of gender role reversal. Similarly, income generation programmes, if not designed to provide alternate employment opportunities for women such that the products and market linkages are directly under their control, fails to stand the test of economic empowerment. A more radical critique of alternate income generation programmes is that they reinforce gender stereotypes by more often promoting activities which do not help women acquire requisite skills or status.



Nevertheless economic empowerment as a strategy for gender empowerment does address many vulnerabilities that women exhibit. Most of the economic empowerment initiatives by MBOs have indeed raised income levels through collective bargaining, group enterprise, alternate income generation activity and by providing access to credit for consumption needs.

Gender empowerment is conceived of as a process through which women can overcome many of the specific hurdles that they face vis-a-vis education, work status, employment opportunities, social and physical security. Economic empowerment was identified as a logical beginning as economic dependency on men formed the crux of many disadvantages and oppression. Economic self-reliance is assumed to add to the self-confidence and autonomy of women and act as a scaffold to build empowerment in other areas of their life.

Politics has long been the prerogative of men as the public sphere was culturally taboo and remained socially inaccessible to women. However, involvement in economic activities has enhanced opportunities for women to interact in the public sphere. A world beyond the home and concerns other than domestic chores, being with other women, sharing common problems, planning redressal and alternatives, definitely provide an enriching experience for many women. Many of their everyday problems have been attended to by creating a demand generation system – for instance, demanding efficient functioning of PHCs, availing of ration cards and demanding village roads. Similarly, demonstrations at the concerned offices and regular meeting to draw up action plans have helped generate a feeling of citizenship.

Nevertheless, specific activities aimed at gender empowerment by MBOs are rare; at the grassroots, economic empowerment is equated to gender empowerment. It is assumed that gender awareness is enhanced by responding to overt manifestations like domestic violence. But even in the case of domestic violence or marital conflict, there is less focus on gender and more on household prosperity and other moral values. Though some MBOs have taken up the issue of child marriage and girl child education, gender empowerment by MBOs remains a relatively neglected field.



Gender empowerment implying capacitating women to understand, tackle and overcome gender oppression cannot be limited to an assertion for space in the public sphere. Though a pragmatic and strategic goal it cannot be an end in itself. Gender empowerment must meet the larger objective of addressing power relationships in both public and private spheres as also transcending this dichotomy. Though this would necessarily involve activities taken up on the basis of exclusive grouping of women, various other issues need a common space to impact the larger community/society in general and households in particular. To address structural discrimination, the main objective of gender empowerment, carving out a separate space is only a means. Though grouping women as a category of workers is undoubtedly an efficient strategy to achieve certain objectives of gender empowerment, this focuses on just one facet of women’s life/oppression viz., the work sphere. The resultant changes are difficult to sustain since they are dependant on the value codes and expected role behaviour that govern the private sphere.



Another problem area relates to matching ideology with pragmatism at work. More than the underpinning of gender ideology, the debate relates to the praxis and possibilities in organizing women workers in particular, and women in general. Drawing on their long years of experience, most organizations tend to argue that taking up gender issues with poor women when their immediate economic needs are yet to be met is impractical. This pragmatic approach has proven its strength, since many organizations have made visible impact on the status of women. The basic premise of this pragmatic approach is that material poverty has to be addressed for women to relate to themselves as women. Since among the multiple roles that women play, familial roles dominate all other identities and the pragmatic approach has met with considerable success, is it not time to take up the ideological questions pertaining to structural oppression? Is it not time to address gender issues and move from manifestations to causes?

There are other hurdles that organizations face in progressing to gender empowerment aside from differing priorities and degrees of ideological commitment. For instance, organizational capacity. Most organizations have identified specific work related problems of women workers but are yet to identify specific gender problems. Though many have begun this process by identifying domestic violence and alcoholism, they are addressed less from a gender perspective and more from a moralistic approach of household prosperity and peace, community responsibility to protect its women folk and so on. It was observed that this was not deliberate. Both the field level activists and local leadership that the organization has thrown up lack the capacity to deal with this issue in any form other than by appealing to the conscience of men and the community to assume the responsibility of safeguarding the welfare of all. This reveals that without capacity building at the lowest rung of leadership, progress will be slow even if gender empowerment activities are taken up by the organizations.



As is evident from the above discussion, empowerment is conceptualized by MBOs on the basis of specific conditions of women workers. Nevertheless, the desired outcomes vary significantly as the commonality of organizing women workers does not progress to a common understanding of means/strategies towards the end goal of empowerment. I now turn to the experience of these MBOs, critically analyzing their beginnings, means and ends.

Placing women at the helm of affairs in MBO is a positive step towards taking up issues related to worker’s rights, citizenship and so on. A separate forum aimed at bringing together women as a social group, recognizing them as workers and organizing them to demand their legitimate rights, constitutes a good beginning. Forming member based organizations helps democratic functioning and ensures participation of members. The very nature, structure and ideology of these MBOs facilitates participatory learning and makes them a better site for gender conscientization which is integral to the larger goal of empowerment.

