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.


Taking off from my previous post on sexuality, here I will delve into a discussion on the gender binary. The world is predicated on the model of two genders, male and female. It is believed that a person’s way of doing and being in the world, or one’s gender, is based on one’s body genitalia.  This is based on the assumption that one’s genitalia determines the ways in which one performs sex. And the ways in which one performs sex is said to determine one’s gender identity. Therefore, bodies with a penis , are assumed to be male or masculine because of its ability to penetrate. Likewise, bodies with vaginas, are considered feminine because it can be penetrated.  The history of human sexuality, for the most part, is therefore a history of heterosexuality, which has been built on this male-female dichotomy.

This sex/gender binary has formed the basis on which we have constructed our entire understanding of the world. We see everything through the lens of the binary or its other/ opposite. We understand male in relation to its opposite female, masculinity in relation to femininity, heterosexuality in relation to homosexuality and so on. This ordering of the world not only helps to classify and categorize people, feelings, desires and behaviours; but built into these binary structures are relations of power and domination. Going back to where I started from – the sex/gender binary- one penetrates and the other is penetrated. One is masculine and the other feminine. From this arise other power dynamics. One is seen as powerful, the other powerless. One dominates, the other is dominated. It all works really well when you categorize male and female bodies neatly along this binary order. All the male bodies on one side of the line and female bodies on the opposite side.

But what would happen if this order were to break, sex-gender lines were to blur, if bodies got mixed up, one was born with ambiguous genitalia, and identities became dynamic and fluid ? The entire understanding of the world and the model of heterosexuality that maintains it would be at stake if the gender boundaries were to be erased; people were to move in and out, and between their sexual and gender identities. But isn’t this the reality? Do we all experience ourselves in neat, clear-cut boxed ctegories? Isn’t the world built on an illusion of two exclusive genders? When in fact there is a multiplicity of gender identities; a continuum of desires, behaviours and emotions along which we locate our day to day lives.

The multiplicity or plurality of genders can however only be recognized when sex is viewed separately from gender. When one’s identity is not tied to how one has sex, or who one has sex with.  Therefore, heterosexuality then becomes a sex act and not a gender act. It becomes what one does, and not what one is. So one can sexually identify as straight or gay or bisexual but their behavioural characteristics or identity is not tied to how they have sex. There will then be no need for one to appropriate ‘normative’ masculine or feminine behaviours to align with their sexual orientation. But we can allow for multiplicity of genders to exist only if we deconstruct the existing sex-gender binary and break down our ‘two-sided coin’ vision of the world.


This is not a promo for a sex film. Nor is it an advertisement for a sex toy.

This campaign is part of an on-going project initiated by professionals working on HIV prevention and sexual health and rights. The Pleasure Project promotes the concept of sex as pleasurable. Sex as good. It aims to transform the way people think about sex. And to experience pleasurable sex as safe sex. 

This makes me wonder : When did ‘development’ get sexy ? Why has it become important today to talk about pleasure? Why is there a need to get sex, or should I say ‘good sex’ back on the agenda? And even something as basic as – What has sexuality to do with development in the first place?

I don’t think it would be fair for me to engage in discussions about sexuality and/in development , without first reflecting on my own experiences of sex and sexuality; which has been coloured with fear, guilt, confusion, and disappointment for as long as I can remember. As a ‘good’ Indian girl, I was socialised to believe that sex was not to be talked about, much less indulged in and certainly never to be enjoyed. I knew sex as desire, but one that was always controlled, reified from my body and prescribed by norms that were alien to me. I don’t think I ever questioned my “heterosexuality”. Did anyone sit me down and drill my sexual identity into me ? Not that I remember. But I ‘naturally’ desired men. Or did I really?



In his lecture on ‘Sex, Sexuality and Sexualness’, Akshay Khanna made references to Foucault’s concept of power when he pointed out that we become ‘subject’ to discourses of power such that we develop a mind-body duality, and start experiencing our ‘selves’ or our bodily desires only through mediated discourses of sexuality. In the History of Sexuality (I), Foucault analyses sexuality as a channel by which power is transmitted; and power as a creative force that determines the relationships between people, institutions and concepts. Even as a child, the message came to me clearly and strongly:  Sex was only to be ‘performed’ within a marriage with one’s legal partner. I say ‘to be performed’ because sex is also a gender act.  Social norms decide who has sex with whom, and as Judith Butler would say, my gendered sexual performance with a ‘man’ was necessary to maintain the structures of hetero-normativity (or norms of hetero-sexuality) in society.

