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Indian Women - The Power Trapped

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he early 19th century opened a new chapter which was a landmark in Indian history. The arrival of foreign missionaries, introduction of English language and other outside influences brought new factors to bear on the Indian people especially the 1intelligentia.

English education was sought for professional development in the process of remodeling the society and women received ample attention. Social reformers and administrators as well realized that social transformation could take place only by the spread of education to women. Primary education was in good progress and the enrollment of girls in schools increased during 1921-34. But it slowly declined due to certain difficulties like lack of finance and inefficiency.

Higher education was also fairly good and it was the University of Madras which first admitted two women students first in the year 1876 followed by University of Calcutta in 1878. It may be surprising to know that University of London admitted women students later only in 1897. British educationists felt the need for medical education for women after witnessing the sufferings of women during home visits.

In 1885 the national association for supplying the female media was established. The training and teaching of Indian women in the medical science was recommended. In 1916 the Lady Harding Medical College was established in Delhi. Between 1854-1902 frequent visits of many scholars and the intervention of Rajaram Mohan Roy the great social reformer led to the development of female education.

A commission was appointed to study the problems relating to the education of women since there was no satisfactory demand for women’s education. This Indian Education Commission recommended grant – in – aid schools for women and the rules were made more liberal for girls in other schools with regard to fees, prizes and scholarships. The general awakening of the people to world was I, introduction of Sarada Act and teaching of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru led to phenomenol awakening among Indian women.

But for the above developments perhaps it would have taken many more years to witness any progress in women’s education.

What is Empowerment?

Empowerment strategies are varied and refer to those strategies which enable women to realize their full potentials. They consist of greater access to knowledge and resources, greater autonomy in decision making, greater ability to plan their lives, greater control over the circumstances that influence their lives and finally factors which would free them from the shackles of custom beliefs and practices. Unless they themselves become conscious of the oppression meted out to them and show initiative to push forward it would not be possible to change their status much. Some of the empowerment mechanisms could be identified as follows:

Literacy and higher education;

Better health care for herself and her children;

Higher age at marriage;

Greater work participation in modernized sector;

Necessary financial and service support for self-employment;

Opportunities for higher positions of power;

Complete knowledge of her rights; and above all

Self - reliance self respect and dignity of being a woman;


Robert Merton while proposing the ‘Ethos of science’ says that the institutional goal of science is the extension of certified knowledge. The technical methods employed towards this end provide the relevant definition of knowledge; ‘empirically confirmed and logically consistent predictions. Accordingly, four sets of institutional imperatives – universalism, communism, disinterestedness and organized skepticism comprise the ethos of modern science.

The first norm universalism implies the acceptance or rejection of claims entering the lists of science irrespective of the personal or social attributes of the protagonist; his race, nationality, religion, class, (we may did gender here) and personal qualities. For the purpose of this paper, we will try to review those studies on women in science that have tried to examine this norm and have shown that ‘particularism’ is very much functional within the institution of science. In addition we would also attempt to highlight the methodology adopted in studies on women in science and relate it to the issues that have been of concern to sociologists of science.

As in any subject, literature on women in science/research are found at varied levels. They can be broadly classified under three categories:

1. Personal notes/impressionistic articles;
2. Presentation of a particular view/idea based on opinion of like-minded activists: and
3. Empirical-research based reports, articles that fall within frameworks, models of sociology of science.

However, all the three sources are important for they bring forth insights, complement each other and facilitate further research.

Nature of Discrimination

In general, all such materials try to highlight in their own way discrimination experienced by women scientists at different levels. The nature of discrimination undertaken for analysis can be broadly classified into two types:

(a) indicators of overt discrimination; and

(b) aspects of covert or subtle discrimination.

We shall look into them in some detail.

Indicators of Overt Discrimination:
Under this category we include such factors as are recordable and quantifiable. They can be admission application, records and final selection lists of graduate students to science programmes, allotment of financial assistance to students and criteria considered for such decisions. Once in the career, the career profile of women scientists can be reconstructed by recording the number of years they have spent in completing the doctorate degree, the number of jobs, positions they apply for, before obtaining a tenure position, number of years spent in waiting-breaks during their research degree and later, number of years in a particular position or rank befor4e obtaining promotions etc. These factors can be compared for a set of male and female cohort scientists to draw out visible discriminatory criteria.

