The nature and scope of India’s Social Protection policy has been undergoing a paradigm shift in the last decade. Social assistance for poverty alleviation is now being viewed within a rights-based framework, and broadening the potential for development processes to incorporate the goals of equity, social justice and human rights. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) provides atleast 100 days of unskilled manual work at minimum wages to every rural household, and is the largest rights-based employment guarantee programme in the world today, reaching over 50 million households across India, with more than 48% of its participants being women workers (MoRD, 2012)

A popular claim of MGNREGS is its unique gender-sensitive approach that incorporates ‘gender equality and empowerment elements into its design. The participation of the poorest and the most excluded individuals and groups in the programme has the potential to address social discrimination and exclusion that is significant in pushing and trapping households into poverty. While MGNREGS is viewed both as a ‘Preventive’ as well as a ‘Promotional’ Social Protection measure, for it to realise its ‘transformative’ potential; as pointed out by Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler (2004),  it would need to go beyond providing a safety net and redress the unequal power relations in society that create and sustain this poverty and vulnerability. Inequitable power relations between social categories of men and women form a key component of this structural imbalance. Hence, gender equality needs to be a strong focus in social protection policies.

Inclusion of women-friendly provisions in the MGNREG Act has empowered women to gain access to the programme. In many states, women’s labour participation has thus exceeded the stipulated one-third quota (MoRD, 2012). Access to employment through MGNREGS has had positive outcomes in women’s individual lives such as increased wages, food security, greater confidence, control over decisions relating to children’s education and healthcare, economic independence, increased mobility, a sense of security from guaranteed and less hazardous work, and increased participation in village meeting bodies (Jandu, 2008; Khera and Nayak, 2009; Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). But one of the most visible cracks in what is otherwise perceived to be a gender success story, comes through in the glaring fact that women’s participation varies widely between states; while participation rates are high in states like Kerala (93.0), Tamil Nadu (74.0), and Rajasthan (69.0), it is comparatively much lower in Uttar Pradesh (17.0), Bihar (29.0), Jharkhand (31.0), West Bengal (32.0) and Haryana (36.0) ( MoRD, 2012). This opens up a pandora’s box of debates related to what constitutes gender equality for development.

The ability of women in India to access paid employment is shaped by entrenched socio-cultural gender norms which is characterised largely by unequal gender relations. This is often reflected in the disproportionate allocation of resources to women which has long term adverse impacts in the form of low skills, dependence on male members, lack of decision-making authority and lesser control or access to income or assets. It has been seen that in states where women enjoy higher status or autonomy, they are able to exercise choice and access outside employment. For e.g. in a social audit in Tamil Nadu, “95% of women stated that it was their own decision to take up MGNREGS work” (Narayanan, 2008). Similarly, in Kerala, implementation of MGNREGS through community groups (‘Kudumbashree’) has drawn in women both as workers and managers (Sudarshan, 2011). On the contrary, in Uttar Pradesh, strict patriarchal norms among land-owning communities have restricted women from accessing manual labour outside of their homes (Raja, 2007). It has also been found that unequal distribution of work within the household place care responsibilities entirely on women, limiting their mobility and time available for paid work (Sudarshan, 2011).

This tells us that making opportunities available for women to access employment becomes meaningful to them only when they are able to actualise the potential that the resources hold for them. For e.g. non-implementation of child-care provisions ( which is stipulated in the Act) at many worksites has forced many women, especially single women, to give up work (Khera and Nayak, 2009). Women have low bargaining power when it comes to accessing work over men in the same household (ibid). Under MGNREGS, the interpretation of ‘household’ based on a ‘nuclear family’ has caused exclusion of single, divorced and separated women (Bhatty, 2008). But there is little effort on the part of States to make women aware about their entitlements or to encourage their participation (Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). The neglect of women’s interests and needs is a reflection of their gendered access to work and a re-inforcement of their secondary position in the labour market and in the household.

Here it is also becomes important to understand as Kabeer (1999) says, the processes by which access to resources translates into agency or achievements for women. In other words, there is a need to understand the different causes for women’s disempowerment. Women’s ability to exercise choice in accessing work and facilities is restricted not only by social structures but also by their own distorted perception of their needs and interests. For example, even when women are aware of their entitlements under MGNREGS, very few demand it either because they are either structurally disadvantaged such as in the case of female headed households (Bhatty, 2008) or because of internalization of inferior gender norms. It is seen that though MGNREGS has in-built mechanisms for democratic governance processes, women are unable to envisage an active or leadership role for themselves in it. ( Pankaj and Tankha, 2010).

