Spotlight rural women: How UNDP is supporting them rise with pride

-Aarti Dayal, National Programme Manager, Inclusive Growth Unit at UNDP

October 15, 2022

If one were to traverse the length of India, there is a common visual from the high plains of Leh to the sun-kissed markets of Kanyakumari – Women who are hard at work from the crack of dawn to late into the night.

Dressed in traditional attires, you find them cultivating fields, running small businesses, and tending to livestock, all while they continue to care for their families and households.

There are over 400 million such able multi-taskers in rural India.

Women are the backbone of rural communities

Without them, rural communities would not function. Yet, they often face resource inequities, reduced access to services, lack of education, and unequal rights, making it difficult for them to fulfil their potential. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the labour force participation rate of rural women was 9.92% in March 2022 compared to 67.24% for men. Due to cultural norms, where men typically migrate to search for work, women often find themselves with the heavy burden of unpaid care, leaving little time to engage in gainful employment.  

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in India works extensively to champion the cause of rural women. This is guided by an in-depth understanding of the needs and challenges faced by rural women, supporting them in their journey towards economic empowerment and enabling them to access markets, finance, and government schemes.

UNDP in India supports rural women towards economic empowerment and enables them to access markets, finance, and government schemes.

Gender equality, women's rights, and empowerment are also integral to the 2030 Agenda, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals are intrinsically linked to the progress of women and girls globally and are critical to achieving the SDGs. 

Here’s a look at how UNDP is supporting women in rural areas to realise their dreams: 

Upskilling and Linking with Alternate Livelihood Opportunities: Paving a path to prosperity  

While rural women are often the custodians of traditional knowledge, they are also eager to learn and adopt new practices. This is evident in India's four-decade-old Self-Help Group (SHG) movement. Women SHGs have evolved from interest-based groups driven by savings and thrift to ambitious entities running profitable enterprises.  


Women farmers from the Savitribai Phule Jivamrut Utpadak Self-Help Group in Talasari, Maharashtra

UNDP supports women in rural India to become financially independent by helping them acquire managerial and entrepreneurial skills, venture into new avenues, take on market-facing roles, and supplement their household incomes. UNDP has trained over 120,000 rural women in the past five years on such skills.  

Shilpa Dhodi from Talasari, a predominantly tribal block in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, is an example of how UNDP’s support has helped women diversify their livelihoods.

Shilpa Dhodi at her marigold farm in Palghar, Maharashtra

A mother to two school-going boys, 32-year-old Shilpa used to help her husband in paddy farming. UNDP’s Project Uddyam, a livelihoods development project, introduced Marigold cultivation in the area. With a mere investment of INR 500, she cultivated 250 kg of marigold, earning revenue of INR 7,500 in one season. 

She now not only supplements her household’s income but is also the pioneer of marigold cultivation in her village and plans to expand the business. "I am delighted that our land can now be used to grow paddy in the Kharif season and cultivate Marigold in the Rabi season,” she says.  

Further east, in Kamrup, Assam, 45-year-old Pranita Basumatary from Bahupura Village is now leading the commercial rearing of Eri silkworm. Pranita and 1,200 other women who are traditional rearers and spinners were trained by UNDP on commercial rearing techniques, helping them move away from an ad-hoc approach and earn a more stable income.  


Pranita is now leading commercial rearing of Eri silkworm.

"It has been years since I have not been weaving, but now I'm hopeful of going back to it,” says Pranita. 

Vaishnavi, a kindergarten teacher in Angaon, Maharashtra, supported by UNDP paints Warli art and sells them to enhance her household's income.

UNDP also provides rural women entrepreneurs opportunities to market their products in exhibitions and events. Such opportunities enable women to earn revenue, gain exposure, and network with urban market players. Two women entrepreneurs from Dakshina Kannada, Karnataka – Dhanalaxmi and Vijayalakshmi – were able to make a profit of INR 12,000 by selling snacks, detergents, fresh fruit juices, etc., during a 5-day exhibition.  

COVID-19 Response: Building resilience 

Like countless people worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted rural women and their livelihoods.   

Women from Sanjeevani have expanded their business by going online.

UNDP’s COVID-19 response interventions focused on enabling rural women to restore their livelihoods, including facilitating women-led businesses to explore new markets by listing online portals. Sanjeevani, a group of women entrepreneurs from Haryana, was able to list their bangle-making business on Facebook with support from UNDP. This helped them expand their market, recover losses they incurred from the pandemic, and increase their earnings by nearly 60 percent.  

Nearly 15,000 women farmers, artisans, and small entrepreneurs were trained in digital and financial literacy and supported with access to alternate markets to help them tide over COVID-19. 

Enabling Access to Social Protection: Securing the present and future  

Social protection is essential to break the cycle of poverty and provide a safety net during crises. Given their limited mobility and access to information, rural women lack awareness about government schemes and entitlements, and often do not have the essential documents necessary to access such services.  

Increasing awareness about the government’s social protection schemes and enabling communities to access them is a priority for UNDP. 

Social Protection helps rural women secure their present and future.

Hansaben from Jhakhar village of Lalpur block, Jamnagar, Gujarat, did not know about welfare schemes related to COVID-19 and was struggling to make ends meet due to the lockdown. With the help of UNDP, she received ex-gratia assistance, including INR 50,000, to support her family. Her application was filed online, and she received the amount directly in her bank account. She also applied for and received a pension of INR 1,250 through the Widow Pension Scheme and now has a secured future.  

Leave No One Behind 

For India to reap the benefits of its demographic dividend and to achieve the SDGs by 2030, it is critical to harness the tremendous potential of women such as Shilpa and Pranita as agents of change.   

This will help India become a $5 trillion economy and ensure progress at every level. Economic empowerment and the resultant increase in decision-making ability of women positively impacts household nutrition, education, and health outcomes. 

Let us together work to leave no one behind and support the dynamism of rural women as equal partners in inclusive and sustainable development.