Sex-Gender Binaries

415KnYtu-AL__SL500_AA300_ Sex-Gender Binaries enforce heterosexuality

In other words, it is believed that one’s genitalia determines the ways in which one performs sex, which then determines one’s gender identity. This male-female gender binary reinforces the binary of heterosexuality / homosexuality. And vice-versa, this categorization of sexuality enables structures of gender to remain intact in society. These structures of gender and sexuality are made to seem ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ through discourses of power, knowledge and language. And these discourses create the concept of ‘the other’ – people, behaviour, desires – that are labeled as ‘different’ or ‘freakish’ because they fall outside of the realm of the normative.

How natural is normal ?

The problem then begins with categorization, in the creation of binaries that sets one in opposition to the other. These categorizations are then used to create and maintain structures – of difference, power and domination.  In The Invention of Heterosexuality, Jeffrey Katz argues that the social construction of homosexuality has helped politicise ‘different’ sexual preferences and has led to the development of a powerful gay liberation identity politics, but on the other hand, the recognition of gay/lesbian rights in itself reinforces the hetero/homo binary construction.

This process of ‘otherization’ or ‘differentiation’ has been widely prevalent in development, as seen in the containment of homosexuality within particular bodies or in the ‘identification’ of high-risk groups for HIV-prevention targeted interventions. In his essay, Akshay Khanna explores how the identity of a meyeli chhele ( girlish-boy) is appropriated or transformed into that of a kothi or a MSM ( men who have sex with men ) within particular political-economic conditions under which the HIV industry functions; in terms of its location within public health agendas, or in the way it chooses to address the issue ideologically or distribute resources.

Sexuality therefore matters to development. But, as Andrea Cornwall and Susan Jolly note, the representations of sexuality have often been negative and normative in mainstream development. For e.g. what are the images that come to mind when we hear/talk about HIV/AIDS ? Sex workers, homosexuals, drug users, truck drivers in India, people of African descent ? How did these images become part of our popular thinking? AIDS discourses have systematically constructed these sexual imageries that mark-out certain bodies or particular sexual behaviour as risky, threatening or dangerous. I find this very problematic. Sexuality continues to be viewed as a problem in debates of over-population, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence, often leading to coercive family planning policies and stigmatising interventions, which blatantly violate people’s sexual and health rights under the label of  ‘meaningful’ interventions.

Alternate views are now emerging within development, recognising the need to focus on the positive aspects of sexuality in order to bring about positive change. And it is from this space that the pleasure discourse is taking shape. Initiatives like ‘The Pleasure Project’ aim to prevent HIV infections by promoting pleasurable sex through safe sex methods instead of stigmatising people for having sex or being sexual. This is a ‘common-sensical’ development approach that finally makes sense to me.

“While most safer sex and HIV prevention programmes are negative and disease focused, The Pleasure Project is different: we take a positive, liberating, and sexy approach to safer sex. Think of it as sex education… with the emphasis on ‘sex’.”

(The Pleasure Project)

The Conundrum of Rights

Posted: November 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

Multiculturalism is a word often used today. It means more than cultural diversity. There is an element of ‘Rights’ involved here. And when it comes to the ‘Rights Talk’ , the issue is, what is the right talk?

For example, which of the following fits your idea of multiculturalism? Is it the one of diversity as conveyed by this quote:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave. – M. K. Gandhi

Or is it the one of conflict and contestation as depicted in the picture below?


Like me, I wonder how many of you are caught between emotions captured in both the examples. Yes, the Language of Rights is complicated ! That’s because it is value-laden. And hence it is subjective.

The above cartoon is an excellent illustration of the contradictions that arise from different individual positions with respect to Rights. The formation of subject–positions does not occur in a vacuum. Individual experiences and thought processes are systematically constructed and structured within particular historical, social, cultural and political contexts. So when it comes to viewing Rights, most often everyone thinks they are right.