The presence of a support NGO in the activities of the MBOs is advantageous in adopting an integrated or multisectoral approach. It also has a multiplier effect in terms of impact beyond the constituency of MBOs. The strategy of NGOs to create or support MBOs of women workers needs to be acknowledged as a welcome move from the traditional welfarist model to a rights based approach, and from the hegemonic practice of limiting women’s participation in development and seeing them as conduits of poverty alleviation.

MBOs that function as trade unions possess a greater potential to help build worker’s identity and, therefore, for addressing the issues related to their rights as workers, as women and as citizens. However, though unintended, a linearity of priorities or a sequential preference in the steps undertaken seems to beset the activities of the organization. This sequential preference is common to all categories of MBOs, though with variations determined by the core strategy of the organizations. In fact, linearity is more pronounced in those MBOs that employ economic empowerment as both strategy and goal.



There is little doubt that the strategies followed and activities executed for economic empowerment by the MBOs have been successful, as there is visible improvement in the economic status of members, a fact candidly admitted by them in the focus group discussions. Activities oriented towards workers’ rights and economic empowerment also involve the building up of a demand generation system from the community, in turn contributing to the construction of citizenship. The flip side of this approach is that the concept of citizenship may get reduced to that of a ‘beneficiary’ whose overriding concern is to maximize benefits from government programmes.



Political empowerment in its broader sense refers to a process by which a specific section of the population takes appropriate steps to gain visibility and legitimate space in the public sphere, including at different levels of governance and in political parties. Both decentralized governance and the policy of one-third reservations for women provide an excellent opportunity. However, given political interference in the gram panchayats, which are constitutionally non-political in nature, most MBOs prefer to keep a safe distance and discourage their members from contesting elections. Their engagement with the PRIs is mainly in terms of partnerships in development programmes, demand generation at the village level and in ensuring a smooth functioning of gram sabhas. As a best practice, most MBOs demand that members resign from the MBO when contesting elections.

MBOs which have organized women workers in the informal economy, by virtue of the social and economic problems facing these workers, must simultaneously focus on a three point non-negotiable agenda of addressing the existing exploitative relationships vis-a-vis class, caste and gender. A preoccupation with or neglect of one may lead to partial success and hamper the long-term objectives of the organization.

The dominant model of economic empowerment based on the formation and consolidation of SHGs and by executing income generation programmes may be loosing its intended multiplier effect. The natural progression from economic empowerment to overall or gender empowerment has yet to be realized in many cases. An important reason for this is the assumption of natural spin-offs and, therefore, a conspicuous absence of specific strategies to address gender problems. Unless the ongoing symptomatic efforts are complemented by strategies to address structural discrimination, empowerment may remain illusory.

One needs to critically examine the economic empowerment programmes to carefully fathom the impact as MBOs are showing tendencies of ‘middle classization’ without effecting changes in gender relations critical to the process of empowerment. Since the concept of empowerment is embedded in the everyday realities of a woman’s life and their interpretation of it, the demand for activities to raise the economic status of members are routinely articulated in the focus group discussions, particularly where the MBOs are yet to make direct economic interventions.



Executing programmes through an exclusive forum of women may not provide adequate leverage for MBOs to effectively address the gender problem. Gender empowerment has necessarily to involve men as it involves a de-learning or a resocialization process for both men and women. While retaining the advantages of women workers’ organization, the MBOs simultaneously need to create a common platform or participate in such fora to push the broader agenda of gender empowerment.

So far the activities undertaken for gender empowerment are limited to the manifestation of certain overt forms of gender oppression and hence, can at best serve as a start. However, even these issues need to be addressed from a gender perspective for long term effect and for which the capacities of MBO are at present inadequate. This is one area that needs concerted effort, for without this even a formalization of public voice will not be able to serve any purpose beyond addressing the practical needs of women.



It is important to recognize that empowerment necessarily involves structural changes, which will not be achieved by merely tinkering with the structures of employment or national accounting. The progress in claiming spaces and voice in the hitherto restricted fields of discourse and action is a useful beginning. This, in turn, needs to be supported by other means to effect structural changes to enable a realization of the full potential of women. Finally, empowerment may not necessarily happen within a single generation and access to resources by itself cannot eradicate centuries of cultural conditioning. Understanding this may help avoid conflicts arising out of a fetish with measurable outcomes and time-bound empowerment interventions.



* This paper draws substantially from a study sponsored by the International Labour Organization, Indian Country Office for the Second National Labour Commission. For details see ‘Towards Empowerment: Experiences of Organizing Women Workers, ILO Monograph, 2001.

1. The terms – unorganized, unprotected and informal sector workers – are often used interchangeably as the common reference point is the presence or absence of state-protective laws made available to the workers. This, in turn, has led to the coinage of a dichotomous categorization of the workforce/economy into formal and informal sector – the formal sector implying the presence of protection and securities of work and worker’s rights and the term informal sector indicates the very absence of these. Of late, the usage of the term ‘sector’ is being challenged on the premise that it defines the informal sector only in terms of how ‘it is not like the formal sector’ and is oblivious to the heterogeneity within this sector (Lund and Srinivas 2000). Instead, the term informal economy is gaining attention. Ela Bhat has referred to this sector as the ‘people’s sector’.



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