Addressing the sixth South Asian Regional Ministerial Conference for commemorating the World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, she said there is a gap between de-jure and de-facto position regarding the rights of women and the need of the hour is speedy implementation of legislative and policy measures for empowerment of women.
''There is often lack of awareness about schemes for promoting welfare and development among women. This situation needs to be rectified through an awareness programme. We need a band of "gender advocates" whose mission is to bring about effective implementation of the policies and programmes for women's empowerment,'' she said.
She said women must also be motivated to fight discrimination and work determinedly for their own empowerment. One important step in this direction is imparting physical education - like Judo and Karate - for self-defence to girl students from a very early age so as to make them physically strong and to build-up self confidence to face the challenges of life, she said.
She said it is now over a decade since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted and it is time to evaluate ''our performance in attaining gender equality - a task that still remains incomplete in the world, in our region and in our respective countries.'' ''It is true that a significant proportion of women in our region live below the poverty line and they have not benefited from the process of globalisation, resulting in a further "feminisation of poverty", she pointed out.
Enumerating the various steps taken by India, the President said in the political field, by amending the Constitutional provisions, one-third of the seats have been reserved for women leaders in local bodies, both in the rural and urban areas.
As a result, more than a million of our women are now politically empowered at the grassroot level.
In India, women play an important role in agriculture operations undertaking 60 per cent of farm work and contribute in a big way to food production and economic growth. Women have also increased their participation in high-end vocations. India's economic planning process for women has evolved over the years from a purely 'welfare' approach, where women were regarded as objects of charity, to a "development" oriented phase and currently to the plank of "empowerment" that seeks to promote gender equality, she said.
She said in the 11th Five Year Plan, faster, more broad-based and inclusive economic growth has been envisaged by providing more people access to basic infrastructure as well as health and educational services to all.
Pointing out that a major milestone in women's empowerment in India has been the Self-Help Group (SHG) movement, she said, ''We have over 2.2 million Self Help Groups at the grass roots level throughout the country, which translates into more than 33 million households. We extend collateral free loans to these SHGs and many government programmes are also run through these SHGs.'' In education, she said India has launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, that is Education For All, which has a pronounced gender focus, where it seeks to address both in-school and external factors. ''As a result, we have been able to reduce the gender gap in enrollment and retention at the school level,'' she said.
Through concerted efforts, female literacy has grown significantly from about 40 per cent in 1991 to about 54 per cent in 2001. The focus is now on improving women's participation in higher education, technical education and vocational courses, she stressed.
Talking about gender budgeting, the President said, ''We have taken big leaps. More than 52 ministries have set up gender budget cells and our Ministry of Women and Child Development is constantly interacting with these cells - for building capacities and facilitating the integration of gender analysis into the Government's policies, plans, programmes and budgets.