Gender equality in MGNREGS is also closely related to gender equality in management and control rights to productive assets created under the programme (Kelkar, 2011). However patriarchal norms that have traditionally denied women control rights over assets also restrict their role in planning and management of MGNREGS works (Pankaj and Tankha, 2010). There is also a gender bias in the choice of productive assets that are created under MGNREGS. Most of the assets chosen enhance male productivity and the lack of ownership rights to them denies women any benefits from long-term multiplier effects of these assets (Kelkar, 2011). Women’s gendered status can be improved by creation of assets that can reduce women’s drudgery and time spent on collection of fuel, water and other raw material for household subsistence or service delivery assets that would transfer women’s unpaid care work to the market (Hirway, 2008).

Pankaj and Tankha (2010) note that women’s participation in the processes of selection of work under MGNREGS is seen to be almost negligible. Further, their findings show that the women who do attend community meetings only participate in issues related to work availability work or wage payment. When it comes to issues of community interests, such as the kind of assets that need to be produced, it is often the men who take the decisions. This again is a reflection of entrenched gender relations and structural constraints that prevent women from being equal partners because of male domination. Additionally it could also reflect how women perceive their domestic work as their personal responsibility and not as a policy matter.

Therefore, it is seen that the concept of women’s empowerment in MGNREGS is limited to providing women access to wage work without any concrete attempts to increase their strategic access to other economic, social and political resources. While this has allowed women to exercise choices related to practical matters in their daily lives, the implementation of the programme has failed in involving women in a process of transformation, thus restricting their ability to make strategic changes to their work or social environment.

MGNREGS thus provides an understanding of the way gender dynamics and power relations shape Social Protection policies and programmes in India, both at the design and implementation stage. Seen within the framework of social justice, it is imperative for Social Protection policies to transform inequitable power relations that create and sustain gendered patterns of poverty and vulnerability in society. Gender equality therefore should not be just a component of Social Protection but it should be integrated into its goals and vision of change. Social Protection programmes like MGNREGS can realize this transformative potential by conceptualising and implementing women’s empowerment measures within a multi-dimensional framework, that will enable women to realise their individual as well as collective strength. This is essential if we are looking at Social Protection to bring about individual as well as structural change.

Additional Reference:

Holmes, Rebecca and Jones, Nicola (2011): Why is Social Protection gender-blind? The Politics of Gender and Social Protection in IDS Bulletin, Vol 42 No 6, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.

Gender and Food Security

Posted: March 4, 2013 in Uncategorized

Feed the Future Policy Analysis – Empowering Women for Global Food Security

by Carolina Maldonado, Preetha Prabhakaran and Siera Vercillo

In spite of persistent global efforts to address food security, it still remains an urgent problem. Women are heralded as the key players in solving the food crisis, however these crises are the result of inequities in the food distribution system; and therefore broader gender dynamics and relations of power need to be considered. By focusing only on women’s economic empowerment, USAID’s Feed the Future policy and Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), essentialises the roles of women and men, misses the complexity of social life and livelihood building, and does not encompass the complex processes involved in women’s empowerment. – economic or otherwise.

There is broad consensus that reducing global food insecurity and poverty requires accelerating growth in the agriculture sector. Feed the Future (FtF) is a USAID policy that strives to increase agricultural production and the incomes of both men and women who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The focus of this policy analysis will be on the gender integration and inclusive components that the FtF approach incorporates: reducing gender inequality and recognizing the contribution of women to agriculture as critical to achieving food security. To do this, FtF employs a new tool called the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) currently being piloted to measure the empowerment, agency and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector.

This policy brief seeks to explain why FtF and the WEAI is a problematic policy approach for linking women’s empowerment and food security and suggests strategies on how it can be improved.

Essentialising women and men in policy through a focus on economic empowerment

To global food security policy, women are no longer invisible in agriculture. In fact, there are many programmes and interventions designed specifically for them. However, these programmes largely essentialise women and men and focus narrowly on an economic conception of empowerment and equality, which prevents women from improving their status in agriculture. FtF and the WEAI in particular take a reductionist approach to women, men and their respective roles in agriculture does not capture the complexity of their participation in agriculture and food distribution or consumption, thereby failing to achieve a sustainable change in women’s empowerment, well-being and resource access.

In order to better include women in agriculture, tackle food insecurity and empower women farmers, it is necessary to understand these complexities.

