Simmering with Gender Violence: Does Kerala Call for Revisiting Empowerment?

Existing literature lays much emphasis on the role of women’s economic and educational progress in attaining gender equality and empowerment. This presumption appears to be contradictory when situated in context of recent evidence on growing violence against women in Kerala, highlighting the significance of women’s agency in the process of empowerment. 

"…in becoming mainstream, the concept (of empowerment) has lost much of its radical potential to challenge and change oppressive social relations." (Batliwala 1994)

Recent evidence on the growing violence against women in Kerala has made it one of the worst-ranking states in India, in terms of crimes against women (Hindustan Times 2017). This evidence has brought much perplexity to the discourses that uphold the state’s decent literacy and sex ratio levels as an indicator of women’s better status in Kerala. An immediate conclusion that may be drawn from this, as also noted by others elsewhere, is that improved well-being and literacy levels of women do not necessarily indicate transformation in gendered norms and attitudes. 

Ironically, there has been excessive optimism in the instrumental efficacy of women’s development—their improved economic and educational well-being—in establishing more equal power relations between women and men therein. In fact, policymakers in many countries, assuming the household as a unitary institution with equal intra-household sharing of benefits, have diverted resources to male-headed households (Agarwal 1997). However, this assumption has witnessed some dilution of late, with policy approach in many countries beginning to focus on resource transfers to women (for example, the Food Security Act, 2013 in India envisages cash transfers to the women of beneficiary households; micro-credit programmes in Bangladesh have also targeted women). The argument has largely been centred on the instrumental efficacy of women’s control over resources to ensure a more efficient achievement of development goals. This is partly because in the context of limited resources, policymakers have to adjudicate between competing claims (Razavi 1997) and women’s claims have been weaker. The political logic behind this is that those (in this case, women) who stand to gain most from such advocacy carry little clout in major policymaking institutions (Kabeer 1999). However, instrumentality does not necessarily work in the long run and deep-rooted inequalities may manifest in variations of the situation as seen in Kerala today. 

The instrumentality of these achievements is limited to gender equality in basic well-being, beyond which social transformations in norms and attitudes is indispensable (Kabeer 2005). Gender empowerment requires expansion in women’s agency coterminous with social transformation based on the recognition of the intrinsic importance of women’s freedoms. Unless this transformation occurs, performance on selected social development indicators may serve as mere masks over deep-rooted structural inequalities. 

This is apparent if some of the gender-related indicators for Kerala are revisited. To begin with, the favourable sex ratio in Kerala (1,084 females per 1,000 males) might be attributed less to women’s status and more to the significantly high male emigration in the state as compared to female counterparts (Rondinone 2007). International migration is primarily a male affair in Kerala with females accounting for only 14.4% of the total emigrants as of 2007 (Rajan and Zachariah 2008). Once male outmigrants are accounted for, the sex ratio in Kerala turns against females (Rondinone 2007). Alongside, it has also been reported that sex selective abortion is on an increase in Kerala (Sudha et al 2005). 

The more nuanced measure in this regard is the child sex ratio (the number of females per 1,000 males in the age group of 0–6 years), which reflects the underlying socio-economic and cultural patterns. As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)–3, the child sex ratio was unfavourable in Kerala at 959 and was not much better than several other states of India (see table 1) although the NFHS–4 registers an improvement in the sex ratios on a national level on average as well as in the state of Kerala. Even the sex ratio at birth based on live births (the number of female live births for every 1,000 male live births) during the preceding five years of the NFHS–3 survey (2005–06) was considerably lower in Kerala than the average in India and several other states of India (Table 2). This is an important observation given that the sex ratio at birth is a more refined and reliable indicator in terms of the ability to reflect the extent of pre-natal sex selection (UNPFA India 2008). The sex ratio at birth during the last five years sheds light on the more recent trends in the state.

Tables 1(a,b) and 2 (a,b) provide glimpses of women’s autonomy indicators. A noticeable aspect here is the lack of voices against unequal gendered norms, especially of educated and decently employed women (that is, those in secure or formal sector jobs), who could be identified as possessing relatively better bargaining power within the household. These tables show that the percentage of women with a share in decision-making in Kerala although slightly above the national average is nevertheless lower than several states of India, including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and most of the North-Eastern states of India. Similarly, around 66% of women in Kerala were found to say that wife-beating is justified for at least one of the given reasons, which is higher than or comparable to most of the states in India. 

The percentage of women who are allowed to go alone to the market, health facilities, and outside the community is also much lower in Kerala given its image as a state with higher status of women and also given the percentage of such women in other states of India. This reflects that while the well-being status of women in Kerala might be significantly better than the rest of India, women’s freedom in the “transformative”[2]  sense remains yet distant. This necessitates a critical reflection as far as the implications of women’s control over resources and women’s better functioning levels for gender equality and empowerment is concerned. In the particular context of Kerala, what must be reflected upon is the transformatory consequences of social development achievements (Kabeer 2005).

Rondinone (2007) gives interesting insights into the actual status of women in Kerala, arguing that Kerala women owed their status to the traditional matrilineal society which declined subsequently, thereby weakening the bargaining power of women. Rondinone further discusses that women in Kerala, despite better education and health, suffer from significant levels of gender discrimination. There has been rapid growth in dowry and dowry-related crimes in Kerala and many scholars have discussed the ways in which women’s status in Kerala has declined since the mid-20th century (Mukhopadhyay 2007; Saradamoni 1999). Female literacy and education have failed to unsettle dominant gender norms (Rajan and Sreerupa 2007). Given this, the tendency to use women’s education, employment, and asset ownership as indicators of women’s empowerment (Narayan 2005; Samman and Santos 2009; Doss 2012), may prove to be a misnomer. In fact, these indicators, at most, reveal women’s status in a hierarchical social relationship rather than women’s individual autonomy and agency. 

This is not to say that resource access is unimportant. Rather, as Kabeer (1999) notes, it reflects the “potential” of agency to challenge regressive norms. Whether one chooses to realise the potential agency will depend upon one’s own assessment as well as social perceptions of what one commands and kinship values and family relationships one belongs to (Kabeer 2005, 2011; Allendorf 2012). It has been observed and corroborated from table 2 that women adapt their preferences to gendered constraints around them by internalising a subordinated social status and the value of their roles and self-interest, such that there is negligible awareness on the disadvantages they face during discriminatory processes or intra-household resource allocation (Rowlands 1996; Kabeer 1999). 

Moreover, even if women possess the ability, they may not choose to exercise agency as unlike most “ascriptive” inequalities—the locus of which is largely in the public sphere and often relate to markets—a considerable part of gender inequality is generated in the home and thus, outside of formal markets (Klasen 2004). The use of agency by women against such perpetration interferes with kinship and value-based interest alignments with their families. Consequently, choosing to exercise agency may not necessarily enhance women’s well-being even though they can be instrumental to each other (Sen 1985). 


Ostensibly, any examination of gendered social relationships needs to be focus on convergences and divergences among various gender indicators as also their precise implications (Choudhary 2016). Unfortunately, data on gendered values and perceptions, particularly aspects of agency, remains limited. Yet, the lessons from Kerala underline the need to revisit the way empowerment, particularly women’s empowerment, is conceptualised in mainstream development and policy discourse. As the gender advisor to the Government of Kerala stated recently—while the language of development in the state has been one of women’s empowerment, the formal and informal legal frameworks within which issues have been addressed is one of protection (PTI 2015). Such an approach clearly defeats the agenda of empowerment. Ultimately, empowerment needs neither instrumentalism, nor welfarism; it manifests out of structural change, particularly if invoked through an expansion of women’s agency. 


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