Building Capabilties in women: The Human Development Perspective

Abstract: The paper is an attempt to examinc the well-being of women in the Indian context from the human development perspective. Implicit in the concept of improving the quality of life is an idea of social change and a move from a hierarchical society to an egalitarian society. It defines well-being from the Human Development perspective as ‘building capabilities’ in women to be able to take their own decisions and be able to do and be what they want to do and be. The paper examines the two approaches— the direct economic approach which aims to build capabilities in women by increasing their earning power and the more indirect non-economic approach focusing on education and political empowerment which have been adopted in India to achieve well-being.

Keywords: Capabilty(ies), Equality, Empowerment, Approach, Education, Enrolment, Self-Help Groups (SHGs), Discrimination (Development, Women), higher education, political empowerment, female enrolment ratio,

Empowerment of Women may mean many different possibilities. It is one of the various ways to improve well-being of women. In a society where traditionally women have not enjoyed an equal position with men and have been looked upon as essentially child bearers and home providers, empowerment of women from the human development perspective would begin at making them conscious and aware of a different way of thinking.It would lead to building capacities in them to do what they desire to do and be.

The paper is an attempt to examine well-being of women in the Indian context from the human development perspective. Implicit in the concept of improving the quality of life is an idea of social change and a move from a hierarchical society to an egalitarian society. It defines well-being from the Human Development perspective as ‘building capabilities’ in women to be able to take their own decisions and be able to do and be what they want to do and be. It is in this context that the paper examines the two approaches- economic and non-economic, which have been adopted in India to achieve well-being. Economic well-being of women is the more direct approach, which involves building capabilities in women by increasing their income earning power. One of the ways of Economic empowerment has been through the encouragement of the formation of self-help groups (SHGs) and provision of micro-credit. The second approach is more indirect where widespread education and political empowerment is looked upon as an instrument of social change. The paper discusses the use of instruments such as education and micro credit in building capabilities in women in the Indian context to bring about a qualitative change in their lives.

The paper has been organised in the following manner. Section II discusses the concept of capabilities in the context of improving the well-being of women. This is followed by a discussion of the two approaches towards building capabilities (Section III and Section IV). Observations and conclusions follow in Section V.

The Capability Approach and Well-being of Women

Capability is a feature of a person in relation to goods (emphasis added).

Utilitarians consider a good like rice in terms of the utility it creates through its consumption. However, it also gives the person the capability of meeting nutritional requirements. Having rice gives the capability of functioning in a particular way i.e. without nutritional deficiency (Sen, 1984).

The life of a person can be seen as a sequence of things the person ‘does’ or, ‘states of being he or she achieves’, and these constitute a collection of functionings (emphasis added) – doings or beings the person achieves (Sen, 1992, 1999). Functionings need to be distinguished from having goods (and the corresponding characteristics) and having utility (in the form of happiness resulting from that functioning). Such in the way, bicycling must be distinguished from the possession of owning a bike. It also needs to be distinguished from the happiness generated by the functioning, for example, cycling around needs to be distinguished from the pleasure derived from that act (Sen, 1999).

Functionings consist of elementary achievements as being adequately nourished, being in good health, avoiding escapable morbidity and premature mortality…etc. and complex achievements as being happy, having self-respect, taking part in the life of the community etc. ‘Functionings are constitutive of a person’s well-being’ (Sen, 1992, pp. 39-40) (emphasis as in the original).

‘Capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings the person can achieve, and from which a person can choose a collection. Thus, the notion of capability is essentially one of freedom – the range of options a person has in deciding what kind of a life to lead (Sen, 1987, 1992, 1993). The approach is based on a view of living as a combination of various ‘doings and beings’ with quality of 1ife being assessed in terms of the capability to achieve various functionings (Sen, 1993). Poverty, in this view, is not merely the impoverished state in which one actually lives, but also the lack of real opportunity to choose other types of living. Poverty is thus a matter of ‘capability deprivation’ (Dreze and Sen, 1995, p.l1) and the process of economic development can be seen as a ‘process of expanding the capabilities of people’ (Sen, 1984, p. 497).

Capabilities and Women

The human development perspective calls for building capabilities in women for well-being to be a reality. It calls for several conditions that influence women’s internal development and also at the material and social environment that influence their ability to turn their ideas into action (Nussbaum, 2003).