This is currently an urgent issue as population growth, urbanization, climate change, higher food prices and the devalued status of women farmers all over the world make food security a priority for all. However, gender equality is fundamental in the fight against food insecurity because unequal access to food is about issues of social justice more than about the lack of food available.

Understanding of women’s involvement in the food security agenda

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (McDonald, 2010).

Ensuring food security has been an international priority since the post WWII period, but in the last decades, the role of women in food security has taken a privileged place on international agendas, thanks in part to Ester Boserup’s 1970 study on women’s role in economic development. In her study, Boserup emphasizes how the European influence in Africa restricted women’s access to agriculture. The idea that the invisibility of women in agriculture permeated most development efforts and from this sought to incorporate them into existing mechanisms and markets in order to increase productivity and household income. Food-security and nutrition then grew to focus more on women in their role as mothers and caregivers, which is especially justified in relation to child survival, which is all part of a WID approach.

Food security and its relation to gender justice lack a GAD approach that incorporates not only women’s needs, relations and agency, but also men and boys, who have virtually disappeared from food security approaches.

“…will our empowered women ‘go and dig’? What is their interest in agriculture? Are they simply using it as a means to an end – to get where they want to go?” Christine Okali, Future Agricultures Consortium

Consequences of focusing on economic empowerment and production in agriculture development policy for gender equality

The most pressing problem with the FtF policy is that it too narrowly defines empowerment as the improvement of the status of women in economic terms, focusing on women as independently empowered. The underlying assumption is that improving women’s agricultural production will more generally lead to poverty reduction, nutritional improvements, and contribute uniquely to global food security. The FtF strategy aims to provide women with equal access to asset ownership, though there is no clear evidence and limited proof of a linear relationship between asset ownership, empowerment and food security.

The problem with FtF’s reductionist argument is that it places ‘Women in Development’ making a business case for investing in women and does not account for the social relations that are effected and could lead to a different range of outcomes opposite results. This is exemplified through the WEAI’s collection and usage of sex-disaggregated indicators like decision-making and leadership roles of men and women within the household. Moreover, the complex dynamics of cooperation, conflict and negotiation between the household and greater familial or community relations that drive decisions and processes for food production and distribution are left out of the indicators. The FtF policy is not just imposing a universalistic notion of empowerment and gender equality, but it is also binding social roles without considering the fluidity and dynamism defining relations of people in their everyday lives.

FtF’s focus on specific women and production without relations to men and others does not reflect the reality of food distribution or production. FtF as exemplified through the WEAI connection from production to food security places women as the only caregivers and nutrition-providers and excludes men’s involvement in women’s decision-making. For example, the policy depends on the premise that if women are more productive then they will spend the additional income on nutritious food and not on luxurious food or other items that they could also choose to purchase (Banerjee & Duflo, 2011). Also, the data collected by the WEAI does not factor in the overall context of social relations and the matrix of inequalities within which both men and women are embedded, such as those of class, race, ethnicity, religion etc. The index does not attempt to capture any dimensions of empowerment or disempowerment experienced by men in their role as agricultural producers. By ignoring the aspect of relationality in achieving gender equality, women’s empowerment is too narrowly defined in comparison to men’s roles within the household rather than being understood within a broader structure of societal relations of domination.

Recommendations for future policy and practice for women’s empowerment

Specify the goal as economic empowerment for women in agriculture -Stipulating clearly that the policy is working towards economic empowerment and increased agricultural production as opposed to general empowerment will lead to stronger correlations between what is being measured and what is being achieved, which will be useful to justify funding for practice.

Use differentiated data to analyze social relations for empowerment– Problems of social disadvantage (associated with ethnicity, race, religion, social orientation, caste, descent) need to be analyzed and addressed in the context of social relations in specific situations to measure empowerment. More generally this implies the need to include men more in the data and its analysis, without isolating them.

Analyze the data with a focus on gender relations and their re-negotiation – To counter the static comparisons between women and men, policy should analyze the social change processes, or of the way in which individuals and their interaction with others use agriculture to get where they want to go. There also needs to be a more holistic approach through the incorporation of other sectors for analysis, accomplished by working with national governments.

Post pilot iteration to include operational principles- Given the limitations of a structured process of social and gender analysis inherent in the FtF gender framework, a useful starting point for integrating social differentiation into agricultural development policy is to agree on a number of ‘operating principles’ for a social relations approach to incorporating social differences into agriculture and rural development policy.

