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Paradox of Human Development of Women in Kerala

Paradox of Human Development of Women in Kerala Janaki Srinivasan Since the publication of Ester Boserup

general arts and sciences rather than

Paradox of Human Development of

Women in Kerala
t echnical and professional courses. Health achievements are not uniform and not s atisfactory for marginal communities. The entire burden of contraception is borne by women; higher life expectancy Janaki Srinivasan has also meant longer periods of depend

ince the publication of Ester Boserup’s seminal work Women’s Role in Economic Development in 1970, feminist research on the impact of development on women, especially in third world countries, has corroborated one of her findings, the “paradox of development”, i e, economic growth and modernisation have most often been accompanied by a decline in women’s socio-cultural status. For the now well-established and theoretically diverse field of gender and development, concern with the specific gender impacts of development, has also necessitated alternative ways of conceptualising and measuring development. Here, r esearchers have to contend with the most popular alternative, which is the human development approach based on Amartya Sen’s conception of development as “capability expansion”, and represented by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Reports. Apart from its flagship Human Development Index (HDI), two other measures developed by the UNDP, the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Index (GEM), specifically deal with gender differentials in human development achievements.

Studies on the Indian experience also point towards an overall deterioration in the position of women and strengthening of male bias as seen in continuing gender differences in access to education, nutrition and employment, rise in crimes against women, spread of dowry and f emale foeticide (Kapadia 2002). In most accounts of the “violence of development” in India, Kerala is almost always mentioned as an exception to this general trend. This claim is made on the basis of the achievements of Kerala women on the human development front. Unlike the rest of the country and despite lower growth rates, the sex ratio is favourable to women,

Economic & Political Weekly

March 7, 2009

book review

The Enigma of the Kerala Woman: A Failed Promise of Literacy edited by Swapna Mukhopadhyay (New Delhi: Social Science Press), 2007; pp xii + 189, Rs 550.

and Kerala women live longer, bear less children, marry at a much later age, and are not only literate, but highly educated.

The book under review edited by Swapna Mukhopadhyay questions the conclusion invariably drawn from these indicators: that women in Kerala enjoy a high status. In doing so, it asks how reliable these human development indicators are in grasping the condition of women’s lives and nature of gender relations in society. It thus raises important issues for feminist research and for effective feminist intervention in policy formulation.

Bursting Myths

Three routes of enquiry can be discerned in the four essays (including the Introduction) of this book. The first route probes further the better performing indicators by looking at disaggregated data (Chapter 2). The second route draws an attention to other kinds of statistics beyond these indicators (Chapters 2 and 3). The third route locates these statistics within the ideologies and the norms which have historically shaped women’s lives in modern Kerala (Chapter 4). These essays are supplemented by seven narratives and photographs of different facets of “living as a woman”.

The first two lines of enquiry reveal i nteresting results. Many myths of high status are burst. For instance, sex ratio is no longer favourable to women, if adjusted with large-scale male migration. Gender disparity shows up sharply in the nature of education pursued with women overwhelmingly concentrated in “appropriate” feminine and nurturing professions and

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ence and stigmatised widowhood.

Unequal Power Relations

The main alternative indicators used by the book are work participation and violence. Kerala has one of the highest rates of violence against women, including d omestic violence, and extensive justification of domestic violence among women. If male alcoholism is related to domestic violence, as is commonly done, then it reflects unequal power relations in the family sustained by lack of options, financial and social, for women. Dowry is widespread and infant sex ratio of the past two decades clearly indicates female foeticide. Connection between success in family planning programmes and rise in female foeticide made elsewhere is valid here too (Swaminathan 2002).

The book takes further the contention that violence is an indicator of gender inequality by hypothesising that violence and threat of violence reflect in the mental health of women. One essay (Chapter 3) zooms into this aspect and presents the findings of the Kerala Mental Health Survey. Women fare significantly poorly as compared to men both on perceived wellbeing and stress levels. Age, poverty, education and caste are factors in mental well-being of women and produce gendered patterns. These findings also show how standard measures of good health like longevity or maternal mortality are inadequate and gender-biased by not i ncorporating mental health.

The survey also constructed and admini stered a gender ideology index to gauge the extent to which people subscribed to an orthodox world view on gender relations. The findings reveal that more women subscribe to patriarchal norms than men (which is not surprising as women are the main transmitters of patriarchy) and women who subscribe to patriarchal norms rank lower on mental health. The


latter finding makes a case for emancipation which cannot be achieved merely through human development indices. The gender ideology index being the highpoint of the book, the note on its methodology could have provided reasons why these particular eight questions were chosen to construct it and whether they were framed for Kerala in particular, or, can be put to cross-cultural use.

Declining Work Participation

Kerala has one of the lowest work participation rates and high unemployment rates among women compared to men in the state and the national average. However, inadequate attention is paid to this crucial indicator. How to interpret work participation figures and assess its relation with emancipation has been an issue of much debate. The book (apart from Chapter 4) also seems to endorse the view that wage income gives women a greater say in household decision-making. The causes of declining work participation are not discussed, but just listed. It fleetingly connects the dependence induced by low work participation with lack of access to productive resources, ownership of property and the erosion of women’s property rights due to “progressive” land reform policies. Effective land rights are a significant f actor in a society, where agriculture r emains important.

Here engagement with feminist discussion on work in India would have proved useful. Nirmala Banerjee, for instance, discusses how women’s entry into labour force has been mediated by household p atriarchy which strictly enforces gender norms to retain control over sexuality, n ature and extent of outside work, constraining its “empowering” potential (Banerjee 1999). Moreover, even the N ational Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), which has a better definition of work, does not count provisioning for household and childcare as economically productive. In Kerala, society is characterised by extensive male migration on one hand, and longevity on the other. The responsibilities of household and caring are exclusively on women with no state support. “Sanskritisation” and “housewification” resultant from migration-induced prosperity to which lack of wage labour among migrants’ wives is attributed, can only be one factor which does not explain the phenomenon, but rather indicates lack of options.

