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The importance of women’s agency

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Enhancing women’s status and power can have huge benefits, said Amartya Sen, pointing to Bangladesh, which performs better than India on many social indicators, including sex ratios

Amartya Sen

At an event organised by the Population Foundation of India in Delhi recently, Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen spoke on `Women and Other People’, squarely placing population statistics within a gender equity and women’s empowerment framework. He began on a lighter note, recalling that years ago, while still a student in Kolkata, he had worried about the asymmetry between men and women in the sphere of reproduction. When he discussed this with a classmate, her cryptic comment was, “Men are not really needed -- except very occasionally”!

The lack of symmetry between women and men in the reproductive sphere need not necessarily lead to gender asymmetry in other spheres of life, said Sen. In fact, a well-organised world would promote gender symmetry. At present, there is tremendous inequality, within the family as well as outside it.

As with most other real-life group situations, family relations involve both cooperation and conflict. Sen applied the term ‘cooperative conflict’ to encapsulate this feature of group situations. Cooperation benefits everybody, yet different interests require different optimal arrangements, so cooperation is not always easy to work out. Within “the harmonious culture of family life”, women usually end up getting an unfair deal. This is partly because their centrality in reproduction renders them more dependent on family harmony and less demanding of a fair share.

Not only in families but also in labour relations, political treaties and trade negotiations, there are substantial areas of cooperation and conflict. Given extensive areas of congruent interests, each party has much to lose if cooperation breaks down – therefore decision-making tends to pursue the line of cooperation. Patterns of behaviour require that the element of conflict not be emphasised. There is a big role for `bargaining’. Contributions made by different individuals need to be assessed, and the appropriate entitlementscalculated. As Sen pointed out, studies by economists Devaki Jain and Bina Agarwal, among other scholars, provide evidence of how important it is for women’s contributions to be recognised, and entitlements ensured. These include entitlements to land ownership, education, paid work, decision-making and independent agency. Each of these factors plays an empowering role, individually and jointly. Gender-sensitive ethics and politics are needed for women’s contributions to be recognised. Empirical research and knowledge has policy implications, and the critique of various social arrangements needs to be translated into appropriate action.

In family situations, conflicts cannot be discussed explicitly, as they can somewhat more easily in inter-country or inter-group relations. Often women lack the power to influence other members of society. Where there are asymmetries due to biology, as in the neonatal feeding phase, social arrangements must proactively redress the imbalance. Social institutions and values play a big role, and reflect the need for change.

Sen observed that women’s independent agency has significant implications for areas other than the wellbeing and freedom of women, for instance it has an impact on reducing child mortality. This is of course relevant to women’s wellbeing, but has wider relevance as well.  Reductions in birthrate often follow enhancement of women’s status and power: women can do many other things, apart from bearing and rearing children. Improvement in young women’s literacy, education and employment has a great impact on fertility – as is borne out by Indian inter-district comparisons.

Bangladesh, once a `basket case’ in terms of population, has progressed in crucial fields, catching up with and even overtaking India on several social indicators. India can learn much from Bangladesh. Its GDP is half as high as India’s and exports are 10% of India’s, yet there is sustained positive change in gender indicators in education, employment, mortality rates (strikingly better than India’s), and women’s work participation rates (presently 59%, compared to India’s 33%). It is the only country where the number of girls in school exceeds the number of boys. Some 66% of children are immunised in India, 96% in Bangladesh. Women are powerful players in all this.

The agency of women and its social influence

Informed and critical agency is required to successfully combat inequality, including gender inequality. Much of the recent progress in Bangladesh is driven by changes in gender relations. The vast Muslim majority is often associated in popular imagination with neglecting women’s interests, yet in Bangladeshi society, there is a new role for women.

Women’s agency requires knowledge, information and the courage and temerity to think differently. It is far-reaching, with the power to overturn inequities assumed to be part and parcel of a `natural order.’ It is about control over decisions, and a fuller sense of freedom -- and inclination – to question and challenge given values and priorities. It is the freedom to think freely without being severely restrained by pressured conformism. It requires going beyond the `patriarchal mindset’.  Women are dealing with traditional norms as well as the new and high-tech face of gender inequality. Willingness and courage to challenge these masculine norms makes the critical difference.

Inexplicable: Skewed sex ratios across a diagonal divide

Without biological intervention, anywhere in the world roughly 94.8 girls would be born per 100 boys; this is connected to the fact that if they get symmetric care, girls survive better than boys. The all-India figure for child sex ratio, at 91.4 (2011 Census), is below this 94.8 benchmark.  Northern and Western states, including Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, have substantially lower ratios -- as low as 83 in Haryana and 84.6 in Punjab. Most states in South and East India, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam, are higher than the benchmark; most Northeastern states and Karnataka are just a little below.

The sex ratios are skewed across a diagonal intra-country divide. Sen expressed surprise that this fact has received so little attention. This dichotomy was there in 2001 and 2011, yet nobody has yet come up with a credible explanation. Moreover, he pointed out, there is a wider picture of similar diagonal divide in the sub-continent: countries to the North and West have poorer child sex ratios as compared to countries to the South and East. For instance, Bangladesh has a much higher child sex ratio than the 94.8 benchmark figure.

To understand these inexplicable population statistics, Sen thinks that we will have to look at history and literature, particular customs and cultural contrasts. India is a very diverse country, and different regions have rather different sets of problems: there is no region without a problem, but the problems are different. He acknowledged, “I have no powerful explanation to offer…. There are more questions here than answers. But we will never get to the answers until we start asking the right questions.”

Sen pointed out that in India, neither education nor economic development has posed a barrier to sex-selective abortion. Feminist peace scholar Dr Radha Kumar intervened to point to a need to investigate linkages between rising violence against women on the one hand, and declining sex ratio on the other. She noted that as far back as 1992, the Delhi women’s movement took up the question of sex-selective abortion and suggested proactive policies such as a stipend for every girl-child. No measures were taken, and society in the meanwhile has become increasingly chauvinistic. “`Patriarchal’”, she said, “is too mild a term to use for society today. We are becoming a seriously xenophobic society.” 

Sen ended on a genuinely thoughtful note, saying he is skeptical of the incentives approach, since: “It suppresses the real question – do you welcome a daughter because it’s good news, or because you get money for it? It is similar to getting teachers to teach by paying them a huge salary, which is so sad – to teach for the money rather than for love of the devoted work of a teacher.”

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer and academic. Her recent book is entitled Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur)

Infochange News & Features, August 2012