Moreover, agricultural policies cannot in their entirety create social change in isolation. USAID can take a multi sectorial, integrated approach in policy and practice by incorporating principles into other important dimensions for empowerment and food security, such as water and sanitation, nutritional policies, etc.

Perfect timing post pilot- This is an ideal time to address the key issues in FtF as it is in its first stages of implementation, having completed its piloting of the WEAI in Uganda, Bangladesh and Guatemala and now conducting initial analysis and iteration.

Development practitioners and policy actors need to be wary of implications of narrowly approaching women’s empowerment and gender equality, and of creating chains of change within which links have yet to be demonstrated. What happens to policies designed to address disadvantage when these outcomes are not achieved?

Further Reading:

Feed the Future (2011) Women and Agriculture – Improving Global Food Security. Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

International Food Policy Research Institute (2012) Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.

Food Security Insights. January 2012 issue 82

Ester Boserup (1970) Women’s Role in Economic Development. London: Earthscan.

Abhijit, Banerjee and Esther Duflo. (2011) Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. United States Public Affairs.

Christine Okali (2011) Integrating Social Difference, Gender and Social Analysis into Agricultural Development. Future Agricultures Consortium Policy Brief 039, April 2011.

Bryan McDonald (2010) Food Security. Cambridge Polity.

Working along gendered lines

Posted: November 14, 2012 in Uncategorized


If one follows the trajectory of development for women, for the most part, it has translated into increased job opportunities in paid employment. One of the earliest goals of the feminist movement has been to free women from the private domain of the household which was seen as the site of women’s unequal and subordinate status. This stemmed from the fact that women’s sexual division of labour within the home remained not only unpaid but was also unvalued in comparison to men’s work outside the home. The market has responded to women’s demands for ‘equal work and equal pay’ by opening its doors and creating space for women. It was believed that women’s employment outside the home could not only increase women’s economic independence and power; but it could have far-reaching effects on the divisions of benefits and chores within the family.

One imagery of gender equality

One imagery of gender equality

But how equal has this inclusion in the public sphere been for women? Has women’s integration into the market really empowered them and increased their status within the family or has it led to their further exploitation? A closer look reveals that women’s entry into the public sphere remains as gendered as her work within the private sphere.

The status of women’s status and deprivation within households can be explained by looking at Amartya Sen’s ‘cooperation- conflict’ model that play a role in household decision-making.  The key point to note is how social/cultural gender norms are seen as a way of addressing cooperative conflicts within households. It is seen in traditional households that women often don’t conceive of their own individual well-being as distinct from that of their family, and even if they do, they often act in altruistic ways that favour some other goal over their personal well-being.  This “cooperation” enables the household to remain together and attain a standard of living. Now the “conflict” appears when it is time to distribute the gains of this cooperation. Here again, we see that the social perceptions that women’s work is unproductive and of less value influence decision-making and distribution of resources in favour of male members. Women are often implicit in their deprivation since they internalise this de-valued notion of their contribution and resolve this conflict by cooperating. This pattern of behaviour is sustained over generations passing on gendered nature of deprivations to future generations as well.

Women workers in a factory

Women workers in a factory

Now if we look at women’s work in paid employment, we see similar patterns. Diane Elson points out that women’s labour in the market reflects the gendered pattern of work that emerged as a reflection of  gender hierarchies that existed in a particular society. In many developing countries,  women’s share in the workforce increased simply because they were absorbed into informal sectors of employment; in which they seen as flexible labour,  free of fixed costs and outside the organized male labour force of formal employment . The low wages of the informal sector also reinforced their position as secondary earners of the family. Even in the informal sector where both men and women were employed, the sexual segregation of work was clearly drawn with women occupying the lower end or the informal jobs or being paid lesser wages than men for the same jobs. This gender division of labour was not overridden by the flexibility of labour, rather flexibility became gendered.

This ‘feminization of labour’ also underlines the way women’s work in the public sector complemented and replicated the sexual division of labour that outlined their domestic roles within the household. Much of the work that women occupied in the informal sector was carried on at home : domestic service, front room shops, assembly line work, laundry rooms, meal services etc. What globalisation did was simply bring the work done at home by women into the market. Should we say making women work for development?

double workGendered work patterns have not challenged gender inequalities as women now grapple with the double burden of paid work and unpaid domestic work. It is also to be noted that in situations where women outsource domestic work and child care to the market, women’s labour is organized along the lines of class, caste, race and ethnicity.

