About the Book
This timely volume brings together the work of some of India's leading feminist economists, historians, political scientists, journalists and anthropologists to investigate the contemporary situation of women in India. It focuses on four broad domains: the cultural, the social, the political and the economic. The writers argue that despite apparently positive indicators of progress in education and paid employment, women's status has not improved. They point our that steadily falling sex ratios even show a growing bias against the female child. They elucidate the complex ways in which this is connected with the nature of India's development processes and examine the hidden dynamics by which economic development has strengthened male biased norms and values across all castes and classes in India. Further, they argue that these two processes are organically connected: worsening discrimination against females is the direct result of development trajectories in India. This book is thus an urgent call for action: it shows that there is no room for complacency. We need to give immediate attention [0 the powerful interests that collude in women's worsening status in India.
About the Author
KARIN KAPADIA has taught at the London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and at the Universities of Sussex and Durham. Her publications include Siva and Her Sisters:
Gender, Caste and Class in Rural South India (1995), The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (co-edited with J.P. Parry and J. Breman) (1999) and Rural Labour Relations ill India (co-edited with T.J. Byres and J. Lerche) (1999). From January 1999 to November 2001 she worked at the World Bank, Washington, D.C., as the South Asia Region Coordinator for Gender and Development.
The Politics of Identity, Social Inequalities and Economic Growth
When one applies the principle of democracy to a society characterized by tremendous inequalities, such special protections [as reservations/affirmative action] are only spearheads to pierce through the barriers of inequality. An unattainable goal is as meaningless as a right that cannot be exercised. Equality of opportunities cannot be achieved in the face of tremendous disabilities and obstacles which the social system imposes on all those sectors whom traditional India treated as second class citizens The application of the theoretical principle of equality in the context of unequal situations only intensifies inequalities, because equality in such situations merely means privileges for those who have them already and not for those who need them.
Lotika Sarkar and Vina Mazumdar,
Status of Women Committee Report, 1974
Some Paradoxes of Development
This book considers four broad domains of life in India-the cultural, the social, the political and the economic. It does this to investigate the contemporary situation of women in India. Despite significant achievements and apparent progress on many fronts, it finds that there are deeply worrying signs that the constellation of processes examined here impact on each other in ways that result in a devaluation of women. What is particularly striking is the fact that these trends are also becoming pronounced in south India, a region that has historically given much higher social status and value to women than has Gangetic north India.
Many researchers and analysts argue that women's position is improving in India. They point to three key development indicators: first, women's access to education and second, their access to paid employment. Both show a rise for women. Third, they point to demographic data which reveals a remarkable fertility decline in some Indian states, especially in south India (eg. Tamil Nadu). Several observers have cited this fertility decline as a clear indication of women's increasing autonomy, education and empowerment. The authors in this book take a different view, however. First, they point to another set of demographic data-namely the steadily falling sex ratios, which, decade by decade, are becoming increasingly adverse to females. These sex ratios suggest, not an improvement in the status of females, but, rather, a growing bias (already strong and established in north India) against the female child. Second, they trace the complex ways in which this worsening discrimination against females is connected with the orientation of development processes in India. As Nirmala Banerjee shows in her illuminating analysis, in an increasingly commercialized economy, women are becoming further marginalized, due to the very limited job options permitted to them both by their own families and by the ways in which labour markets are structured. Women's access to both education and paid employment has remained far less than men's-even though the gaps between the sexes are slowly narrowing. Thus the positive indicators noted earlier are rather misleading, because improvement in the relative access of women to education and jobs-compared to menhas been very limited. Comparing female and male indicators reveals that huge sex-based disparities remain.
The papers in this book do not represent any single, homogeneous standpoint. Rather, they encompass very diverse views. Some from a post-modernist perspective highlight the specificities of women's experiences in their diversity, difference and divisiveness. Others explicitly make an informed argument for a feminist politics that assumes that women have fundamental interests in common and can be viewed as a 'political constituency', even though their lack of homogeneity is recognized. This fruitful tension runs throughout this book, just as it implicitly imbues all feminist politics in India today.
Banerjee points out that, for socio-cultural reasons, most women's families restrict or obstruct their equal access to education and choice of jobs, resulting in the vast majority of Indian women reaching adulthood severely handicapped in relation to the male-dominated labour market. Ironically these restraints are much weaker for women from the poorest classes-eg. women from the very poor Dalit castes! (this is especially obvious in south India). These women are often landless labourers: they usually have no education and are restricted to the most poorly paid jobs in agriculture. However, they have far more personal autonomy and much greater physical mobility than do women from better-off, higher status castes even in the same villages." At the other end of the spectrum a very small section of middle-class, higher-caste, urban women have found well-paid jobs, but, as Banerjee notes, the expectations and perceptions of their middle-class parents have not been radically changed-marriage is still seen as the main career for women. Between these two extremes of well-to-do, urban middle classes and deeply impoverished agricultural labourers, lie vast numbers of households that are today falling into penury. This has much to do with the liberalization of the economy and the structural adjustment measures that have made their work (especially male work) increasingly insecure and poorly paid, as Banerjee notes.
