1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

Understanding Gender and Agrarian Change under Liberalization: The Case of India (Draft)

Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

The neo-liberal turn in recent decades has ushered in policies of liberalisation, deregulation and commercialisation across the world, and the consequences have been complex and contradictory for development goals of poverty and inequality reduction. Understanding these effects is methodologically difficult, but in spite of the complexity and the challenges, it is very important that we try to grasp these connections in the interests of more effective and equitable policy. This paper will focus on India, rather than the whole of south Asia, because the diversity of experience across the region may obscure the relations we seek to uncover, and because India is both a very large and a paradigmatic developing country. It will first consider what liberalisation has meant in practice in India, with a focus on agricultural reforms, and will then discuss some of the methodological complexities of seeking connections between liberalisation and particular gendered outcomes. The main part of the paper then considers how gendered rural livelihoods are changing and what is happening to forms of social reproduction.

Gender marks a primary form of social differentiation and inequality, and Karin Kapadia has linked liberalisation to ‘an erosion of women’s rights and social status …and a deterioration in women’s position in contemporary India’, a claim which we hope this paper will explore in some detail, although the material one would have wanted for such an exercise remains very limited, and it generally offers a sex disaggregated account, rather than gender analysis.

The degree of variation between states and cross cutting agroecological domains in rural India, with their particular histories, makes any analysis of gender relations a complex task. In addition, within these spatial and temporal locations class, caste and ethnicity create distinctive kinship and marriage patterns constitutive of very different gender relations. These are often reduced to comparisons between the more subordinated women of north Indian cultures and less subordinated women of south India, although Unnithan-Kumar points out that contrasts between north and south India can be overdrawn. Her Rajasthan material on the Girasia ‘indicates that the differences between north and south India are not necessarily that absolute. …[t]he distinction is perhaps a primarily text-based one, but when we look at popular practices it is not so clear’. Despite variations between regions there are however trajectories of change which appear to have considerable reach; sanskritisation amongst lower castes and ‘tribes’, the spread of dowry into new social spaces, the deepening of son preference and consequent masculinisation of landed rural households, as well as positive changes such as rising age at marriage, closing gender gaps in education, and rising life expectancy.