Gender relations which are based on power relations are deeply entrenced both within the household and the labour markets. Let’s face it, Gender is everywhere! And the only way, gender inequality can be addressed is if the structures of power and social relations are drastically transformed. Band-aid methods of economically empowering women will just not do the trick !

Re-naming the Enemy

Posted: November 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

Our field trip to the ‘Men and Boys’ National Conference in Brighton last week brought alive many of the concepts on ‘Masculinities’ that have been part of our class discussions. It was also an eye-opener for me in many ways.

It made me realise how little I am attuned to men’s personal experiences of violence and abuse in their relationships with women and other men in their lives; as well as their need to be valued as nurturers and fathers. I felt guilty because I realised that my gender consciousness is still largely built around women’s issues and men‘s issues seldom cross my mind. So for instance, while the issues of women’s sexual and reproductive health and the importance of engaging men in order to achieve this get prioritised in my thoughts, important and related issues of men’s infertility, sexual dys-functioning, depression etc. which are equally associated with social arrangements and gender relations easily slip out of focus.

I guess this is where the problem starts – in this binary that is created between women’s and men’s issues or problems. As authors Cornwall, Edstrom and Greig say, the Gender Agenda became depoliticised when its concern with inequitable power relations and structural oppression got beaten down to a focus on individual perspectives. Deeply embedded in this narrative were the essentialised images of women and men set in opposition – of women as harmless victims and men as harmful perpetrators – which makes men implicit in the oppression against women. So at the beginning of the conference, when I heard men refer to themselves as victims and talk about men’s rights and policies for men, for a minute I found myself wondering “Is this for real?”, “Aren’t most of the policies already pro-men?” I found myself getting angry that men refused to acknowledge the privileges and patriarchal dividends that they had been enjoying for centuries. But as the day progressed, I was able to make more sense of what was going on at that conference.

Men’s experiences of being undervalued in their social roles as carers, nurturers or fathers have remained largely invisible because as Margrethe Silberschmidt says, it hasn’t really questioned or altered the hegemonic forms of masculinity or power relations between men and women or between different groups of men. This is where I believe the groups working on men’s issues (or ‘sector’ as it is being called) can learn from the feminist movement. Feminism has largely been successful in politicising the personal and moving debates of patriarchy from the individual (man) to the system (of power relations). Similarly, it is important for men’s experiences to move beyond the realm of the personal and for the issue of ‘masculinities’ (practises or representations that are considered powerful and therefore get valued and socially/culturally privileged over others) to get politicised.


As Raewyn Connell says, hegemonic masculinity or certain accepted ways of being a man – are harmful to both men and women. Notions of masculinity which has created opposite notions of femininity has not only constructed women as inferior to men, but it has also ‘otherised’ the men who do not fit the hegemonic notions of a ‘man’ ( that of being heterosexual, potent, powerful, strong, aggressive, active, successful etc.) thus labelling them as inferior or ‘feminine’. Speaking at the conference about the socialisation process by which young boys imbibe culturally valued notions of masculinity, Melvyn Davis put it beautifully when he said “When what a young boy values in himself is not valued by the world outside, he makes sense of his life and of the world by adapting to what is expected of him”.

Cornwall et al also points to how race and class interact in men’s lives to create heirarchies among them and locate them at different power positions within the gender order. This dynamic was played out even at the conference where we noticed that the most ‘vocal’ men were the ones who were ‘ white, middle-aged and socially privileged’.  The voices of younger men and boys, sexual minorities, men of colour etc were either very minimal or entirely missing. Inspite of this skewed representation, I noticed that in the universal framing of men’s rights as against women’s rights, as Penny Morrell describes, all the men were dumped into the common category of ‘misogynists’ or ‘anti-feminists’ rather than being understood within their specific positionalities.

We therefore see that it is in the interest of a large number of males to challenge and shift these gender imbalances. Do feminists see a possible ally here?


Putting the issue of ‘Men and Care’ in perspective, it should be seen that Patriarchy institutionalised ‘care’ as ‘feminine’ and as a woman’s role; and men were thus able to enjoy the privileges that came with freedom from these responsibilities. But today when more men want to embrace their instincts for ‘nurturing’, they find themselves discriminated against – firstly, by women who refuse to give up/share the power/privileges of motherhood bestowed upon them by patriarchal systems; and secondly, by the social and legal systems that do not create space for ‘caring’ men. Along with that , today one sees what Silberschmidt calls a ‘crisis of masculinity’ resulting from the economic and social empowerment of women, such that men are now beginning to feel excluded from ‘development’ work that is largely focussed on women. This vulnerability has led many men to fall back upon patriarchal attitudes and behaviour in order to cope with their loss of ‘self-esteem’.

