Male Professor Conducts Survey of Women’s Place in Contemporary India


Professor Amartya Sen is well recognised for having added a strongly moral dimension to the discipline of economics. What is rather less stated is the consistency with which he has brought gender into his economic analysis, causing some to even salute him as a “feminist economist”.

Both these attributes – the moral dimension and the gender concern – informed the JRD Tata Memorial Oration, hosted by the Population Foundation of India (PFI) that he delivered recently in Delhi, wherein he undertook a magisterial survey of women’s place in contemporary India. Entitled ‘Women and Other People’, it revealed that the Nobel laureate in his 78th year is as engaged as ever with making sense of the world – particularly of the country of his birth and its social and economic evolution.

The position of women in India has long been a source of disquiet for Sen since he regards gender equity and equality as fundamental for social development. He began his talk by stating that he found it hard to accept the fact that the biological fact of women having to play a reproductive role in society should deprive them of their freedom to do other things with their lives.

This led him to interrogate the family and unpack it, layer by layer, deploying economic models and analogies as he went along. Men and women, he observed, have both “congruent and conflicting interests” within the family. Since there are extensive areas of congruence, families typically arrive at a compromise by seeking the cooperation of both men and women, and coming up with some agreed solutions to tackle the areas of conflict.

Such family arrangements are usually grounded in what Sen termed as “cooperative conflict”. Some of these arrangements are particularly unfavourable to women, and if the cooperation is to such kinds of division it can yield tremendous gender inequality. The fact that women conceive and produce children makes them more dependent on the harmony of the family and less demanding of their fair share of the family’s joint benefit. They end up, therefore, getting the worst end of the bargain.

Here Sen drew on the analogy of globalisation, which is often presented as benefitting all countries equally but which, in fact, has some countries gaining very little and others gaining very much. What makes the situation of women perhaps even more complex is the fact that this conflict is well-hidden in various cultures of family living. Dwelling on conflicts, rather than on family unity, tends to be seen as aberrant behaviour. Apart from this, women themselves are sometimes unable to assess the extent of their own deprivation.

Having reviewed the bad “deal” that women get, Sen went on to analyse how their contribution to family prosperity in terms of “home work” is consistently undervalued. To address these inequalities and inequities that blight women’s lives within the family, Sen underlined the importance of women’s ability to earn independent incomes outside the home. This, of course, is linked crucially to their levels of literacy and education. Ownership of property can also add to the influence and power exercised within the family. In fact, for Sen, all these attributes together add to women’s agency, independence and a stronger role in decision-making within the household and beyond.

Women’s enhanced decision-making powers are particularly significant. As Sen put it, “From the crude barbarity of physical violence against women, to the complex instrumentalities of her neglect, the deprivation of women is not only linked to the lower status of women but also to the fact that women often lack the power to influence the behaviour of other members of society and the operation of social institutions”. But in order that women can work outside the home, they need both institutional support, in terms of child care, as indeed social acceptance of such a course.

What is important to note here is that gender equality is not for the well-being of women alone, it has direct impacts on national development. Sen cited the fact that reduction of birth rates has often followed enhancement of women’s status and power that are most constrained by frequent child bearing. “Any social change that brings voice, not just to women in general but young women in particular, has a tremendous impact on fertility decisions,” he said.

Bangladesh is a good example of the close link between enhanced women’s agency and positive national outcomes in Sen’s assessment. He devoted a good part of the JRD Tata oration in considering how that country had proved wrong the prophets of doom who had once seen it as a “basket case”.

Although Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world, it has made rapid progress particularly over the last 20 years, overtaking India in terms of the most crucial social indicators – including the gender specific mortality rate – despite having a GDP half that of India’s and a public expenditure that is a mere 10 per cent.

So what did Bangladesh do right? A significant clue, Sen said, lay in a sustained policy change in gender relations – measured in terms of the levels of school participation of girls and workforce participation of adult women. “It looks as if we can conclude that Bangladesh would have been a very different country and far less successful if it was not for the positive role played by women,” he remarked.

But gender agency, even where it exists, can often be restrained by a lack of access to information and knowledge and also by the absence of courage and temerity to think differently. It is only when women’s agency is marked by the ability of independent thought that it acquires the power to end inequities that feed into social practices and arrangements accepted as part and parcel of an assumed “natural” order. This is where Sen touched upon the vexed issue of sex selective abortions in Asia. It is striking that despite China and South Korea having achieved high levels of female literacy and economic independence of women, both countries have been unable to stem the tide of inequality in the form of sex selective abortions of female foetuses, although South Korea has made some progress in its attempts to counter the trend.

India, too, while it has seen a reduction in excess female mortality, is witnessing the growing tendency of new technologies being used to abort female foetuses, and women’s education alone has not been able to address it. This seems to suggest that combating the trend would require not just freedom of action, but freedom of thought.

Sen, who was the first academic internationally to examine the concept “missing women”, is presently grappling with the data thrown up by India’s 2011 census on child sex ratios. His talk reflected his recent thoughts on the conundrum. Taking the German ratio of 94.8 girls to 1000 boys as the cut off mark, he finds it intriguing that the 2011 census repeated a pattern first registered in the 2001 census, in which the states of the north and west had a child sex ratio that was substantially lower than the German cut off, while the states in the east and south of India had a sex ratio around the German cut off. As Sen put it, “I was struck by the fact that this difference within the country is very different from just the classical distinction between the north and the south.”

This is yet another riddle about “women and other people” that continues to intrigue Sen. But he is not discouraged by questions. He concluded his talk with the words, “We will never get the right answers, if we don’t ask the right questions.”

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