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Different faces of the Indian women’s movement

GS Paper 1

Syllabus: Role of Women and Women’s Organisation, Social Empowerment


Source: TH

Context: The Indian women’s movement is well-known for its vibrancy, but there has been less attention on the movement’s gradual transformation.


A timeline of the Evolution of the Indian women’s movement:

  • Nationalist/political movements:
    • Examples: All India Women’s Conference (1927) → salt satyagraha (1930) → Quit India movement (1942).
    • Acceptance of women’s leadership in politics, setting the stage for grass-roots mobilisation, and increased participation in electoral politics.
  • Rights-based, civil society movements:
    • Examples: Chipko (the 1970s) – one of the earliest ecofeminist movements in the world → SEWA → Nirbhaya, Shaheen Bagh and Sabarimala protests.
    • Grassroots organising for legal and policy reforms, against persistent patriarchal institutions.
  • State-led movements for political/economic empowerment:
    • The greatest success of this mobilisation –
      • The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution was passed, reserving 1/3rd of seats in panchayats for women
      • 17th Lok Sabha inducted 78 women as MPs – the most in the country’s history.
    • invested heavily in Self Help Groups (SHGs), which function mainly as thrift and credit institutions.
      • Today, there are about 1.2 crore SHGs in India, most of which are all women.


Nature of these movements: Some aimed to alter political discourse while remaining outside of party politics, while some were clearly associated with political parties.


Impact of these movements:

  • Transformed Indian women: From abala (weak) → sabala (strong)
  • Feminist advocacy/women’s collectives –


Initiatives for empowering women:

  • Mahila Samkhya (older programme replaced by SHGs): Explicitly designed to mobilise women and sensitise them about their rights → relative ineffectiveness in enhancing vocational skills and entrepreneurship.
  • National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM): The above deficiency was addressed by the current generation of the SHG movement + NRLM.
  • Participation in SHGs: Reliance on high-interest loans from moneylenders has declined. Overall socio-economic empowerment also facilitates SHGs to help meet national targets under
    • SDG 5 (gender equality),
    • SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and
    • SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals).
  • MGNREGA: SHGs under the NRLM have been able to use funds under MGNREGA to build income-earning assets for women, such as cattle sheds and poultry sheds.



  • The SHG movement’s potential for enhancing women’s incomes has been underutilised.
  • Most of the activities of SHGs are limited to micro-credit.
  • Limited evidence of increased incomes due to entrepreneurship or women’s empowerment within the household.
  • Sometimes SHGs have been used as a political weapon by ruling governments. For example, the use of SHG women in Kerala during the Sabarimala protests.


Way ahead – Developing synergies: Massive mobilisation of women must be supported with other complementary programmes that provide enhanced livelihood opportunities.


Some best practices of the SHG movement in India:

  • The rani mistris (women masons) of Jharkhand built toilets, providing women with opportunities to diversify their livelihoods for improved incomes and socio-economic growth.
  • Bank sakhis, pashu sakhis, poshan sakhis: The ES 2022-23 points to the empowerment of nearly 4 million SHG members through training programmes to transform them into community resource persons.


Conclusion: The key, however, is to not put all eggs in the single basket of state-led programmes and to ensure that other spaces for women’s activism are preserved.


Insta Links:

The importance of women-led digital solutions


Mains Links:

‘Women’s movement in India has not addressed the issues of women of lower social strata.’ Substantiate your view. (UPSC 2018)