But this does not imply that benefits should be transferred from the women back to the men. The groups working on men’s issues need to understand that women are not their enemy. The solutions lie in addressing the real enemy – common to both men and women – which are the systems of oppression embodied in concepts of masculinity and patriarchy. And here I believe there are possibilities for both women and men’s interests to align itself  towards a common goal of breaking  down rigid gender conceptions and allowing for fluidity in gender roles and relations.

Women's Collective Action

Gender Agendas of development agencies in recent times are seen to be dominated by talks about ‘Women’s Empowerment’.  It is viewed as the ‘magic bullet’ that will finally help women realize their rights and achieve Gender Equality. Shortly before I came to IDS, I attended a 2 days conference in India in which a range of stakeholders working on women’s issues – Women and Child Development ministry, academicians, NGOs, representatives from the UN and World Bank, lawyers, health professionals etc. – had come together from across the country to share their experiences, best practises and challenges regarding programmes for women’s empowerment. Srilata Batliwala’s (2007) comment that women’s empowerment can mean different things to different people – or, more dangerously, all things to all people” rings a bell when I recall the intellectual tussle that took place between the government /development agencies and grassroots NGOs/activists at this conference regarding the conceptualisation of the term. The group spent a considerable amount of time arriving at a common understanding of what the term meant for each person or more precisely, what it should mean for every person.

The definition that eventually emerged at the end of the discussions was an all-encompassing one, incorporating each party’s views and appeasing everyone’s interests. It contained elements of building capacities and enhancing abilities of women to enable their greater participation and effective decision-making. There were also all the right noises made about women’s dignity, self-worth and the need for women to have control over resources. But it was evident that each division was relating to completely different pathways for achieving this. It was a clear case of what Cecilia Sardernberg calls the liberal vs liberating empowerment approaches. The government/development agencies were talking about mainstreaming women into development processes through effective programmes which in their view would then empower women; whereas the activists were trying to restore the power back to women from the agencies by reinforcing measures for consciousness-raising and awareness-building which they believed would enable women to recognize their individual and collective agency/power to define their own vision of change and social transformation.Setting own agendas

This comes down to notions of what constitutes POWER. While ‘liberal empowerment’ views power as something that can be given or handed out (power-over disguised as power-to), ‘liberating empowerment’ believes that power is inherent (power-within) in women. Building on Paulo Freire’s theory of Conscientization, feminists believe that creating space for reflexivity and critical thinking will enable women to unleash their hidden power which they can use to develop their own personal and political agendas for change. As Gita Sen (2010) says, ‘Give people resources, build capacity and get out of the way’.  Therefore, unlike the former that uses women’s empowerment as a tool to achieve overall development goals, the latter approaches women’s empowerment as an end in itself.

I believe discussions about women’s empowerment should take into account the central aspect of how women experience empowerment differently. Cecilia Sardenberg points out that empowerment cannot be bestowed upon by an external person as understandings of power vary between countries, societies, cultures and individuals. Therefore, the outcome of empowerment efforts of ‘giving power’ is affected by how women’s subjectivities are constituted with respect to their different relationships. Women internalise power depending upon their individual histories and personalities, which then forms the basis on which they exercise power/agency. This brings to mind my experience of women’s political empowerment in an indigenous community in Chhattisgarh in India. Reservation policies for women in local self-governance bodies have increased the political participation of women in many states across India. In this particular instance, during my interaction with one of the elected women leaders of the village governing body (Gram Panchayat) at her house, the woman’s husband dominated and controlled the entire conversation. He even responded to questions on her behalf. While I was getting agitated with each passing minute, I noticed that the woman Sarpanch looked quite at ease and seemed comfortable to slip into the background while her husband took centre-stage in the house, whereas I had observed her as a dynamic and assertive leader in her interactions with other women in the village.

I would like to make two points in this illustration. One, that political empowerment does not automatically change a woman’s position or status within her household or empower her to question or challenge the gender relations within it. In other words, one needs to understand how women exercise inter-relational power. Second, is Naila Kabeer’s (2010) point about the ‘silent strategies for survival’ employed by women. In this case, the fact that the woman was silent did not necessarily mean that she was disempowered. Acceding power to her husband within her home was her trade-off for accessing power among other women and respect within her community. This negotiation allowed her to maintain peace at home as well as attain autonomy and liberation outside her home. And it was within this arrangement that she felt empowered.