In addition there are certain other important dimensions to a career in science which directly relate to research. These include the topics given to women scientists for their doctoral thesis, resources accessible to them for research, research productivity patterns of these scientists, their collaboration patterns and authorship details of joint publications, criteria that is operational at the time of recruitment and promotion especially when it concerns competition between equally qualified male and female scientists. Similarly, as they climb the ladder, a comparison of the number of deputations, fellowships, membership in committees and administrative responsibilities that are offered to women scientists along with their male colleagues can be made. These indicators not only reflect the extent to which women receive rewards monetarily and in terms of prestige within the institution and outside among the scientific community, but also reflect the extent to which they participate in decision-making on matters concerning research and employment.

As mentioned in the beginning, literature on women in science have been varied and sporadic. However, the issue seems to be a common concern across the globe and the same ideas are highlighted whether these are about women scientists in India, America, of France except for countries of Eastern Europe for which relevant information is not available.

Looking at the quantitative compilation, we can find a number of surveys especially with reference to women scientists in America with details about their employment statistics, based on which can an analysis is attempted.

A study of matched samples of women and men who have received doctorates shows that in each of the five fields ((Physics, maths, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology) and at every level of prestige of university graduate departments women had consistently higher intelligence scores than men. Women students, it was found, receive slightly higher scores on tests of verbal facility incorporated into the nationwide GRE, but men do considerably better than women on test of quantitative skills (Zuckerman and Cole 1975). Examination of admission records however showed that members of both sexes were admitted in the same proportions as they apply. The same seemed to be true in terms of allotment of fellowships too (Astin, 1969).

However these findings have to be read in a context that:
(i) women in the 60’s took to higher education especially research in smaller numbers and
(ii) the 1950’s and 1960’s was a boom period for sciences as they received substantial financial support from governments of respective countries. It is only much later when both these factors changed i.e. women started entering science in large numbers and scarcity of resources became a reality that criteria for allotment becomes crucial.

Several analyses have been conducted to show the slow career mobility of women in science. In one study it was found that in the U.S., female Ph. D’s are more than four times as likely as males to be unemployed and constitute only 6.6% of tenured Ph. D. faculty in the sciences (Vetter, 1980).

In her analysis of productivity patterns of male and female chemists Barbara Reskin observes that the greater indeterminancy of the women’s productivity mirrors the greater unpredictability of their careers; they often held extended post-doctoral fellowships; in effect permanent non-faculty positions (Reskin 1976); changed jobs more frequently irrespective of institutional prestige (Hargens 1969). Similar findings have been highlighted by others in varied disciplines (Fidell 1970, Chubin 1974, Banerjee 1980). However, the slow career patterns of women scientists have not been studied independently but only in relation to their productivity patterns and placement in positions of responsibility.

Development of gender planning implies taking account of the fact that women and men play different roles especially in the third world and therefore have different needs and provide both the conceptual framework and the methodological tools for incorporating gender into the planning of their socio-economic programmes. At the policy level in India the changes are visible with the advent of the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985). Greater stress is placed on the economic and social development of women and a greater understanding of the plight of low - income women. With welfare oriented family centered programmes which assumed motherhood as the most important or rather the only role for women the shift is towards a diversity of approaches emphasizing the productive role of women. In this paper an attempt is made to analysis the attitude and actions towards empowerment of women by the governmental and non-governmental organizations in India.

The role of Government of India in Women Empowerment

The first few plans followed a welfarist approach and treated women as recipients of aid. The first five year plan focused its attention on the problem of high infant and maternal mortality and thence undertook steps to develop school feeding schemes for children and creation of nutrition sections in the public health departments and maternity and child health centers. The focus of second plan was on the problems of women workers. Hence policies were initiated for equal pay for equal work, provision of facilities for training to enable women to compete for higher jobs and expansion of opportunities for part time employment. The main thrust of the third plan was the expansion of girls education. On the social welfare side the largest share was provided for expanding rural welfare services and condensed courses of education for adult women. The fourth plan continued to emphasise women’s education. The fifth plan gave priority for training of women in need of care and protection, women from low income families needy women with dependent children and working women.

