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Middlebury College

Publication Date

Spring 2007

Program Name

India: Culture and Development


“Economic independence is the password to women’s empowerment.”

Sathi Nair, a Senior Administrative Services official in Andhra Pradesh.

Twenty or so women sit peacefully on a cool cement floor at the Kutumb program center in Benares, India. The room floats like an oasis above the dusty heat of the street, and unobstructed light pours in through a large window. The women, heads bowed, black hair shining, are stitching and measuring, brows furrowed in concentration despite the lull of the lazy afternoon. They have come to learn a skill in order to make extra income, to be around women, exchange advice and stories from the everyday, and to escape the grit of the outdoor neighborhood, which sizzles like a pot of frying snacks and glistens like a car hood baking in the heat. Some women unveil themselves as they enter the room. All of look up as I enter, and smile when I offer a meek “Namaste.”

I have spent time in villages with female youth group leaders, with teachers championing for health education, with women writing PHDs on sex-workers, and with women who wake up every day to milk their cows and care for their crops. And the more I learn about how women are shaping the world, the more I feel energized to tell their stories. We are, after all, coping with a history that has hidden many of these stories for too long. Even as legal institutions around the world promise to provide equal opportunities for women, the enforcement of these laws often becomes relaxed due to ingrained social norms about a woman’s place or duty. However, remaining in her traditional “place,” the domestic sphere, does not always allow a woman to expand the potential of her mind, realize her ambitions, or contribute to the healthy development of the community that surrounds her.

Sophomore year at Middlebury College I read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom and realized that even one of the world’s greatest economists saw empowering women as a critical step in combating poverty and developing the third world in progressive and “freedom” focused way. Sen gave words to what I had sensed since the beginning of my interest in development and social work: without focusing energy on addressing gender issues, the steps leading us towards healthy societies will crumble and fall. Martha Nussbaum, another noted economist, agrees, and writes that international political and economic thought should be “feminist, attentive (among other things) to the special problems women face in more or less every nation in the world.” There is also ample proof that increasing female economic and social status decreases infant mortality rates, reduces fertility rates (lowering population), and allows women to become instrument of social change. Development efforts should attend to gender imbalances both for the betterment of women’s lives and for the betterment of society as a whole.

In Development as Freedom, Sen describes how women suffer in poor environments due to their states of dependency, illiteracy, and unequal opportunities. He stresses that agency, for both women and men, should be the goal for development. Agency describes the freedom an individual has to do and be whatever they desire. Dr. Ranjana Sheel, who wrote a PhD about women’s studies at Benares Hindu University, describes agency as “control over one’s body and environment.” If women can become agents, or possess unhindered choice in every decision they make, they can realize their full potential as independent individuals and contributors to their communities.

There is evidence that women who support themselves economically have a better chance at expanding their agency within their families and in their communities. As Sen writes,

Working outside and earning an independent income tend to have a clear impact on enhancing

the social standing of a woman in the household and the society. Her contribution to the prosperity of the family is then more visible, and she also has more voice, because of being less dependent on others. Further, outside employment often has useful ‘educational’ effects, in terms of exposure to the world outside the household, thus making her agency more effective.

As many post-development critics are quick to point out, money alone is not enough to reverse or revive the trends that keep women poor, such as illiteracy, patriarchy, and cultural traditions. Feminist critic Christine Koggel writes: “measuring women’s increased participation in the workplace does not give us the whole story about the effect on their well-being or agency.” For a fuller picture, Koggel suggests that we examine how women’s work is embedded in local practices and social institutions. In short, a woman’s experience in the workplace depends on location and culture-specific dynamics that do not always guarantee more agency. A study done in Ahmedabad, India, for example, showed that within the informal sector, women cope with less mobility, less access to information, less human capital, and lower pay than men in similar positions.

My interest in working women in India has roots in my interest in working women everywhere. But this is not a paper on working women in just any place in India. The country is far too diverse, ever shifting, always transforming itself. Benares, also known as Varanasi or Kashi, city of light, is a city in Uttar Pradesh known for its ancient history, spiritual sites, and diversity. Some working women in Benares are trying to reconcile the attention needed by their families with the need or desire to support themselves financially. Others seem bent on following the traditional route of marriage, domestic work, and raising a good family. After my experience was all over, I realized that the backdrop I chose shaped the study in more ways than I could have planned. Perhaps backdrop is now an inadequate word. My experience is inextricable from a specific community in Benares, and the women I observed are bound to their communities and cultures. The limitations I set for myself during this study- observing women in a sector of Benares- allowed me to zone in on a small group of women over a very short period of time. Any analysis of my experience applies only to this group of women. Yet the issues at hand- poverty, tradition versus modernity, education, feminist economics, and overall, women’s employment-have all become buzzwords in the piping hot topic of development in India.

My purpose, then, was to observe the dynamics of a group of women trying to strengthen the skills necessary to become self-employed, and also to investigate how their self-employment has affected their sense of agency both within their families and within their communities. Does self-employment necessarily empower women? What are the constraints of women working in the informal sector? Do employed women have a heightened awareness of and responsibility towards the problems in their community? I predicted that self-employment could help women possess more agency, but my observations showed that the concept of agency is multi-faceted and difficult to pin down. My results display how women may simultaneously act as agents of change while still lacking total control over their own decisions due to familial obligations or cultural norms. By using an ethnographic approach, I sought to illustrate the experiences of a small group of women rather than analyze statistics over an entire community or city.


Gender and Sexuality | Growth and Development | Inequality and Stratification


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