In one of my earlier blog posts, I had written about my naïve assumption that all Human Rights proponents would automatically advocate for feminism, since feminism is about human rights for women. But subjectivity comes into play when individual rights clash.  When equal rights compete. And especially when women’s rights compete with men’s rights.

A similar analogy can be drawn between the Human Rights ‘projects’ of Multiculturalism and Gender Equality. Multiculturalism refers to the rights to cultural identity and practises by ethnic and religious minority groups of people. Gender equality aims at equal rights for people of all social categories. In principle, the political and philosophical underpinnings of both the projects are the same – the protection and promotion of minority rights – therefore one would assume that the individual and collective rights in this case would not only complement but also be interdependent on each other. However, in reality, in the practise of human rights or as Hannah Arendt says one’s “right to have Rights”, one is faced with the challenge of negotiating a situation of ‘conflict and competition’ rather than cooperation, both within as well as between the categories of individual and collective rights.

Often individual rights get subsumed under collective rights. One can sense a palpable tension especially when it comes to rights of women from minority groups. As Susan Moller Okin asks, “what should be done when the claims of minority cultures clash with the norms of gender equality”, both of which are endorsed under Human Rights Law? In this respect, the universal applicability of Human Rights comes into question. For one, human rights of women are often dictated by cultural norms and practises. Secondly, in the politics of Multiculturalism which has often taken the form of ‘politics of difference’, it has historically been seen how different cultures use women’s bodies as sites of contestation and negotiation in order to re-assert or re-inforce the heterogeneity of one’s culture.

This is where I would ask “What makes human rights (as contained in the UDHR) overrule all other rights of individuals? Arent one’s cultural rights also one’s human rights? Who decides which among the human rights is the ‘bigger’ and ‘more important’ one? Is the idea of universality of Human Rights even possible in the face of multiple cultural practises and beliefs? But then again, where are women’s rights located within cultural rights? And if there is to be a compromise between the two, as inevitably there always is, whose Rights get compromised? And again -Who gets to decide this?

Like I said before, these are very complicated questions.

But real questions.

That have no easy answers.


Shah Bano’s case is a fitting example of how a woman’s search for justice can go horribly wrong when it gets caught in the crossfires of religion and politics. The details of the case can be found here, but I’d like to draw attention to the conflictual interests that prevailed in this case. In India, the ‘personal laws’ of religious communities continue to be legally recognized in marriage and divorce cases. When its Supreme Court overruled the Muslim Personal Law and granted Shah Bano, a Muslim woman,  her constitutional rights to alimony, this provoked a furious opposition from the Muslim conservatives who felt that their community’s limited legal and religious autonomy was being threatened in the face of growing Hindu orthodoxy in the country. The right- wing Hindu groups who had little interest in fighting for Muslim women’s rights, rushed to align themselves with the feminist secularist demand for a ‘uniform civil law’ (that would replace personal laws), only to further their anti-Muslim agenda. The feminist movement, finding themselves unwillingly partnered with the Hindu-Right wing and uncomfortably pitted against the Muslim community, distanced themselves from the debate to avoid Hinduization of the State and further prosecution of the minority community.

So where did this leave Shah Bano ? Having become a pawn in the political and communal battle, at 62, she gave up her fight for justice and her rights to maintenance from her husband.  Shah Bano’s case illustrates how gender equality gets misplaced in the context of communalisation of politics and marginalisation of minority groups in India. It also highlights the relationship between gender and culture and as to how cultural claims enable the structures of gender to remain intact.

Situating local situations within global norms of human rights justice becomes equally contentious. As Sally Engle Merry notes, CEDAW’s demands for the Indian government to reform religious personal laws in the belief that they are oppressive to women, do not take into account the complex interaction between feminism and communalism. It also fails to recognise the political underpinnings of multiculturalism; and betrays a critical understanding that women’s subordinate position is fundamental to the maintenance of an ethnic identity.

For me, as also for secular (Indian) feminism, the Shah Bano case will remain a painful reminder of how women’s individual rights in India are constantly sacrificed at the altar of their cultural identity, religious autonomy or national unity.

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.