It is only during the fifth plan a separate Bureau of Women’s Welfare and Development (WWD) was set up in 1976 as part of the erstwhile Department of Social Welfare in order to intensity the country-wide efforts launched during the International Year of the Women. The Bureau was entrusted with the major responsibility of implementing the National Plan of Action for Women besides co-ordinating the activities relating to women’s welfare and development.

The sixth plan for the first time in India’s planning history contained a separate chapter on Women and Development. To make the International Women’s Decade a success it emphasized on three strategies viz economic independence, educational advancement and access to health care and family planning. Hence variety of programmes were taken up under different sectors of development to ameliorate the socio economic status of women.

In the rural development sector the IRDP gave priority to women heads of households and about 35% of total number of beneficiaries under TRYSEM were women. A new scheme viz Development of Women and Children (DWCRA) was started in 1982-83 as a pilot project in the blocks of the country. Many voluntary organizations were requested to avail funds from the government for the above schemes and benefit women. Under Science and Technology for Women varieties of activities were taken up. Projects were sponsored for development of smokeless chullahs use of solar cookers setting up of bio-gas plants and devices for improving the water purification system. A number of technology demonstration cum training centres at selected focal points all over the country were set up by the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) to provide expertise and resources to women entrepreneurs.

During the seventh five year plan an integrated multidisciplinary approach was adopted covering employment education health nutrition application of science and technology and other related aspects in areas of interest to women. It is only during the seventh plan ‘Women Development Corporations’ were established for promoting employment generating activities for women.

Thus with the beginning of International Women’s Decade in 1975 a number of schemes were introduced and earnest efforts were made by the government to improve the status of women. Inspite of implementational loopholes theses policies strive their best to integrate women into the mainstream of society. Thus the Department of Women and Child Development being the national machinery for the development of women plays a vital role assited by the The Central Social Welfare Board and the National Institute of Public co-operation and Child Development. While the Central Social Welfare Board is an apex body with state level branches to encourage voluntary effort in the field of women’s development NIPCCD is an advisory –cum- research – cum national level training institute in the field of child development with a separate division for women’s research and development. In India legislations and programmes favouring women had never been wanting. But unfortunately the spirit behind these policies is hardly appreciated by the implementing authorities.

Voluntary Efforts and Women Empowerment in India

In serving the cause of poor and women voluntary organizations are considered to be superior to the government for certain obvious reasons. The members of a voluntary orgainsation are willing to spend time energy and even money for an activity which they think is good. This motivation and commitment make them work more sincerely for the cause when compared to government officials. The above argument does not mean that all voluntary orgtanisation are committed and sincere and all government departments are not so. There are exceptions in both. But by and large voluntary organizations are better placed when compared to the government in the dissimination of development efforts.

The second advantage enjoyed by voluntary organisation is flexibility in operations. Revisions and modifications in the light of experience are possible. Thus there is feedback and learning through experience. The limited size of operations ensure efficiency and immediate accountability to the target group. Moreover a new society needs a new value system. The voluntary organisations are best suited to carry out this task. The poor the deprived and women who accept sufferings as their fate should be made to fight against exploitative forces and challenge the existing order. ‘Awareness building’ or ‘Conscientisation’ as Paule Freire would call it becomes imperative. Since any change in the ‘state quo’ would invite retaliation from the rich only an impartial autonomous body could do it. Hence voluntary organisations are best suited for this task.

International voluntary organisations normally have some common programmes which they may take up at national, state and local levels within their broad framework. Among the national voluntary organisations we have quite a bit of variety. While majority voluntary organisations concentrate on action oriented programmes, a few organize people and fight out issues without directly working for the welfare of the masses. Their strategies are slogan raising carrying out processions resorting to hunger strike and move the media government court etc to solve the issue at hand. There are certain organisations which merely train social workers or carry out research and training for meeting the personnel requirements of voluntary organisations. Some organisations are formed consisting of specialists from various branches of knowledge who organize seminars workshops and help grass root workers academics administrators etc to come together to a common platform and share their experiences and sort out issues. Among the action oriented once again we find two groups viz those started and supported by enlightened outsiders (top down) and those started by the members of the target group themselves (grass root masses) to find solutions to their problems without any outside interference (bottom-up). In the case of certain organisations though initially leadership is provided by ‘outsiders’ they become ‘insiders’ in due course.

