Anne F. Stenhammer: Still a long journey for women

Anne F. Stenhammer, bureaucrat, politician and women rights activist, shares her thoughts on the fight for gender equality and human rights.

DELHI, November 14, 2012 - Anne F. Stenhammer has been a bureaucrat, politician and women rights activist for more than forty years. Anne F. Stenhammer was formerly the Deputy Minister of International Affairs in the Government of Norway, where she was also responsible for gender equality issues and now leads the South Asia Regional office of United Nations Agency for Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (UN Women). Throughout her career, she has been a tireless crusader fighting for women empowerment and human rights.  She  was conferred the 2011 Universal Human Rights Promotion Award at the 12th World Human Rights Congress organized by The Indian Institute of Human Rights.

Working in South Asia, especially India, for half a decade has been an enriching experience for the women rights veteran who counts on India as her second home. An ardent supporter of Women’s economic empowerment at the grass roots level, she offers wonderful insights into some intriguing questions on women empowerment.

Do you think women in India have reaped the benefits of India’s economic development in the last few decades?

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Not just in India and South Asia but around the world, the slow but increasing economic empowerment of Women is certainly the biggest positive social change of our times. However, the pace of this change has been heartbreakingly slow and we need to accelerate the same.India has been developing fast, but the development has not always been inclusive. There is increasing recognition that the pattern of growth is as important as its pace: the quantity and quality of jobs produced for men and women is also crucial .Women must be able to share in the benefits of growth rather than finding themselves competing for scarce and poorly paid jobs in a shrinking labour market. We must strive to achieve gender equality not just because it is smart economics but also because it promises a more human-centred and inclusive growth. Educating and empowering women has proven time and again to be the catalyst for rapid socio-economic growth. On the other hand, communities where women remain economically and socially suppressed are amongst the most backward. India which is home to 7.5 % of world’s female population ranks 113 out of 135 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. As per, India’s 2011 census, the sex ratio shows a disturbing decline - 914 females to 1,000 males from 927 in 2001. The ranking of Indian women in economic empowerment is 0.3 where 1.0 signifies equality. India still has a long way to go!

Are the societal perception of women and the patriarchal mindset of the Indian society to blame for the low participation of women in the labour force?

Societal perceptions of females are often the biggest barriers to change, because they shape women’s perception of themselves as well as there role in the society. There is an urgent need to change the perception that women are capable of performing only certain types of jobs and that marriage must take precedence over career. Women need to escape the traditional stereotypes that stifle her potential.

Around the developing world and in rural India many women and girls spend most of their time in domestic and  unpaid care work like taking care of the children  and the elderly, carrying buckets of water for miles, fetching firewood , cleaning ,cooking, and supporting their families.

Unpaid work, generally in the form of domestic labor by homemakers, exists in all economies, but it’s especially prevalent in developing economies such as India. A 2011 an OECD study (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), sampling 26 OECD member countries plus the emerging BRIC economies, found that women overall spend an average of 4.5 hours a day doing unpaid work, roughly 2.5 hours more than men. Women from India spend nearly five hours more a day on unpaid work than men. India has one of the largest gender gaps in unpaid work, where men spend less than one hour per day on household chores.

Sharing the care would go a long way in easing the burden on women, balancing maternity and family responsibilities is a major challenge that women face in the path of their economic empowerment. We should also strive to understand and change the intra-household dynamics such that women have a decision making role in managing the finances of the household.

You have worked across the globe on Women issues, do you think State Intervention is helpful in securing economic empowerment for women?

Overthrowing the gendered status quo means that we need to invest in capacity building for women at the grassroots level. State intervention would go a long way in providing an ecosystem for women to have more equitable access to assets and services – like land, water, technology, innovation, credit and financial services.  74 % of rural women in India are agricultural workers but only 9.3% own the land. More than half of the South Asian countries have less than 50 percent participation of women in the labour force. Limits on women’s participation in the Asia-Pacific region costs the regional economy an estimated US$ 89 billion every year.

Countries that figure on top of the gender equality scorecard have also used hefty state intervention. For example in Norway, the government has ensured through various measures that 40% of the legislators are women. All the Scandinavian countries provide plethora of incentives in the form of long maternity leaves, state-financed nurseries etc. They have the highest levels of female employment in the world and far fewer of the social problems that plague other developed societies.

Do you see Women’s economic empowerment as a panacea for the widespread gender disparity in India?

Women empowerment is not only about economics however I strongly believe that education and economic participation are the key constituents that ensure empowerment of women. Further, it becomes more important given the ripple effect it creates on the family and the community at large. There is growing body of research to show that women are more likely to reinvest their income and profits back into their families which not only improves their own children’s nutrition, health, and education but also contributes to the economic growth and security of their communities and countries.

Economically independent Women are also less likely to depend on a partner who subjects her to violence, which seems to be an epidemic that needs an immediate cure.

What do you envision for the future?

Young women graduating from universities today will face and shape a different world. In today’s information-based societies where networks are replacing hierarchies, leaders are more likely to be the ones in the centre of the circle rather than at the top of a pyramid. I see many more Women break the glass ceiling in the future.

In the end I would also like to emphasize the fact that India today is at a cusp of a paradigm change, both in terms of its growth and position in the world and I have already begun to see positive signs and initiatives in India that seek to capture this opportunity. These collective efforts will finally succeed and manifest itself in the form of greater participation of the women in the formal economy and lead us to a sustainable future.


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Sonal Jaitly

Sonal is a young professional, aspiring writer and an astute observer of life. Born and brought up in India, reciving a mix of both Indian and western education, Sonal earned a Masters in Business Administration, but gave up business to work for Education, her passion.

An explorer at heart, Sonal loves to travel and interact with people, meeting new people, reading about different customs and cultures is something that fascinates her. Juggling between pursuing her passions and her career, Sonal believes it is important to be a perpetual student of life, learn, unlearn and relearn while navigating through the hills and valleys of this beautiful journey called “life”.


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