The problem with mainstreaming of ‘Women’s Empowerment’ is that it fails to capture these personal stories of women and the circumstances under which complex choices are made by them. As Wendy Harcourt (2010) and Naila Kabeer both point out, the evidence-based approach of development programmes have led it to place value in only quantifiable/measurable indicators over context, experiences, participation and ownership that define the quality of the programme. This was all too evident in the All-India conference where development professionals proceeded to strip ‘Women’s Empowerment’ off its ‘transformational potential’ by imposing their own narrow and agenda-driven interpretations to its understanding and implementation; and in the process disempowered the very notion of empowerment.

In her recent talk titled ‘The Danger of  The Single Story’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says :

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”


Chimamanda talks about the power of representation in constructing universal narratives about people and the world. She highlights the role that power structures play in framing  generalised assumptions as the ‘ accepted knowledge’ and institutionalising a single representation as ‘the only truth’. Her argument that there is danger in a single story, resonates with some of the key debates that underlie the recent feminist theories of development. These broadly fall within the paradigm of Women in Development (WID) and Gender and Development (GAD).

WID was  conceptualised in the 1970’s within a liberal framework of human rights which focussed on not just making all the opportunities/benefits of modernisation accessible to women ; but it also positioned women as essential for the efficiency of the development process itself. Women’s empowerment focussed on their education and skills training in order to encourage their participation in the market.

Within a decade, however the focus had shifted to GAD. With the incorporation of the ‘capabilities approach’ into the development discourse, now women’s subordination was seen as a result of inequitable gender relations and division of labour within households. The change in language from ‘women’ to ‘gender’ was a conscious political strategy to focus on ‘relations of inequality’ rather than on ‘women’ which also came about in response to the postmodern feminist critiques of WID that highlighted the heterogeneity and local contexts of women’s lives.

The question I am reflecting on here is: With the GAD approach, have we managed to transcend the trappings of universalism and ‘ the single stories’ of women or for that matter even development? Well…I do not think so.

In Gender Myths and Feminist Fables, the authors write about how all the recent ‘gender talk’ has essentialised certain images of women as unproblematic, harmonious, non-corrupt, environment-friendly, hardworking, multi-taskers etc. These ‘myths’ or stereotypes are dangerous as they lead to misrepresentations of women which then feed into development policy and programmes.

Today, in many developing countries, programmes for micro-finance, natural resource management, forest management etc. to name a few and several social movements are all women-focussed and are built around certain universal characteristics of women. However, the failure of micro-finance and many other women entrepreneurial programmes should draw attention to the fact that economic empowerment alone is insufficient and there is a need to focus on the overall empowerment of women which would include structural and systemic changes as well. But these structural failures never come out in the narratives of programme failure.

Secondly, these ‘myths’ of empowerment also add extra burden on women who are now expected to shoulder responsibilities not only within their families but are also held  accountable for the development of their communities. I once interned with a community-based organisation in Chhatisgarh in India, that was working towards mobilising women to address issues of displacement facing their indigenous community. The organisation complained about women’s absence from group meetings and their inability to strengthen the activities of the group. During my interaction with these women, I discovered that they woke up daily at four a.m. to go into the forests and collect forest produce (which took them at least 4-5 hours), after which they did the cooking, the housework as well as attended to the needs of the children and older members in the household. A couple of times during the week they even went into the market to sell the forest produce. Quite evidently, they neither had the time nor the energy to take on this extra responsibility. Inspite of this, they were being heralded as the saviours or champions of the cause by the NGO who was committed to implementing a ‘women’s empowerment agenda’ and fulfilling a funding criteria.

A similar trend can be seen with the creation of Self-Help Groups in India. They just about serve the purpose of poverty alleviation but women are pressurised to transform it into an entrepreneurial venture. This is quite an unreasonable demand from them as entrepreneurial development would require enabling conditions for attitudinal/ behavioural changes and investments to be made in building the leadership and risk-taking capacities of women. None of these needs are however addressed.

Therefore what we see is how ‘Gender Equality’ within the GAD framework changed from its broad and radical broad-based notion of re-structuring inequitable power relations to a single narrow version of Women’s Economic Empowerment, as reflected in the current Gender Policy documents of The World Bank. So in effect, we’re back to WID. Within this current framework, gender inequality is viewed as a barrier to economic development and poverty reduction rather than as a problem in itself. I find this notion of instrumentalism highly problematic. Also there have been no efforts towards the broader notions of empowerment, therefore reinforcing the incorrect view that once women become economically independent, other forms of emancipation automatically follow.

