If Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was a voice against the notion that women are incapable of producing truly great art due to the lack of intellectual freedom, economist Bina Agarwal’s Gender Challenges is a voice against the invidious notion that women are somehow less efficient overall than men.
While Gender Challenges may not be a poetically-inclined and slim volume as Woolf’s was, it remains equally impassioned in its concerns. Agarwal backs her study with decades’ worth of labour, research, data analysis and field work. And through these essays, collected in a three-volume compendium, she aims to challenge certain standard economic analysis models and assumptions from a gender perspective.
A packed hall at Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) was proof that this much-awaited book is set to be one of the more prominent releases of the year. In her opening address during the launch event, Agarwal said: “Inequalities are not just social but they are also economic; they influence the distribution and access to resources. We must question the popular assumptions about gender outcomes and test those assumptions with evidence.”
The book was released by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who was joined by the acclaimed novelist and poet Vikram Seth. Also present at the occasion was Renana Jhabvala, a social worker and chairperson of SEWA Bharat.
Sen has himself written many articles on the issue of gender inequality, with women’s education and healthcare being his focus. He said that he admires his fellow economist’s work. “Bina and I have worked together for a long time,” Sen said. “I think she is quite right in emphasising on the emanation that you get with this kind of analysis. It not only questions standard economics but also enlightens it.”
Gender inequality and social injustice, so goes Agarwal’s argument, are closely connected to each other. Women must be provided equal opportunities to shape their own lives rather than being left to live as passive observers who let the other sex master their lives. Seth, whose new novel A Suitable Girl—a sequel to his 1993 book A Suitable Boy—is due this year, seemed to be in a jolly mood when his turn to speak came. After joking a little about being an economist in his previous incarnation, Seth said, “I greatly admire the work Bina has done not only in this book but also in her other books. These are quite distinct volumes, as Amartya said. These essays are influential, intellectual and path breaking. I think their implications are yet to be absorbed fully. The ethical responsibility of a feminist economist, for instance, is to make sure that the research findings are being shared to help women’s life. And for the research to benefit people, it needs to travel beyond academia to governmental and non-governmental points where policies are formulated and interventions are made.”
Agarwal’s latest compendium of essays was released at Delhi’s India International Centre by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who was joined by the acclaimed novelist and poet Vikram Seth. Also present at the occasion was Renana Jhabvala, a social worker and chairperson of SEWA Bharat.
The need for an approach towards gender analysis to tackle various social issues stems from the fact that women today are being subjected to multifarious injustices and discriminations. Cases of domestic violence and rape are on the rise in towns and cities. In rural India, where more than half of the country’s population lives, is still untouched by the modern ideas of gender equality.
Gender equality is constantly overlooked when it comes to inheritance of property under the prevalent patriarchal system (especially in rural India) of our society. Although there are laws in place to safeguard their rights, in most cases women have no means to access the knowledge pertaining to their rights—illiteracy being the main cause of it.
Renana Jhabvala said, “Bina was way ahead of us. When we looked at property, education, employment, income and healthcare with a gender perspective; property seemed to be a tricky one. She was working on property, opening the eyes of people with data and laws. Later we found out through data gatherings that if you have property you are less likely to be subjected to domestic violence.”
A recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award, Agarwal is known for approaching the science of economics from a feminist angle. This is contrary to the economic thought that prevails today, tending as it does to keep aside the role women can play in the nation’s progress.
Gender Challenges comprises a selection of essays written over three decades, combining diverse disciplines, methodologies, and cross-country comparisons. The first volume spans varied dimensions of the author’s writings on agrarian change from 1981 to the present day. It identifies gender inequalities after the advent of modern practices in agriculture across Asia and Africa. It also identifies the links between women, poverty, and economic growth processes. More importantly, it details data biases in measuring women’s work or contribution. While focusing on the key role of women farmers in food security, it also offers innovative solutions including public land banks and group farming.
The second volume focuses on the author’s paradigmatic work on women’s property status in South Asia which challenges conventional approaches to women empowerment. It demonstrates how promoting access to property, especially land, is key to enhancing women’s economic and social well-being. The approach can deter domestic violence women are subjected to. It outlines gender inequalities in inheritance laws, public policies, and land struggles. It also presents the bargaining framework for understanding and finding ways of overcoming these inequalities within families and both in markets as well as communities.
The third volume traces the relationship between gender and environmental change. Critiquing eco-feminist assumptions, it presents an alternative theoretical framework. In conclusion, Agarwal reflects on the features of feminist scholarship which pose an effective challenge to mainstream economics.