Women’s access to education, nutrition and health care (including maternal health and safety and including the elimination of sex bias in nutrition and health care) are central capabilities. Equally critical are their abilities to seek employment outside their household, their ability to own property in their own name and to secure credit, and finally their freedom from violations of their bodily integrity by rape and assault both inside and outside of their household. Of importance is their opportunity to form affiliations with other women in groups and movements (ibid).

A capabilities approach is closely linked to a rights based approach which focuses not only on limiting state action but also on providing affirmative support for a broad range of human functionings. Rights are rights not only to resources but also to opportunities for important types of functioning (ibid).

Building Capabilities- Two Approaches

Empowerment according to the UNDP (1995) includes the expansion of choices for women and increasing their ability to exercise their choice. Thus improvement in women’s access to economic opportunities through credit and employment programs is one way by which capabilities can be built in women. This may be called the Direct Approach or the Income Generation Approach. The other approach is the more indirect approach or the Social sector Approach. Health and Education related programs enhance the ability of women to take better advantage of the choices offered by the first approach. When development programs increase the choices of employment by providing credit facilities, it expands their choice set and increases their ability to exercise those choices. Education should increase the voice of women in the family, the range of job options open to them and create the ability to exercise choice.

The paper considers these two approaches and examines to what extent they have been successful in building capabilities in women in the Indian context.

Income Generation Researchers and policy makers have found that women’s economic we11- being can be achieved by organizing them under a common group or forum with an income generation program. This mode of empowerment has been adopted by both non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and by government institutions. However, NGOs generally adopt participatory and community development approaches which are different from the traditional approaches usually taken by the government and therefore give different results.

Government Approach

As a means of empowering women by providing them with income generating assets, the Swarna Jayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana (SGSY) was launched by the Government of India in April 1999 incorporating and merging earlier schemes of IRDP, TRYSEM, DWCRA and SITRA with the Centre and State funding in the ratio of 75:25. The objective of SGSY was to assist families (Swarojgaris) below poverty line for obtaining income generating assets through a mix of government subsidy and bank credit. The objective was to ensure minimum family income of Rs. 2,000 per month.

Under this scheme, micro enterprises are to be set up. Groups of Swarojgaris are to be organised into Self-Help Groups (SHGs) to give organisations strength. Exclusive Women SHGs are to be specially promoted. The subsidy under the SGSY is available at a uniform rate of 30 percent of the project cost, subject to maximum or Rs. 7,500. In respect, of SC/ST , this is 50 percent with the ceiling of Rs. 1 0,(100/-. For SHGs of Swarojgaris, the subs idy would be at 50 percent of the cost of scheme, subject to ceil rug of Rs.I .25 lakhs. A number of Swarojgaris have been assisted as indicated in the following table:

Table 1: Number of Self Help Groups (SHG) of Swarojgaris













Jain a






Source: Rural Development Department , Government of Maharashtra

In the several villages visited in the districts of Jalna and Ahmednagar (State of Maharashtra), SHGS have been formed and are working successfully with large balances. In some places, they were in formative stages. However, one could make some broad observations.

Some of the SHGs have been formed only to get the benefit of the subsidy offered by the government. These groups find it difficult to become self supporting or reliant. They look for additional credit to finance future activities despite the fact that their groups have large savings. This dependence on the government or a funding agency was not seen in SHGs which were formed in villages where there was no government providing them with subsidy e.g. the SHGs in the villages which were under the lndo-German Watershed Program (implemented by the NGO WOTR) in which building capabilities in women is part of a larger development program. The

NGO Approach

An alternative approach has been formation of self help groups as part of a wider developmental program. The Indo-German Watershed Program aims at sustainable livelihood through conservation and efficient utilisation of natural resources including rain water and soil. The program has encouraged the formation of SHGs, as part of this wider and broad program of economic development of the entire village through participatory methods.

The program places emphasis on building, the capacities of women by involving them in the decision making processes, formation of Self-Help groups, taking up activities which help reduce social drudgery and enhance their economic status. A Women’s Development Fund is generated by allocating 5 percent of the maintenance fund which is generally used for building some community structures like a meeting hall for women. The Self-Help groups are also given a one-time grant which acts like a revolving fund of the amount of Rs. 60.000. This amount is used to grant loans for investment in social drudgery activities, for example. purchase of gas cylinders and hand pumps or cycles for school going girls. The interest earned helps the fund to grow.

Empowerment consists of exciting possibilities. But we need to look at empowerment in the Indian context. Implicit in the idea of empowerment is an idea of social change, in particular of change front a hierarchical to an egalitarian type of society. The fact that women sit along with men and talk without hesitation is in itself a landmark development, which was observed in watershed villages.

