Rising empowerment touches all segments of Indian society, both urban and rural
Women’s greater independence is the most impactful change
Indians feel a renewed sense of confidence since they deposed the Indian National Congress party that had ruled the country for most of the almost 70 years after independence. In that election, in May 2014, Indians took a step beyond the politics of grievance to a period of heightened expectations and empowerment.
The new government, led by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, promised a transformative vision for a more prosperous and equitable India, which it has begun to advance with ambitious programs that include:
Digital India: A connectivity initiative aimed at harnessing the power of digital technology to build national electronic networks, improve government efficiency and empower Indian citizens with expanded access to information, education, health and other services.
Smart Cities: An urban initiative to empower the unempowered by replacing village-based narrow economies with new cities, built throughout the country with state-of-the art technology and infrastructure, and providing broader job opportunities.
Make in India: An economic initiative aimed at empowering Indians with job opportunities and enhanced skills, Make in India increases levels of foreign investment permitted across over 20 sectors, to encourage more international brands to manufacture and sell in India.
Implementation of these programs entails dealing with high costs, enormous complexity and historical bureaucratic sluggishness. Progress has been slower than planned but fast enough to sustain credibility. GDP is expected to grow 7.5 percent this year, faster than any other major economy, including China, according to the IMF.
Both presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama visited Prime Minister Modi during his first year in office, signalling that both China and the US view India as a key strategic partner. Consumers are spending. Brands are expanding to India and brand values are increasing. All these developments produce a strong sentiment that this is India’s time.
EMPOWERMENT TOUCHES ALL SEGMENTS OF SOCIETY
Empowerment throughout Indian society began with the liberalization of the economy in 1991. A more capitalist and less socialist approach produced rising respect for individual initiative. More flexible interpretation of traditional societal roles paralleled the relaxation of the central control and regulation of the economy.
The empowerment of women is the most impactful aspect of this change. Indian women represent a large potential market of around 620 million people, or about half the population of India and almost twice the population of the US.
Their empowerment is transforming the traditional Indian family structure and touching all segments of Indian society. It has forced brands to reconsider their messages and the media they use to communicate them.
An Indian woman in the workplace today, born before economic liberalization began, grew up in a time when choosing a spouse was her parent’s decision to make, and her role in life revolved around duty to husband and family. Pursuing education was fine, but just enough to be eligible for marriage.
Today, this woman not her parents, is more likely to select her spouse. Her marriage is more of an equal partnership. Although she may manage the family day-to-day, she’s not doing all the chores. Her role models, traditionally her mother and mother-in-law, now include women of worldly accomplishment. Growing in confidence, she’s concerned less with being accepted and more with being recognized for who she is and what she can become.
Research by The Futures Company’s Global MONITOR found that 60 percent of Indian women today feel they control their financial futures, compared with
a global average of 45 percent. And 51 percent of Indian women, compared with a 33 percent global average, say they’d take on short-term debt to purchase items they want.
BRANDS ACROSS CATEGORIES RESPOND
The government of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh established a bank dedicated to women in 2013. Many banks, such as State Bank of India, now offer loans with special terms for women entrepreneurs. Banks address women in their ads, offering loans for home improvement and other needs.
The attempt to reach women extends to many other categories previously targeted at men. Not long ago, the paint category was a male domain. Today, leading brands, such as Asian Paints and Berger Paints, direct messages to women who often are the home decoration decision makers. Hero motorcycles markets a model specifically for women.
But empowerment of women is unfolding at different speeds across India. The choices women have – or don’t have – influence the products they need and use. Even as Indian women exert greater independence, almost 80 percent also believe it’s important to preserve family traditions, according to The Futures Company’s Global MONITOR.
To fit the needs of women all along the empowerment spectrum, Unilever tailored its portfolio of laundry detergents. Basic bar soap is available in smaller towns and villages, where many women still do laundry by hand. In more affluent urban neighborhoods, shoppers can find liquid washing machine detergent to add convenience, save time and balance work and family.
In a campaign for its Ariel detergent, Proctor & Gamble raised the question:
Is doing the laundry only a woman’s job? One ad features two older women conversing over tea while a young woman works on her laptop. A young man enters, complaining to the young woman that she hasn’t washed his green shirt. The ad ends with an invitation to react on Twitter at #ShareTheLoad. It prompted an online debate.
FURTHER PROGRESS NEEDED
Evolving gender roles are evident in popular media, where films and TV programs now are more likely to feature strong and assertive women characters. And a growing number of men populate the audiences of TV cooking shows.
Change is happening even in small towns and villages, although more slowly. Several years ago the government promulgated a policy to assure minimum representation by women on village governing bodies. Further progress is needed, however, as measured by the UN Gender Inequality Index. India ranks 135 out of 187. Of the other BRICs, Brazil ranks 79, Russia 57, and China 91.
Empowerment of women opens new possibilities for everyone – men and women. But it’s a powerful disruptive force in a society organized around a long-accepted hierarchy that favored men and left women weaker in health, wealth and education.
It challenges ancient social conventions in ways that motivate most people to find a moderate balance between tradition and modernity. In extreme cases, however, this rupture with the past threatens male self-esteem, produces resentment and contributes to considerable incidents of violence against women in India.