“It takes two wheels to run a chariot” – A Gujarati woman to Bina Agarwal, on how to run a household
Gender Challenges, a three-volume compendium by economist Bina Agarwal, brings together 30 years of the author’s work. Three decades of primary data collection in different parts of South Asia, secondary research and inter-disciplinary analysis has resulted in this extensive collection of essays on gender and rural development.
One of the basic principles of Agarwal’s research is to question the assumption that households are ‘units of convergent interests’. Research, policy and programmes that work on this assumption ignore the aspect of gender discrimination that makes it different from other forms of discrimination (caste, class, etc.): it exists centrally within the household as well. Intra-household inequalities shape a number of lived realities, including access to nutrition, distribution of care work and the importance given to personal health. Without taking this into account, you get problematic public policy that has embedded assumptions about the household, including seeing the man as the natural head of household, taking men as appropriate representatives of the family unit in public discussions, and unquestioningly treating women as dependents.
Most of Agarwal’s research uses mainstream economics as a point of departure. Perhaps for this reason, the efficiency of various gender-sensitive approaches plays an important role in her analysis. However, especially for those uncomfortable with a market-oriented ideal of gender equality, it is important to note that she has two further criteria to judge the worth of feminist economics. First, it should fulfil its intellectual responsibility, which is to “understand the nature and causes of gender equality in all its forms”. This is essential if the end game is to effectively reorient economic and social policy to reduce inequalities. Second, it should be ethically responsible, or try and make a real difference to women’s lives through accessible dissemination and active campaigning.
Looking at rural development from a gendered lens, Agarwal also focusses on the intersectionality of gender and class. Given that gender roles are very much embedded in social norms and traditions, it is interesting to see how this intersectionality plays out. When looking at the impact of agricultural modernisation, for instance, Agarwal finds that it has different impacts on women of different classes. For landless women working as agricultural labourers, it has meant further impoverishment in many instances because mechanisation often replaces farm jobs traditionally done by women. On the other hand, women from landowning families have frequently seen an increase in household income and therefore better standard of living with increased mechanisation – though it has also meant that they are no longer employed in paid work because of the lack of necessity, thereby losing some degree of independence.
Land rights for rural women has long been a focus for the author, something that is reflected in the second volume of the collection. Not only ownership but also day-to-day control over land can be transformative, Agarwal argues, since access to land is directly linked to access to credit and state support. In addition, it provides women with a degree of independence that is perhaps otherwise unimaginable several rural settings, giving them freedom to control production, decide on who inherits, leave abusive spouses, etc.
Collective action is another one of Agarwal’s core research areas, especially in relation to environmental protection. The author questions ‘ecofeminists’ including Vandana Shiva who argue that women have intrinsic knowledge of nature and a special connection to it, thereby making them the rightful protectors of the environment. For Agarwal, this approach is problematic because it treats women as a unitary category, irrespective of class, ethnicity, location and any other factor.
The author has formulated an alternative theory, which she calls ‘feminist environmentalism’. This approach looks at people’s relationships with nature as rooted in their material realities. While it is true, she argues, that rural women are often more in tune with nature and the environment than their male counterparts, she explains this with respect to the sexual division of labour where women are often in charge of gathering resources from common property sites. In light of this, the absence of women from decision making positions in collective action groups (such as community forestry groups) becomes even more important. The lack of firewood, for instance, is often seen as a woman’s problem as she has to do the cooking. However, if women had a more effective voice in collective action, it is probable that this would been seen as a more serious community problem and lead to the search for additional solutions.
Many of the ideas reflected in the book may today seem quite mainstream. This is probably one of the biggest compliments that can be paid to the author, because they certainly weren’t when she started working on them. It has taken decades of research and dissemination to bring these ideas to the fore, and this collection of books is a worthy celebration of that. Agarwal’s work and campaigning was also integral to the passing of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005, under which both women and men have equal inheritance rights in all forms of family property, including to agricultural land.
While it may feel like certain arguments get a bit repetitive by the end of the three volumes, it would be unfair to the author to not clarify this by saying that important points often plead repetition. Even today, Agarwal’s arguments and empirical analyses hold immense importance for policy debates and future research, and can serve as a thorough resource for anyone hoping to delve into these topics.