It needs mention that women in several watershed villages told us how they used to run away on seeing new people in their villages, of how they have never come out in the open when men were around, of how they used to hide in fear when outsiders visited their village on the suspicions that they were there to loot them of their belongings including land. And today, when they have organised themselves to solve an economic-ecological issue, namely water, they sit alongside men discussing issues. They have been involved in micro-planning, drawing the map for the Capacity Building Phase which indicates the water tables, Voluntary Service and farm bunding for water management.

Several observations which emerged from the field visits are summarised below:

  • Formation of SHGs should be a part of a bigger program which involves improving the livelihoods of the viIlage and community participation. This would help in forming SHGs which cut across social classes and are self reliant. The SHGs in the villages which were under the WOTR program did not speak of the need for additional credit to finance fixture activities. This dependence on the Government or a funding agency was seen in SHGs which were formed in villages where there was government providing them with subsidy. The superiority of an approach, which is participatory in nature, over an approach which emphasizes provision of subsidy, was clearly demonstrated.
  • The formation of self-help groups has made credit available easily. Credit in rural areas is needed for consumption purposes and has to be timely. The availability of consumption loans which are timely has helped displace the moneylender from the rural areas and thereby remove bonded labour and rural indebtedness.
  • Women have got into the saving and banking habit. They are now fainiliar with banking practices. This not only gives them more confidence but also enables them to know about the loans which their husbands take from the banks without their knowledge.
  • Loans are made available for income-generating activities such as onion shed, grocery store, bangle making, oil mill, vermiculture. The income generated from vermiculture activities was cited as follows: The project gave a loan of Rs. 5,000. The fertilizer generated from this activity was used for plants as water could not be given to the plants for a period of one month. The fertilizer when sold in the market fetches Rs. 500-600 per quintal and the sale of earthworms fetches Rs. 700 per kilogram. Reproduction of earthworms takes 3-5 days.

While women’s SHGs are functioning well when judged on the criteria of repayment of loans there is scope for much further work such as :

  • Linking the Self-Help Groups to wider financial institutions 1ike commercial banks or trusts which finance self-help groups or Mahila banks.
  • Develop ing the awareness of the different innovative income generating activities which can be taken up by them. There is need to provide them with knowledge of these activities but also to impart training in these activities, provide marketing facilities and measures of quality control.
  • Linking up with government developmental activities and availing of the various subsidies available under various schemes e.g. for construction of toilets, purchase of sprinkler irrigation, construction of onion sheds.
  • Involving women more strongly in the decision-making processes at the local level which includes that in the watershed committees and Gram Sabhas. It is a difficult task, however, women’s participation should not be restricted only to the formation of credit and thrift societies, but should be institutionalised in a way they become part of a wider body of decision-making.

Education as a means of empowerment. The synergies between female education and mortality, fertility and productivity haven been summed by Summers (1994):

  • Educating women reduces child mortality. Comparisons of female education rates across regions, after holding variables such as income levels and male schooling as the constant, prove this relationship. In Africa, the child of a woman who has not been to school has a one in five chance of dying before reaching the age of five; a child whose mother attended five years of school has a mortality risk that is over 40 percent less, and a child whose mother has attended seven years of school has a mortality risk that is more than 50 percent less (p.10). Studies done at the micro level within individual countries also show that a more educated woman has healthier children.
  • Educating women reduces fertility. Econometric studies within individual countries find that an extra year of female schooling reduces female fertility by approximately 5 to 10 percent (p.10).
  • Educating women reduces maternal mortality. Based only on the impact on the number of births, and not including what are the impacts on the risks associated with any given birth, an additional year of schooling for 1,000 women will prevent two maternal deaths (p.10-12).
  • Educating women also helps in the prevention of the spread of AIDS and has important environmental benefits.

Summers (1994), argues that the share of the world’s girls who go to school can be increased at a relatively modest cost. For India, the cost of providing 1,000 girls with one additional year of primary schooling would cost US $ 32,000. It would avert 2 maternal deaths, 43 infant deaths, 300 births (p.14-15).

Education of Females

Despite the World Declaration on Education For All by 2000 and various programs of the Government of India to universalise primary education, females continue to face barriers to education. There is a pyramidal structure in the female enrolment ratio, with a broad base at the primary level and tapering as it reaches higher levels of education. A significant proportion of students, especially girls, continue to drop out because of socio-economic and cultural factors.