Some NGOs keep the goal of achieving mobility i.e. they assist one particular target group and once the target group ‘takes-off’ and becomes self reliant the voluntary organisations move on the other groups. Thus they are ever dynamic in socio-spatial terms.

Some organisation are purely service oriented. But their number is coming down since many now-a-days concentrate on development programmes for the poor. But there are not many voluntary organisations which involve the target group in decision making. They are rather ‘working for the poor’ type than ‘working with the poor’ type.

Voluntary organisations may or may not take up all kinds of activities such as activities which promote social welfare activities which induce social reform activities which provide economic self sufficiency and activities for the promotion of social mobility. Whether each organisation carries out all the above activities or specializes only on a few depends on factors such as the ideology and philosophy of the agency founder location of the agency availability of funds and its image among the public.

Apart from the regular well established registered societies there are some ‘informal groups’ which work with ‘workers’ of a particular trade such as construction workers, workers in stone quarries, agricultural labourers etc. who help them to realize and appreciate the causes for their present predicament. Thus their main strategy is ‘conscientisation’. They help them to identify their problems and organize movements for struggle against those responsible for the identified problems. Not all organisations are secular or non-party based. The leftist groups do not normally aim for publicity since they feel that outsiders may intentionally divert the attention or perhaps even influence the methodology. Moreover such groups normally do not believe in foreign funding and developmental programmes through such outside funding. Their main aim is to ‘awaken’ the poor and fight against the existing system rather than easing their poverty through economic programmes in which case no efforts is taken to change the social order which perpetuates the existing social evils. So according to them the best way is to equip the poor to find their own salvation.

Thus there are heterogeneous groups-some engaged in consistent activity some in sporadic actions the actions themselves ranging from those which providing welfare activities to those which aim at structural change. Though it is true that voluntary organisations have come a long way from mere service providers to development oriented dynamic entities they are not free from criticisms.

There are organisations which were started on a very small scale but grew up to unmanageable size taking up multiple activities to earn national level recognition and fame. Unfortunately many among them have failed to develop second line leadership and thus are slowly fading away. A few have failed to keep their size within manageable limits and hence have become inefficient units grip over their activities.

It has been found from the history of voluntary organisations in India that any organisation which functions on the basis of a specific ideological framework finds it difficult to promote second line leadership since the second and subsequent generation of leaders hardly agree on the ideology of the pioneers. They feel that the ideology does not suit the changing times.

Another weakness that afflicts many voluntary organisations in India is their inability to move from micro projects to macro projects. Many voluntary organisations are successful in carrying out small projects. As the needs of development of a local community cannot be compartmentalized and the growth of one unit depends on the presence and growth of other allied complementary units an integrated approach is a must which most voluntary organisations are unable to establish.

Institutions building is an important function in which many voluntary organisations have failed miserably. This refers to continuous articulation of the philosophy vision and mission of the organisation among the members especially the volunteers. The rules and regulations and the system of functioning should be institutionalized. The democratic character of an institution can be kept up only by institutionalizing the execution strategies and programmes.

It is also true that in the case of external interventionists (the educated elite working among the poor) the volunteers are unable to get rid of their paternalistic superior attitude. They always want the target group to be dependent and subservient. They fail to appreciate the point that the target group is capable of taking over the tasks and performing well. It is also felt that Paulo Freier’s conscientisation’ has been more misunderstood than understood. Voluntary organisations simply fail to acknowledge that the target group has problem solving skills. They continue to supply prepackaged information on problem solving methods and behaviour (Krishnakumar and Ross Kidal 1981) Thus many voluntary organisations do not know when to enter how to enter why to enter and at what stage to withdraw. (Pandy & Siva Mohan 1990).

Another important drawback which afflicts many voluntary organisations is lack of funds. For many the budgets are so small that there is no provision for technical personnel. Consultancy services are also out of reach for such voluntary organisations in view of their cost. In these days when voluntary service has become highly specialized there is a dire need for the creation kof an appropriate agency to provide guidance, monitor the projects and provide counseling services and arrange financial and technical assistance to needy voluntary organisations which are groping in the dark.

