Safe daycare, reliable public transport will increase women’s socio-economic involvement, says IDRC chief Jean Lebel

By Bhasker Tripathi

New Delhi: Women in urban India turn down better employment opportunities further away from home in favour of lower-paid local opportunities as the public transport system is often unreliable or unaffordable. Safe, comfortable, convenient and affordable transport can play an important role in women’s strategic empowerment by facilitating access to social and economic opportunities, IndiaSpend reported on 9 April, 2018.

About 51 percent of Indian women aged 15-49 were anaemic, most in the world, according to the Global Nutrition Report 2017, which severely affects the productivity and health of women.

Increasing the involvement of women in economic activities is one of the biggest challenges the country is facing among others, highlights an on-going IndiaSpend series.

The problem, to some extent, can be fixed if countries pay attention to women-related, “seemingly small issues” that have a “profound impact” on their economic involvement. For instance, providing affordable and safe daycare and reliable transportation, Jean Lebel, president, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a non-profit, told IndiaSpend in an interview.

IDRC has been supporting Indian public policy institutions to improve research quality, and  major activities it has supported involve women security and economic strengthening, boosting entrepreneurship among marginalised workers, adaptation to climate change and boosting millet production and consumption.

Lebel, who was appointed president of IDRC in 2013, spoke to IndiaSpend about some of these issues. Edited excerpts:

The number of women who quit jobs in India between 2004-05 and 2011-12 (the last year for which Census data are available) is 19.6 million. If it was a city, it would be the third-most populated in the world, after Shanghai and Beijing. IDRC has been focused on the topic of gender equity. What are the key markers that a developing country should focus on to reduce gender biases?

Women’s work participation has declined in India and South Asia, in part because the socio-economic environment needs to become more conducive. Our Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) programme is focussing on women’s economic roles by producing rich evidence to influence policy.

Representational image. AFP.

Representational image. AFP.

Our research in India and the (South Asia) region shows that seemingly small issues can have a profound impact on the economic aspect of women’s lives.

Women are burdened disproportionately with the task of providing care to children and the elderly. Our research with Seva Mandir, an advocacy, shows that affordable and safe daycare for children freed women to pursue work in Rajasthan, and it has a positive impact on their mental wellbeing. Our research in Pakistan has shown that unsafe public transportation also prevents women from travelling for work. The near-universal prevalence of these issues across countries need to be examined, understood and adapted.

Ultimately, the concept of “decent work” — work that is safe, well-paid, and secure — needs to be adopted in order to develop an inclusive socio-economic environment. There are other issues also at play like patriarchy and norms that hinder women’s socio-economic involvement. Evidence-based research needs to play a greater role in developing policies that help women participate in the workforce.

What are the findings of IDRC’s double-fortified salt (DFS) project? Is it scalable?

Several studies have been conducted in Canada and India on diverse aspects of double-fortified salt. For instance, one study was conducted to study iodine retention in salt after storage. Another study focussed on consumer acceptability and taste. Two additional studies demonstrated improvements in the iron and iodine status of women and children.

In order to assess the large-scale impact of double-fortified salt, a baseline study has been conducted to determine the existing level of deficiencies. Once the public distribution system supply of double-fortified salt is consistently available for a one-year period, an impact study will be conducted to provide a clear indication of the large-scale impact.

The project can be scaled up easily because it simply replaces regular household salt with double-fortified salt.

51 percent Indian women aged 15-49 years were found anaemic, most in the world, as per the Global Nutrition Report 2017. Anaemia not only significantly influences the per capita productivity among women but also the mortality rate of children and mothers in India. How can the DFS project address the issue?

Double-fortified salt has the potential to reduce anaemia by providing both iron and iodine together. A unique technology is used in double-fortified salt to prevent iron from reacting with iodine without losing nutrients or altering the taste of food. Since salt is consumed by almost everyone, rich or poor, the technology has the potential to address the very high levels of anaemia in women and children in India.

Production of small millet — an agriculture produce capable of fighting anaemia and once a staple — in India has declined from 2.17 million tonne in 1951-55 to 0.4 million tonne in 2011-15, and the area under the small millet crops declined from 5.3 million hectares in 1951-55 to 0.7 million hectares in 2011-15. IDRC has been focusing on the promotion of millets in India. Why?

Eminent scientists in India like Professor MS Swaminathan have been emphasising the importance of millets because of their high nutritional value, their traditional role in the Indian diet, and their tolerance to unpredictable weather and threats such as pests and diseases that are aggravated by climate change.

A more efficient process for dehulling millets would encourage the return of this hardy crop to the local diet. The arduous task of dehulling typically falls to women but our research suggests that if dehulling was a simpler and less time-consuming task, it would also significantly ease women’s workload and they could focus on other activities.

IDRC has been promoting a millet processing unit to simplify the labour-intensive dehulling of millets. How does this machine work?

Separating the outer husk from the millet seed is a laborious and time-consuming job performed manually by women. It is also a barrier to expanding the consumption of this micronutrient-rich grain. IDRC supports researchers to develop new processing units and to improve existing ones to meet the need for labour-saving methods.

Over the past seven years, researchers supported by IDRC and Global Affairs Canada addressed this gap in technology by developing low-cost machines that easily separate the outer husk from the millet seed. The machines, developed by McGill University in Canada and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in India, are increasing local production and reducing bran loss and the percentage of broken hulls. They also reduced the time women spent dehulling millets by 70 percent.

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Researchers are now testing new business models to help governments and enterprises expand millet production and distribution across India. The project is also increasing skills and knowledge in small enterprises and farmer organisations to introduce ready-to-eat millet products to more than 1,20,000 consumers.

In 2015, more than 8 million hectares of crops were damaged by untimely rainfall across northern India, according to government data. IDRC is facilitating an agrometeorology advisory project that aims to provide weather forecasts to farmers. How would the advisories differ from those provided by the Indian Meteorological Department, and what are the objectives?

The purpose of the project is to assist and prepare farmers for climate and other threats with weather forecasting and agricultural advice. The agrometeorology project is being implemented by a multi-donor initiative that uses data from the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and 69 automated weather stations installed by a non-government organisation (NGO). With the help of an agricultural university and IMD, the NGO analyses the information to prepare agricultural advisories that are sent to users on their mobile phones.

The project will also help build the capacity of farmers through farmer field schools, which further ensures that the information is put to good use.

IDRC has opened a new funding opportunity for gender equality and climate change. What are the objectives and how important is gender parity in the fight against climate change?

The aim of this call is to produce knowledge that facilitates the scaling and financing of socially-transformative climate adaptation solutions. Women are considered most vulnerable to climate change, and their insights can help improve community adaptation.

Our focus in on empowering women in the least-developed countries where the effects of climate change and environmental stresses are the greatest.

The author is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend


Updated Date: May 13, 2018 12:33 PM

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