Several factors hamper universal education, especially those of girls. These factors work on the demand and supply side. Demand side constraints are essentially those arising out of economic conditions including low incomes, the need to look after younger siblings and household work. Faced with a choice of educating girls versus boys, lower income groups find the direct and opportunity costs of investing in the education of the girl child too high. On the supply side, physical access to school, inadequate physical infrastructure such as lack of drinking water and toilets and poor quality of teaching are the main barriers facing the community today. Field level observations indicate teacher absenteeism and the consequent neglect of the quality of education to be the most pressing problem. Lack of separate schools exclusively for girls and female teachers also act as inhibiting factors.

As one goes up the ladder of higher education, it is interesting to note that the enrolment of girls begins to decline at higher levels of schooling, drop-out rates increase for girls at higher levels of schooling and enrolment of women in tertiary education is at low levels (Tables 2,3 and 4).

Table 2: Enrolment of Girls at Different Levels of Education

Year Number of Girls at Different Levels of Education


Primary I – V

Middle V I-VIII

Secondary IX-X

(I )
























2000-0 1*




Source: Government of India, 2002, Selected Educational Statistics 2000-01. Planning, Monitoring, ans Stastics Division, Department of Secondary and Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2002.

The number of girls enrolled per 100 boys has increased over the years when one considers the period 1950-51 to 2000-01 at all levels of education. The increase in enrolment of girls has been particularly high at the rn iddle and secondary level ol education. Over the period 1950-Al to 2000-01 the eni olinent of girls per 100 boys increased by 100 percent points at the primary lev’cl, 253 percent points at the inidd le level and 294 percent points at the secondary level. H owcvcr, enrolment of girls per 100 boys is still low at the in idd le and secondary level s or education as compared to the primary level of education even in 2000-01 (Table 2).

Table 3: Drop-Out Rates (Percentage)


I 960-61




I 999-2000*









Classes I to V






















Classes I to VIII






















Classes I to X






















Source: Government of India, 2002, Selected Educational Statistics 2000-01, Planning, Monitoring ans Statistics Division, Departemnt of Secondary and Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2002.

Table 3 indicates the declining drop out rates for girls and boys at all levels of education when one considers the period 1960-61 to 2000-01. However, the drop-out rate for girls is higher than for boys at higher levels of schooling. The drop-out rate is high at 72 for girls when the entire schooling period is considered i.e. C lass I to X. It is lower at 58 percent when the schooling ycars of Class I to VIII is being considered and further lower at 42 percent when primary education is considered.

Table 4: Enrolment Ratios at Different Levels of Education, 2000-01













Female Ratio,


Ratio of


To Male


Ratio, Percent

Ratio of


To Male




Ratio of


To Male












Republic of


Sri Lanka






























































Source: UNDP, Human Development Report 2004, Oxford University Press, New York.

The above table shows that:

  • Gross tertiary enrolment of females is as low as 9% while is higher at 76% at the primary level in India
  • The ratio of females to males at the tertiary level of education is lower at 60 as compared to 83 at the primary level in India
  • Enrolment of females at the tertiary levels of education at 9% is disturbingly low in India when compared to developed countries like Norway and Sweden
  • The ratio of females to males enrolment at higher levels of education in developed countries like Norway and Sweden and developing countries like Thailand and Malaysia is in fact more than 1, indicating more females taking up higher education as compared to men. This is not the case with India, indicating gender gaps.

Education and Earnings

The low level of female educational attainment results in low earning potential and low financial and functional autonomy within the household.

Women in all countries earn on an average substantially less than men. The rate of return is 19 per cent for men and, 17 per cent for women at the primary level, 16 per cent for men and 21 per cent for women at the secondary level, and 15 per cent for men and 14 per cent for women at the higher level of education (Psacharopoulos, 985). On an average men make more than women from the resources they invest in similar levels of education (ibid).

Kingdon (1999) estimates private rates of return to education separately for men and women in the Indian context. Gender gap in education is explained by parental discrimination against daughters to acquire school education and labour market discrimination against women. The sample included 1000 households in 1995 in urban agglomeration of Lucknow district, Uttar Pradesh. The survey yielded data on 4560 individuals aged 6 years old and over. The standard Mincerian semi-logarithmic earnings function was used to model earnings, with modification to take account of the possibility of endogenous sample selection. Two specifications of the earnings function have been used. One, a pure Mincerian specification, i.e. with just education, experience and experience square and second, an extended earnings function which includes caste, religion and household composition.

