Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009
K. Elango, A. Ayyam Perumal & J. Mohan Raj

Emerging Issues on Gender and Women Development

Delhi: Abhijeet Publications, 2008
ISBN: 978-81-89886-67-7 (cloth); viii+190 pp.; price: INR 480

reviewed by Namita Paul

  1. Emerging Issues on Gender and Women Development explores some of the key questions and debates about the relationship between gender and development in South Asia, an area, which is much neglected in Development Studies. What makes the book interesting is the fact that the writers examine the cost of gender inequality in terms of social, political and economic losses to South Asian countries and offer a diverse range of culturally sensitive solutions for the specific issues of the region.
  2. However, two major flaws mar this somewhat perceptive book considerably. First, the book is full of typographical and grammatical errors that make reading it a cumbersome exercise. Anyone who has ever corrected a carelessly written paper will understand that the urge to correct the language very often relegates the substance of the content to the background. The other, more serious flaw of the book is the idolisation of women, which is as destructive of gender equality as the demonising of women. Take for example the first chapter of the book where the authors write, 'Women in India is considered as a holy and pious symbol. To give topmost importance in the society is dating from in immemorial period. Great Epics Like Ramayana, and Mahabharata women are considered as a worshipful and spiritual Goddess' [sic] (p. 1). Apart from the innumerable grammatical, syntactical and lexical errors, the easy acceptance of the categorisation of women as 'worshipful and spiritual Goddess' is illustrative of a dangerous tendency in the book. This propensity to essentialise women and entrap them in seemingly venerable roles dehumanises them, because idols and Goddesses, after all, are lifeless.
  3. The book is divided into five chapters and contains a functional bibliography. In the first chapter 'Changes in Livelihoods of Women Economic Activity' the writers emphasise the importance of assessing the effectiveness of development policies not only in terms of achievement of project objectives and poverty reduction, but also in terms of their contribution to the reduction of gender discrimination. They set the groundwork by quoting from various sources to establish that policies that take into account gender relations are more effective in the long run. This is followed by an analysis of poverty diagnostic data, which is not gender segregated and, therefore, leads to the statistical invisibility of women. Poor conceptualisation of women's labour hides their contribution to the Gross Domestic Product, in spite of the fact that they work for longer hours. Macroeconomic analysis brings about a limited amount of change in the policies of formal institutions, but fails to acknowledge informal constraints on women inscribed in unwritten codes of conduct.
  4. The writers use Pierre Bourdieu's theories to demonstrate how the idea of culture is used in patriarchal societies to constrain women's mobility and enhance social, political and economic control over them. But it is noteworthy that the writers have not heeded Bourdieu themselves and have characterised Indian culture as a monolith, where women are revered as 'Holy Mother' (p. vii), an archetype that perpetuates gender inequality by insisting on the maternal and domestic role of women above all else. Nevertheless, the writers do present some useful data, which compares the changes in women's status in employment in various South Asian countries. Of special importance is the growth rate of women employed in the informal sectors, which has actually widened gender wage differentials, with women being paid less than men. Another important aspect is the relationship between migration and gender disparities and the writers evaluate the position of female migrant workers. Although their evaluation is an astute one, they overemphasise the alienation of female migrant workers in the context of their failure to look after their own families. This might be true for some women, but the guilt that some women might feel cannot be attributed to all female migrant workers in such a generalised manner, especially since the writers do not provide enough evidence for the same. A more in-depth study of the exploitation of female migrant workers in their host country might have been more constructive. However, the writers must be given credit for emphasising the significance of women's agency in bringing about real changes rather than just institutional changes. With more access to Microfinance, the building of women's self help groups, effective participation in community forums, and measures to curb violence and discrimination, it is possible to bring about social transformation.
  5. In Chapter Two, the writers establish the importance of land inheritance as a major form of land acquisition in South Asia and its function in structuring social relations. With a dominance of patrilineal systems, women suffer due to allocational disparities. According to the writers, structural changes in economies brought about by an emphasis on free trade, and the treatment of assets, such as, land and water as economic goods has affected the poor adversely and has proved detrimental to the interests of women. The writers propagate 'Gender mainstreaming': moving the concerns of women from the periphery to the centre to overcome marginalisation. They also state that it is important to focus on the sustainability of gains, which can only be achieved by ensuring that an asset base exists for women. They also argue that it is imperative to ensure that men support new initiatives because changes often lead to a crisis of masculinities resulting in violence against women who choose to participate in new initiatives.
  6. Chapter Three has a very misleading title 'Microfinance is a "Magic Bullet" for a Woman's Empowerment,' because the writers themselves concede that there is no such thing as a cure-all 'magic bullet'. In this chapter they examine microfinance and delineate its failures and successes. For the writers, the philosophy underlying the provision of financial support makes a huge difference to the outcome. The writers take a broad view and write about the different kinds of microfinance organisations and their methods of addressing the phenomenon of institutional exclusion. At the same time they concede that microfinance does not always reach the poorest, especially women. Even when women do manage to join microfinance groups and get loans, they do not necessarily have full control over the use of the loan. Nevertheless, microfinance does have a positive impact on women's role in decision-making and their reproductive rights. There is also a wider social impact with the creation of trust between members belonging to different castes, access to government programs and increase in political participation. The writers conclude by saying that microfinance organisations can provide a security net for the poor but they will be unsuccessful without policies that promote pro-poor growth. This chapter provides a nuanced assessment of the issues discussed in spite of the overenthusiastic title.
  7. The writers go on to discuss the pros and cons of commonly used Equality-of-Gender indicators in Chapter Four. They begin by defining poverty, exclusion and empowerment using a multidimensional approach that incorporates not only economic factors but also social and cultural features. Indicators like HDI (Human Development Index), HPI (Human Poverty Index), GDI (Gender Development Index) and POPI (Poverty of Oppurtunity Index) are discussed and their limitations are established. The first step towards removing gender disparities is to make the disparities visible and, therefore, it is essential to have reliable and comprehensive indicators that correctly quantify imbalances. This however is no easy task, but as the writers correctly point out it is necessary so that development policies can be formulated keeping in mind the broad needs of women. The writers take a step towards constructing such indicators by listing economic, political, social and cultural markers of the impact on gender relations. A large section of this chapter investigates violence against women and its effect on the physical, psychological and economic well being of women. Such an investigation is a welcome addition especially because the writers look at customary practices like honour killings, the practice of sati and child marriage, which are endemic in South Asian countries and need to be studied more meticulously.
  8. Finally, the writers conclude in Chapter Five by looking at the role of women in governance. They make special note of the South Asian paradox whereby women have been heads of state but their overall political participation is dismal. They discuss the obstacles to women's participation and also underline the importance of overcoming them. The participation of women in local governance is particularly vital because it not only corrects gender disparities but also resolves environmental concerns because women very often are the ones who are most affected by environmental degradation. The writers discuss some of the steps taken by South Asian countries to encourage women to participate in governance and end the chapter on an optimistic note by citing a study, according to which a majority of female politicians in India come from families with no other political representatives, which is evidence of their agency.
  9. Perhaps, Emerging Issues on Gender and Women Development cannot be recommended enthusiastically as an important tool of research in view of the linguistic errors and superficial treatment of important issues concerning gender and development. A meticulous copy-editing would have done immense good to the book. But having said that, I would like to point out that it contains a useful Bibliography and some interesting insights. Therefore, this book can benefit anyone who needs an introduction to Development Studies, the impact of poverty, South Asian economies, and the interaction of all of these with Gender.


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