As the finance minister puts the final touches to her first budget, will the all-encompassing financial statement have the requisite protection and empowerment for women?

Will Nirmala Sitharamans first budget empower women A Cong leaders wish listTwitter/FinMinIndia
Voices Women empowerment Wednesday, June 19, 2019 - 13:23

It’s interesting how when things are dire, male leaders send a woman to the frontlines to handle it. Have you seen how the Conservative Party threw Theresa May under the bus for what was a lost cause because of the policies that these men in suits embedded in ink?

Sounds similar to what the BJP did with Nirmala Sitharaman, when you think about it: they messed up the economy, and decided to prop up a woman candidate as the face of their finance ministry. I’m not one to believe that your capacity to do anything is a function of your sex or gender identity – but I’m also a good observer and this is what I noticed. After the DeMo flop and GST mess, not to mention soaring inflation and unemployment, the BJP needed to revive the much-battered image of the finance ministry. And a vociferous minister who also works well for optics is perhaps what the netas felt was needed.

This in no way reduces Nirmala Sitharaman’s finesse or prowess, but I can’t help but highlight how the defence ministry itself wasn’t mandated well, fraught with budget cuts, and that one of India’s most-discussed and polarising Pulwama attack took place under her watchful eyes when she was the defence minister. Did she ignore intelligence? Did she act quick enough? Or did she help the PM in forming a narrative that went on to win him brownie points in the just concluded Lok Sabha elections? The jury is still out on that.

Regardless, Nirmala Sitharaman’s appointment as the Finance Minister goes to show the PM and the party’s faith in her despite a questionable stint as India’s defence minister.

India’s budget for 2019 is on its way: and one only hopes that every effort that the BJP has put in to feed massive money churning businesses up until now is also invested in women, with as much priority if not more. The hopes don’t just remain confined to gender-sensitive budgeting, but also extend to examining the way our corporate sector operates. A cursory glance at the data from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs shows that as many as 21% of the country’s publicly listed companies have not adhered to the provision of appointing a female director on their respective boards. At its base, there is a fundamental cause for concern in that attrition, the glass ceiling, unequal pay, lack of safe workspaces and lack of gender inclusive hiring policies form the critical mass of issues that causes such frugal representation of women.

It is a serious concern that the 2018 budget chose to allocate far less funding support for the Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women, more popularly known as STEP. And it wasn’t even a small cut. Try a whopping Rs 40 crore in the 2017 budget to a measly Rs 5 crore in the 2018 budget. It is as plain as day that Nirmala Sitharaman’s priority must centre toward allocating more funds to improve the number of women who enter the workforce.

To do this, it is vital to acknowledge all the prevailing pain points at workplaces that keep women away from engaging with it, as it is both a matter of their right and discretion. Budgetary allocations shouldn’t be restricted merely to hiring decisions, but should also strive to make workplaces more accessible, women friendly, accountable, and safe. Implementing safety measures is a major prerequisite that cannot be compromised on. Budgets should also encourage ways to enable safe spaces for women who have children, are nursing, or menstruating, as well as for people who are in the midst of a gender transition – true inclusion can only come from acknowledging that gender-sensitised budgeting is not about oversimplifying the meaning of gender to imply cis women alone.

Another major area for concern is the difficulties women face in returning to work after sabbaticals. Reskilling is vital for the workforce, regardless of the level in the workplace that a woman seeks to return to. Only by funding programmes that encourage and engage in reskilling, upskilling and reintegration of women into the workforce can there be an appropriate premium attached to the stability of their careers in the future.

In the unorganised sector and small businesses, supporting access to funds for women who seek to engage in entrepreneurship, as well as funds to facilitate the right kind of mentorship are in order. Much of what exists speaks to women who must necessarily have access to the Internet and knowledge of either English or Hindi in order to know that there are programmes she can access. The 2019 budget must acknowledge the wide cross-section of women that engage with the workforce, and that deserve to be included into the workforce without being deprived of their right to a safe, accessible, equitable-pay-based workplace.

When the Economic Survey of 2018 was tabled, it was done with a pink cover, a way to indicate the lawmakers’ sensitivity to gender in assessing and authoring economic policies. However, the gender colour stereotype was too stark to ignore, much like the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman, who I feel is inducted to further an agenda rather than chart her own. Left to herself she’d perhaps make better decisions than ones that are guided by the nation’s most powerful duo and their corporate lobbies.

Apsara Reddy is the National General Secretary, All India Mahila Congress.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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