By Vishnu Bisram
On the occasion of India’s 69th Repubic Day, Dr. Frank Islam delivered a stirring speech at the National Council of Asian Indian Associations calling for women empowerment in India.
Dr. Islam feels “India will be a land of big dreams, small treasures, brave people, kind deeds, and tender mercies” if women are empowered. He is of the view that India can be transformed “not by looking to the heavens and to the Gods whom we worship. But by looking at the earth and the people and the family that we are”. And by the people he focuses on women. He titled his speech Women Empowerment: The Need for Silence Breaking and Interdependence.
He said there is a need for silence-breaking in India and by this he means females should speak out against their abuses and seek economic empowerment. Islam said he got this title from a Time Magazine labeling of women who disclosed their sexual harassment as “silence breakers”. Time named these women as its persons of the year for 2017. He noted that these women came out of the shadows to call attention to a form of harassment that should never have been tolerated. “They were engaged in silence breaking”.
Islam feels that “because of the status of Indian women today, there is a critical need for silence breaking. This silence breaking should not be about sexual harassment but about an invisible socio-economic system of barriers, obstacles and limitations that prevents Indian women from learning, advancing and achieving their full potential. This is true especially in terms of business ownership and entrepreneurship”.
Islam notes that studies have shown that Indian women entrepreneurs are among the most disadvantaged in the world. “They are under paid, undervalued, and exploited. In spite of an increase of women business owners and operators over the past several years, entrepreneurship still remains a male bastion”.
He cites statistics showing that only 14% of Indian business establishments are run by females. “Most of the women-run businesses get very little support from financial institutions with about 79% being self-financed”.
Islam said this bothers him when compared to that of woman entrepreneurs around the world. Islam says Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (GEDI) issued a report containing its Female Entrepreneurship Index ranking countries “with respect to the conditions present that will fuel high potential female entrepreneurship development.” India was near the bottom on that Index – ranking 70th out of 77 countries.
In 2017, MasterCard issued its Index of Women Entrepreneurs ranking countries based on an assessment of: Women’s Advancement Outcomes; Knowledge Assets and Financial Access; and Supporting Entrepreneurial Conditions. India ranked 49th out of 54 countries on the MasterCard Index.
The MasterCard report, says Islam, offers a glimmer of hope by observing“… there is significant potential to harness the untapped potential of Indian women’s entrepreneurship.”
Islam says that this “untapped potential” can be harnessed “by working together to move Indian women to a state of interdependence”.
He says he will devote the rest of his time “talking about what we, and what you can do to help create that state of interdependence”.
Dr. Islam added: “In my opinion, there is an empowerment continuum with three points on it:
· Dependence in which a woman has no power or control over her life or outcomes
· Independence which is the mid-point where a woman has developed the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes to be liberated and self-actualizing
· And, interdependence where a woman is empowered to sit in full equality with men to influence and make decisions and establish directions for a family, a business, a community, a region, or a nation”.
He says interdependence for Indian women can be obtained by applying a 3-E formula: education; enlightenment; and entrepreneurship.
He notes that 2011 census showed that the literacy rate in India was just over 74%. The rate for males was slightly above 82% and the rate for females was only 66%. “In education, literacy is the starting line and higher education is the finish line for becoming fully empowered. These statistics indicate that not enough women even get to the starting line and very few get to the finish line”. Islam argues that this must change to give women a level playing field for empowerment of women.
Islam says Enlightenment is important empowerment and it is tied in with “higher education because it is there that a person gains not only the knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary for success”. Islam says that “when we empower and educate women, they will be in the forefront of empowering other women who will then educate and empower other women — and the cycle will continue”.
Entrepreneurship is critical for women power. Islam states that “It can and must occur in all fields and professions: education, engineering, health sciences, law, politics and information technology to name just a few”.
Islam says that the development of women entrepreneurs in all of these fields will ensure multi-pronged progress in terms of the pursuit of interdependence for women across the board. He says India must “Educate and empower women to become entrepreneurs; ensure adequate financial resources to support their entrepreneurial ventures; provide mentoring to promote success in the entrepreneurship
Islam posits that education for women to become entrepreneurs “should be multifaceted stressing not only in terms of book learning but also providing the hands on skills and abilities required to run a business”. He says “it should also be directed toward preparing women to enter fields in which there are too few female business owners today such as information technology, manufacturing, and engineering”.
Islam claims that studies have found that “women in emerging markets have much more difficulty in securing loans than men and have to rely on their own financing. We need to provide venture capital support to help women start and grow businesses.
Unless they come from a family that has a business or have worked in a business, women entrepreneurs have seen no role models and have had no coaching on how to start, run and build a business. A mentoring program can fill that gap”.
Dr. Islam urges people to commit to supporting the empowerment of women. “There is an urgent need for women’s inclusion at all levels in our economy. I hope that you will be willing to join me in this journey as a partner in the silence breaking and increasing the interdependence of Indian women”.