GAD’s focus on gender relations also universalises notions about patriarchy and women’s subordination within familial relations, especially in non-western cultures. This is again a concern. In many societies, women negotiate their private spaces/relationships to arrive at their own equations of power and security within it. I feel that to discount a woman’s experience and her ability to do so, is to disempower her and take away her agency to create and live by her own personal life narrative.



In an incident of moral policing that occurred in an Indian urban city in 2009 , a group of young women were attacked at a pub and beaten up by Hindu right-wing activists for ‘flouting traditional Indian norms of decency’. I remember thinking angrily at that time – What crime had these women committed to be treated like this? Just that they had consumed alcohol, worn western clothes, had spoken to men who weren’t their husbands/fathers/brothers, or had chosen to hang out at a public place? What was it about the ‘liberated’ Indian women that enraged the conservatives so much? And furthermore what gave these men the right to take away the human rights and citizenship rights that the Indian Constitution had granted these women?

Don’t these questions represent some of the battles that feminists around the world continue to fight every day? While the gender norms are culture-specific and vary between different societies, issues of women’s objectification, ascribed gender identities, right to dignity and bodily integrity, reproductive and sexual decision-making among others, underline the universal feminist discourse. Considering the human rights aspect implicit in all of the feminist arguments, I would have thought that all human rights advocates would be equally passionate about Feminism. But that is NOT the case !

I understand many men’s aversion to Feminism – Why would they want to let go of their privileges? Or the misconstrued imagery of the man-hating, bra-burning feminist woman, surely must be intimidating – but I’ve never been able to get a handle on why many women I know furiously dis-associate themselves from ‘Feminism’. Having symbolised the very spirit of Feminism by challenging and subverting stereotypical gender roles in their personal circumstances, I still hear them saying ‘I believe in women’s rights and all but I’m not a feminist.’

Locating my experiences in an Indian context, Feminism has been a contested topic because of the historical context within which the ‘woman’s question’ came to be formed and the specific manner in which the feminist movement has come to be represented in India. It has had a long history of being dominated, marginalised and co-opted by other movements. This trend can be traced back to the ‘recasting of women’ by Indian nationalists during the early social reform movements. The upper middle-class Indian woman became the bearer of India’s cultural difference from the West; and their ‘Indian-ness’ became the symbol of nationalistic pride. This tightened the control on women within households and enforced new gender norms and patriarchies across various regions.

In the post-colonial period, the feminist movement was focussed on liberating women from this stranglehold of patriarchy. In the 1980s, collective forms of political protests highlighted the sexual oppression of women and transformed personal issues into political ones. However, the demand for changes in intra-household, kinship and cultural relationships did not take into account the heterogeneity of Indian women. So while an urban-bred, upper-middle-class woman (like myself) who has been endowed with enough social capital to make independent, autonomous choices/decisions would appeal to this, a large section of working class women who found support and well-being within household/kinship relationships; and for whom daily survival included a process of negotiation/cooperation in economic and familial responsibilities; did not identify with this ideology and accused the movement of being western in its nature and practice. Many of them prioritised land reform, labour and anti-caste movements over issues of sexuality and patriarchy. This highlights the issue of positionality that I believe is critical in feminist thought and action.

The Indian feminist movement has also been shaped by its inability to take into account the multiple identities of women. In my feminist practise, I’ve come to realise the specificity of my identity – that of being not just female but one that belongs to a particular region, class, caste, religion, race and ethnicity among other factors – an identity which has shaped my life’s circumstances and opportunities. I’ve found myself at a loss when asked how I’d be able to relate to issues of women from other classes/castes when our lived experiences and realities have been completely different. And this issue of representation is what  remains a bone of contention even between First-world and non-western feminists :

What is spoken about, who speaks for whom, how and in whose words?

In spite of the public and media outrage that has followed incidents like the one I mentioned above, women’s bodies in India continue to remain a site for all sorts of cultural, religious and political battles. Today, the challenges of neo-liberalism such as informalization of labour, economic insecurity, poor citizenship etc, has fragmented the movement even further and polarized Indian women into their community and caste identities. However, inspite of its multiple contestations and realities, Indian women’s rights continue to be championed by autonomous women’s organisations and civil society groups.  One such valiant attempt is seen in the Pink Chaddi (Underwear) Campaign, started by a group of young women in response to the infamous pub attack, which has grabbed attention even globally.