Some organisations which are stared of foreign funds face the problem of extinction with the tapering off of funds. This is mainly so because they have not allotted even a single rupee for projects which would generate funds for future existence and growth. They have also not taken adequate efforts to mobilize the required assets and finances locally. This lack of planning and long term vision has adversely affected the growth of many voluntary organisations. In the recent past unemployment has forced the youth to start voluntary organisations. Such organisations lack dedication and true spirit of volunteerism. Such organisations have hardly obtained public confidence.

Women entering into the business field is not something uncommon today. Though it is very difficult to single out the reason for the emergence of women entrepreneurship in the recent past, it is a fact that more and more women evince interest in choosing business as a career.

The following are considered to be the major contributory factors: the influence of women’s movement, changing psychological attitude of women, the need to maintain a decent standard of living amidst the rising cost of living, gender discrimination in the labour market, restricted vertical mobility and above all the rising aspirations of women to lead an independent assertive life, and finally facilities offered to women for starting enterprises.

Upper middle class and middle class women with the required education and information are comparatively better off in venturing into business when compared to the poor illiterate, marginalized women. While the former, with the support of other members in the family do have something to offer as ‘security’ obtain loan, the latter group of women have nothing to pledge or offer as security. These women who invariably find employment in the informal sector face problems such as job insecurity, meager wages and exploitation. Gross unemployment and underemployment suffered by them have forced these women to take up self employment, and wherever women have formed ‘groups’ they have successfully solved the problems like risk, finance and marketing in their self-employment. Women’s initiative with regard to business, is the main focus of this study.

The Need for Fostering Self-Employment Among Women

Women are trying their level best to attain equality in various ways which are different over time and among societies. After the World War II, a large number of women in western countries resented their deprived status. There was a general awakening among women about their secondary status. They do follow various strategies to overcome subordination and to fight against gender related disadvantages directly and indirectly. Self employment is one among the many strategies and is considered to be the best strategy since simultaneously it helps to change women’s own self perception and also helps to attain social status.

The authors would like to thank the authorities of Working Women’s Forum and the respondents for their kind co-operation.

During the post-war period, there was a general tendency to confront subordination, through collective means like women’s movements. Women’s movements helped the women to get-together, to discuss their problems and to develop confidence. In women’s movements, only the high class women had the opportunity to sort out issues pertaining to their status as perceived by them and women of lower strata were left out.

Although labour movements tried to improve the status of women in various societies, their achievements were very limited. Only a few women joined the trade union. Most of the women did not participate in it. Even in trade union, men dominated the scene and they occupied all executive posts. Hence, collective strategies to improve the economic status and occupational position of women were very much limited.

The other possibility is individual strategy. According to Goffee and Scase there are two major ways through which women can tackle subordination i.e. through the pursuit of career and through business. (Robert Goffee and Richard Scase 1985). Women are generally concentrated in low paid jobs, and secondary sector occupations and hence the opportunities to climb up are very limited. Their success and upward mobility in career are much restricted. Only a few women occupy the managerial or executive position.

Female business proprietorship, is an attempt to tackle this kind of subordination, Female proprietorship provides economic independence to women and at the same time they directly enter the main stream and do not remain in the periphery. Especially in developing countries, women proprietors are successful in obtaining material independence from men and this economic independence provides a basis for female solidarity. In these circumstances, individual action fosters collective action to combat subordination.

Collective Endeavour: Choice of the Area and Sample

The middle class educated women, though face multifaceted problems in undertaking business ventures do enjoy certain advantages like education, access to information, credit worthiness, exposure etc. over the poorer women. The poor, downtrodden women inspite of their shortcomings, are no less competent the upper class women in self employment is amply borne by empirical reality where they have taken up self employment such as snacks vending, pickle making, papad making, tailoring, vegetables/fruits vending etc., in order to supplement family income. One may argue whether these are comparable to the large scale modern trades, taken up by educated women. One has to agree that these enterprises run by poor women are tiny, risks are minimum and do not call for innovative, novel sales strategy etc. But still to the extent, goods remain unsold or perish, they face the risk of loss and even if it is a small amount, it matters much for these women who have no access to finance.

Though there are innumerable home based producers in India operating on their own, the researchers deliberately went for samples assisted by an NGO (Non Government Organisation) for the following reasons:

a) There is consistent business activity in the case of enterprises, which receive help from an NGO when compared to units not assisted by any NGO.

b) Identification of micro enterprise owners is too difficult since they are highly scattered.

c) NGO intervention has benefited these tiny enterprises in what way? Can this example be replicated in other areas so as to involve more women who belong to the lower rung of society? This is the question, which the researcher tries to answer through this case study.