Very little has been done to reduce women's traditional disadvantages in the labour market, with the consequence that (most) women remain confined to the lowest rungs of the labour hierarchy. She notes that 'Even the switch to policies of globalization and aggressive export promotion have done little to expand women's job opportunities'. This, she observes, is because of women's socialization as housewives: This mismatch between the needs of the economy and the social endowments that women are provided with lies at the root of their growing degradation as reflected in the falling female/ male child ratio' (p. 44).
Like Banerjee, the authors gathered here argue, some explicitly and others implicitly, that the overall position of Indian women has declined, rather than improved, in the years since independence. While various domains are investigated to argue this, Samita Sen reminds us that the same observation was made by the Government of India's Status of Women Committee Report, Towards Equality, in 1974. Sadly, in 2001, we are returned to the same concerns that were voiced more than 25 years ago: discrimination against women is still rife in education, employment, health and inheritance practices and violence against women is on the increase (see Sen's paper). When we examine the patterns of social transformation of the last half century, certain striking trends appear, indicating a profound and intimate connection between social change and economic transformation. The deeply damaging directions that both social and economic dynamics are taking in relation to women, have led to the current paradox of the steady socio-cultural devaluation of women in a context of economic growth. The pattern is particularly clear in south India.
With agrarian development in south India, a marked class differentiation has occurred within endogamous (in-marrying) sub-caste groups, in which previously most members were of relatively the same class. This class differentiation within caste and the new possibility of upward class mobility for all castes, including, though to a very limited degree, the Dalit castes, have meant that upwardly mobile groups have needed to advertise their new-found economic success with what they have perceived as appropriate cultural markers. In the past such groups often emulated the behaviours of higher castes, a process that Srinivas (962) described as 'Sanskritization' because it imitated Sanskritized Brahmin behaviours. However, with the spread of a capitalist market economy in India, class is becoming the more important status category, and today it is higher class behaviour-rather than higher caste norms-that is imitated." As in other parts of the capitalist world, the ability to spend and to consume is valorized as a mark of high status-and an increasingly competitive consumerism is evolving, due to the accelerating mobility of social groups. This consumerist culture is nurtured and stimulated by a powerful advertizing industry and an influential media. Both seek to foster the creation of mass markets for the new consumer items on offer from Indian manufacturers and the multi-national companies that gained entry to the subcontinent's markets after 1991.
One of the most striking findings to emerge from these papers is that in recent decades there has been a strengthening of male-biased Cpatriarchal') norms and values across all castes and classes in India, simultaneously with increasing economic development. A central question this raises is whether this simultaneity of increasing male bias, on the one hand, and economic growth, on the other, is accidental or organically connected. We are still at an early stage of understanding the complex connections between development processes and social change, but the papers collected here suggest that the nature of these development processes and their neoliberal assumptions and values are accelerating an 'internal dualism: the division of the country between a minority of beneficiaries and a majority of victims' (Unger, 1998: 57). These papers provide careful and powerful investigations into the multiple-and often contradictory processes that are at work here.
An increasing male bias in normative values and continuing gender gaps, Banerjee emphasizes, have not been the experience in south east and east Asia, where economic development has led to a steadily greater integration of women in the paid economy. Banerjee points out that the social characteristics of women workers in India are remarkably different from those of women workers in south east and east Asia. She observes that most Indian families discourage unmarried daughters from entering the labour market, except within their own household occupations.' In India in 1987/88 only 11 per cent of young, rural, unmarried women and only 18 per cent of young, urban, unmarried women were in the workforce. She emphasizes the sharp contrast with south east/east Asia where 65 to 80 per cent of young unmarried women, aged 20-24, are in the workforce. Further, though a 'significant percentage' drops out of the workforce after age 25 when many women marry, many come back to work after their children start school. Consequently, in south east Asia, 0) 50 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 work, (2) 75 per cent of women aged 20 to 25 work and 0) most of them continue working throughout their adult lives. Therefore in most of the south east/east Asian countries, the peak Work Participation Rates (WPRs) are in the age group 20 to 24.
In India, in sharp contrast, Banerjee finds that women's WPRs are slow to rise-upto age 35 their peak is only 33 per cent. Thereafter they rise slowly to peak in the age group 40 to 45 years. Banerjee's conclusion therefore is:
Indian women who come to work are thus almost all women (1) who already have family responsibilities and are (2) therefore tied down to their locality because of having young children. In most cases they enter the work force because of dire need. Therefore as a desperate, untrained and unskilled workforce they get the worst deals in the market.
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