Re-examining Matriliny

Such statistical exploration reveals disturbing details about powerlessness, widespread adherence to patriarchal gender norms. The third route seeks to answer why gender norms prevail. This leads to a re-examination of the two legacies popularly advanced as explanations for high performing indicators, i e, social reform movements and matriliny. The illuminating essay by J Devika and Avanti Mukherjee is in line with feminist critique of 19th century social reform movements and a rgues that the these movements promoted a new modern patriarchy constituted by enlightened domesticity and complementarity between the sexes. Education, (maternal) health and fertility control were to better equip women fit into this idealised gender role and justified for the sake of family, community and nation. Hence, employment in non-feminine professions and political participation remained low. It is interesting how matriliny, evaluated as backward by the progressives and abolished as per the requirements of modern patriarchy, retains an instrumental role in explaining “high status” of women.

The essays effectively demonstrate how human development indicators were pursued in the context of gender inequality and were themselves informed by patriarchal values. However, for a research emerging from the project studying the “micro impact of macro adjustment policies”, its findings are not located in political economy. Even Devika and Mukherjee’s historical overview stops in the early 1950s and then jumps to the present. The nature of intervention of the post-independence regimes in Kerala is missing except in a section discussing how women are mentioned in deve lopment plans. I ssues like male migration, unemployment, agrarian crisis and low industrialisation, which have differential gender implications, emerge from the specific experience of d evelopment. Since Kerala did not jettison the growth model of modernisation, but within that framework pursued certain human development targets, an engagement with the

March 7, 2009

overall model of development at least in the introduction would have been useful.

Surprising Lapses

The distinction between conventional and non-conventional gender development indicators employed by the book is tenuous. While mental health is “unconventional”, work participation, property rights and violence are widely used in gender and d evelopment literature and cannot be termed so. The distinction between “strategic” and “practical” gender needs, sometimes alluded to, is better. Moreover, gender development cannot be conflated with the GDI which only shows gender disparity in the regular human development index. While a feminist reformulation of the h uman development approach called for by the editor is necessary, especially on the role of education, the book’s theoretical engagement with the approach is insufficient. The “capability framework” does make a distinction between “evaluative” and “agency” aspects and between “basic human capabilities” and “freedom”, the former is only instrumental in enhancing the latter. The GEM which measures w omen’s share in political and economic decision-making is meant to capture the latter.1 While there is no comprehensive statewise GEM in India,2 Kerala does perform badly in the National Family Health Survey on women’s autonomy and role in decision-making about themselves and household.

For a research marked by restraint in recognition of the exploratory nature of its enquiries, there are surprising lapses into simplistic conclusions. For instance, while analysing mental health data, the editor concludes that gender relations could be the main cause of stress for women and economic worries for men; rather the e xperience of social life and its specificities will be gendered in the context of patriarchy.

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vol xliv no 10

Economic & Political Weekly


The contention that neo-religious self- assertion is not defined by society is surprising. The introduction to the photographs makes an unnecessary point about Kerala women not covering their heads and bodies unlike other parts of the country.

The book could have done with tighter editing. There is much repetition, especially from the introduction to the notes accompanying the narratives and photographs. James Mill and not John Stuart Mill is the author of The History of British India (p 104). The number of editorial mistakes also crosses the threshold of acceptable errors. Different styles of referencing are followed, names of authors are spelt differently in the same essay (Sreekumar pp 19 and 28; Kapoor pp 28 and 33) or b etween essays (Saradamoni and Saradamony); references do not follow chronology, cited references are absent from the bibliography (p 26).

The strength of this book is its methodo logical pluralism and combination of



qualitative and quantitative methods. The p hoto graphs and narratives support the essays by providing a glimpse into the everyday processes of the social construction of gender.

If the first generation of gender and development research denied any automatic connection between economic growth and gender equality, the present work does the same to human development i ndicators. It shows that these indicators have not enabled women to question and reverse unequal power relations. It exposes the fetishism with figures that guide “progressive” agendas and informs crude conclusions about something as complex as “status”. It is an important resource for the body of research which demonstrates that only policies informed by an understanding of entrenched power structures and explicitly target it can produce transformative and empowering outcomes. Its wide-angled overview drawing upon a range of recent academic work on Kerala opens up many possibilities for further d etailed research.



1 See Schüler 2006 for difficulties with construction of GEM and the misuse of GDI as a gender equality measure.

2 One such attempt to develop a GEM is by Mehta (1996), but she uses indicators different from the UNDP.


Banerjee, Nirmala (1999): “Analysing Women’s Work under Patriarchy” in Sangari, Kumkum and Uma Chakravarti (ed.), From Myths to Markets: Essays on Gender (New Delhi: Manohar).

Kapadia, Karin (ed.) (2002): The Violence of Development: The Politics of Identity, Gender and Social Inequalities in India (New Delhi: Kali for Women).

Mehta, Asha Kapoor (1996): “Recasting Indices for Developing Countries: A Gender Empowerment Measure”, Economic & Political Weekly, October 26.

Schüler, Dana (2006): “The Uses and Misuses of the Gender-related Development Index and Gender Empowerment Measure: A Review of the Literature”, Journal of Human Development, Vol 7, No 2, July.

Swaminathan, Padmini (2002): “The Violence of G ender-Biased Development: Going Beyond S ocial and Demographic Indicators” in Kapadia (2002).

Economic & Political Weekly

March 7, 2009 vol xliv no 10

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