The main finding of this case study is women of lower strata need a catalyst organisation to help them to realize their potentials, to link them with financial institution and give them a firm footing in business. The ‘group concept’ provides necessary mental courage to withstand crises and carry on their activity without break. Moreover, the concept of group formation is the best strategy to enlighten women on certain important social issues like small family norm, healthy environment, education etc. So NGO intervention that too the type of approach that has been followed by Working women’s forum has produced very good results which are worth emulating by other NGOs also. So, with the twin objectives of analyzing the characteristic features of micro enterprises as well as, the role of NGOs in promoting group entrepreneurship among the poor women, we have preferred WWF samples over unassisted samples.

In this paper, an attempt is made to examine the concept of empowerment of women in the wider context of gender inequality. While the phenomenon of women’s inequality is universal, its magnitude and severity vary from country to country and within a country, from community to community. This inequality manifests itself in several forms and is generally measured in terms of the status that women enjoy in society vis-à-vis men. The Population Crisis Committee (USA) using different indicators of gender inequality examined the state of women in 99 countries there was gender equality. The country coming closer to equality was Sweden with a score of 87 points out of 100, closely followed by Finland (Score 85). The countries standing lowest on the scale are Bangladesh (score 21.5 and Mali (score 26). India holds 77th place in country ranking with a score of 45.5 Sri Lanka scores 59.5 and China 58.5 points on this scale.

It is in this context that the concept of empowerment of women assumes great significance. Empowerment is envisaged as an aid to help women to achieve equality with men or, at least, to reduce gender gap considerably. Empowerment would enable women to perform certain social roles which they cannot perform without it. In the Indian situation, this would mean helping women to enjoy their constitutional and legal rights to equality. Though men and women are declared to be equal before the law and though discrimination on the basis of sex is forbidden by the constitution, it is common knowledge that women are still at a disadvantage in India in many areas of life. Indeed, one could even say that the position of women in India has not much improved since the enactment of the Constitution when it comes to the issue of gender justice. It will be therefore worthwhile to examine the concept of empowerment of women in India in the broader global perspective and then to evaluate the impact of the various women empowerment programmes in the country.

Power, the basic ingredient in the concept of empowerment, may be defined as the capacity of a person or group of persons to influence the behaviours of other even against their will. Power is exercised through a series of orders or decisions which others are to obey. Hence, decision making and its execution form the operational part in the enactment of power, As matter of fact, these are the keys to the enforcement of power.

Politics of Women’s Equality

The global situation of women’s marginality in the top decision-making bodies of the different countries raises the question whether there is any relationship between the proportion of women in parliament/legislature and progress towards women’s equality. Are conditions for women more favourable in Finland with 39 percent women legislators than, say, conditions in the US with only 10.8 percent or in UK with only 9.2 percent? Are women in Bangaladesh with 10.3 percent representation better placed than their counterparts in India with only 7.3 percent members in the legislative bodies? The general conclusion one could draw from the above situation is that increasing the proportion of women in legislative bodies ipso facto does not help women to achieve equality, or even to improve their social status unless followed by complementary inputs, the most important of which is a radical change in the social values. This will be true even if a woman is the head of the State and even if she has strong political support. The cases of Margaret Thatcher in England and Indira Gandhi in India are examples. Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto shows that the condition of women can even deteriorate under a woman Prime Minister.

Thanks to the efforts of the United Nations Organisation, all national governments have been alerted to the need for equality for their women citizens. The observation of the International Women’s Decade and the Nairobi Congress have gone a long way in impressing member nations of the imperative need for social justice to women. It is certain that the Beijing conference will not only take a stock of the issue but come out with emphatic suggestions for gender justice and gender equality.

We shall now examine the Indian situation in the matter of women’s positions in decision-making. As a result of the system of periodical elections to national, state and local bodies, women even in remote rural areas of the country are now familiar with elections though not with their mystique. As a matter of fact, many women actively participate in electioneering though only very few of them offer themselves as candidates in elections.

Ashish Sharma

Lecturer of Management, RD University Jabalpur, India


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