“Empowerment, the real issue”- 20 November 2013

The concern of Usha Ananthasubramanian, the Chairperson and Managing Director of the newly formed Bharatiya Mahila Bank is quite understandable. When she was asked what her primary concern was as she heads a bank for women, she said without hesitation: Empowerment of women. This answer says it all. In spite of the fact that women have done very well in our society in most fields, the issue of their full empowerment has not been sorted out. Usha Ananthasubramanian has recognised this problem correctly and wants to use her bank as a tool for women’s empowerment.

In banking sector, a big hindrance in women’s empowerment is that of collateral which most women cannot offer to obtain loans. Usha Ananthasubramanian seems to be aware of this and seems getting ready to address it. For, when a woman wants to be self-employed, or be an employer through entrepreneurship, then the first hindrance is the absence of appropriate collateral to ensure that the woman’s entrepreneurial idea does not die a pre-mature death. A cooperative bank has tried to answer the problem in a different manner; it asks the woman’ husband to declare that his wife is a co-owner of his property. Whether Usha Ananthasubramanian will follow that path or not, is not known. But one can certainly surmise that she will have to counter the issue squarely.
In Bangla Desh, Prof. Mohammad Yunus has solved the problem by starting Grameen Bank that offers financial support to every and any entrepreneurial idea of a woman by giving what has now come to be called micro-financing. Looking at the results of the Grameen Bank for years, one realises that the organisation has achieved a near-total recovery of loans paid to women through the concept of micro-financing. There, the main point in consideration is what Prof, Yunus called ‘article of faith’ that women are not cheats and have a better reputation (than men do) for keeping their word. The entire foundation of Bangla Desh’s Grameen Bank is based on such an article of faith.
In India, too, such an approach needs to be taken so that women entrepreneurial aspirants would keep getting proper encouragement and thereby empowerment.
Yet, the issue of genuine empowerment of women does not stop at appropriate financial assistance. The issue is far wider than one can imagine. Women do not seek only financial support for their ideas; they, on the contrary, treat money as one of the points of their empowerment. Other points in their thinking include social support, familial support, opportunity to participate in political process…!
In India, the overall picture on these counts is quite bleak. Yes, women have done well in education and several other sectors. But such women are very small in number, and vast majority outside this ambit are still un-empowered to a saddening extent. The reasons for this are many, but the most important is that a very large percentage of women do not get proper encouragement to be themselves; they are taken for granted by their respective families whose members do not allow them the freedom to be themselves. The families where such a freedom is available are in very small proportion as compared to the size of the Indian society.
That is exactly why Usha Ananthasubramanian feels that empowerment of women would be her prime concern as head of a bank for women. She may be talking in terms of creating a system that would fund entrepreneurial projects by women without the bother of collaterals, but the larger concern is about the women’s social collateral which is expressed in the larger society’s deep faith in the women’s abilities and potential.
In her initial statement after taking over, Usha Ananthasubramanian has touched a right cord that would now keep resonating in the Indian society for a long time.


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