The following results have been reported by Kinsdon (1999):

  • Schooling has a highly significant effect on earnings and the premium for, each extra year of schooling is about 10.6 per cent for men and 9.6 per cent for women. In other words, the Mincerian rate of return to education is modest at about 10 per cent and is somewhat lower for women than for men (p. 259).
  • With the inclusion of family background as measured by tather’s education in years, the rate of return to education falls to 8.9 per cent for men and 4.9 per cent for women suggesting that there is considerable omitted variable bias in the estimates of rates of return to education.
  • Controlling for personal human capital and parental background. women’s returns to education are 45 per cent tower than men’s, a difference that is large and statistically significant. ‘This sizeable gender asymmetry in returns suggests that females have much poorer labour market incentives to acquire education than males in urban India (Kingdon, 1999, p. 261). The results reinforce the gender disparity in returns to education cited by Psacharopoulus.
  • The inclusion of family background significantly reduces the returns to higher education in both males and females (Table 5). This suggests that men and women who acquire higher education come from privileged backgrounds and a significant part of their return to education is due to their better backgrounds. An earrings function that ignores background exaggerates the estimated returns only of higher education.

. Table 5: Estimated Marginal Rates of Return to Education, 1995

No. Education cycle Mincerian Equation Mincerian Equation with

Family Background

Women Men Women Men

Primary -3.2* 2.6 -4.5* 1.4*

Junior 13.4* 4.9 11.6* 4.0

Secondary 20.8 17.6 14.1 15.5

Bachelor’s degree 8.9 18.0 -2.7 14.9

Master’s degree 18.8 18.0 13.8 17.6

Professional degree 14.2 18.5 2.6 15.9

Note: *These ratios are not significantly different from zero.

Source: Kindon (1999, p.262)

The paper discusses two approaches of building capabilities in women which are practiced in India. The two different approaches are economic empowerment and through the medium of education. The paper has not discussed the third approach towards empowerment which may be termed as political empowerment.

Formation of self-help groups and the provision of credit to women is one of the ways towards economic empowerment resulting in the building of capabilities. The paper highlights the experiences from field visits in the districts of Maharashtra (India). It groups the SHGs into two categories – the ones which have been formed to benefit from the subsidy provided by the government and those which are part of a larger development program based on principles of participation and decentralised planning and decision making. While self- help groups of women have been rated as successful, there is scope for further work to be done.

The other approach discussed by the paper towards building capabilities is education of women. The paper highlights the importance of investment in the education of women and the low attainment in education of women in India as indicated by the low enrolment ratios and high drop- out rates. It then explores the links between education and earnings to highlight that the rate of return to education is lower for women than men for comparable levels of education.


Dreze Jean and Sen Amartya. ( 1995), India. Economic Developemnt & Social Opportunity, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Kingdon Geeta Gandhi. (1999), ‘Labour Force Participation, Returns to Education and Sex Discrimination’, in T.S. Papola and Alakh Sharnaa (ed.), Gender and Employment In India, Indian Society of Labour Economics and Institute of Economic Growth. New Delhi, pp. 249-277.

Nussbaum Martha.(2003), ‘ Gender and Governance: An Introduction,’ Essays on Gender and Governance, HDRC, United Nations Development Program, India.

Psacharopoulos George. ‘Returns to Education: a Further International Update and Implications’, The Journal of Human Resources 1985, XX. 4: pp. 583-604.

Sen Amartya. (1984), Resources, Values and Development, Oxford I University Press, New Delhi.

Sen Amartya. (1987), ‘‘The Standard of Living: Lecture II. Lives and Capabilties’, Amartya Sen, John Muellbauer, Ravi Kanbur, Keith Hart and Bernard Williams, The Standard of Living: The Tanner Lectures. 1985, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 20-38.

Sen Amartya. ( 1992). Inequality Reexamined, Russel Sage Foundation, New York, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Sen Amartya. (1993) ‘Capability and Well-Being’, Martha Nusshaum and Amartya Sen (ed.), The Quality of Life – A Study Prepared for the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) of the United Nations University, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 30-53.

Sen Amartya. (1999), Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford University Press

Summers Lawrence. (1994), Investing in All the People- Educating Women in Developing Countries, EDI

Seminar Paper 45, The World Bank, Washington D.C.

From Samyukta, January 2005 issue

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