Saturday, January 7, 2012

Power is Money and Money is Power?

Paid Work. Photo Courtesy: Commonwealth Foundation

The road to equality in rights, in ability to exercise those rights, and in being able to obtain redress when rights are violated is a story of crossovers of human rights not often recognized. Often, protection of a particular right is seen as enough. For example, many believe that if women are ‘bestowed’ with economic rights it will end the discriminations against girls and violations of women’s human rights. The rationale behind this thinking is that money gives a person power. In other words, पैसा बोलता है!

It is correct that economic empowerment of the vast majority, especially in a poverty-ridden context such as India, is a critical need that must be met. More so when we have all data to see that the income gap has worsened in the last decade. But the limitations of the economic empowerment approach as an isolated-strategy, as far as girls and women are concerned, are also out there to see. The limitations exist in the form of dowry-murders of educated and employed women, double-whammy of paid work and unpaid household work that economically empowered women have to suffer, denial of certain civil rights like ‘equal parenthood’ to married/divorcee women, demands to write ‘father’s/husband’s name’ in any and every document with a bit of legality involved and so on. The fact that women who bring dowry get killed for bringing ‘less than expected dowry’ or ‘no more dowry’ shows that women, when it comes to money, are seen as conduits to bring money or sources of unpaid work that would save and build up money of their husband/father and the rest. This is why women have such poor control over their resources and income. This means that women's ability to earn an income or bring resources home cannot be equated with or assumed to mean control of income and an ability to own, use, and dispose material assets. The question is what is preventing women from using money as power ever so often?

Unpaid Work. Photo Courtesy:
Socio Economic Research Institute
At the immediate level, household relationships affect women's ability to control their income. Prevailing codes of gender relationships may place the husband/father/another male recognized as having rights over a women in control of all or some income/resources of a woman. Women are often not involved in the savings, investment or expenditure related discussions and decision-making. When their name is added to ownership documents, it is usually to benefit from the certain taxation policies. It is also not unusual to find that majority women are still given a fixed sum every month by their husbands to run the kitchen even if the income has been earned by women. And this does not happen only in the rural or urban slum areas.

The next level that affects women’s economic empowerment from bringing empowerment in the other realms of life can be called the neighbourhood or environmental barrier. This barrier varies in its controlling power from culture to culture, region to region, class to class and sometimes, a bit also from caste to caste.  But, on the whole, this barrier aims to ensure that women’s economic empowerment does not pose a threat to patriarchal family relations.  This barrier exists in the form of socio-cultural practices like early/child marriage; denial of women’s choices with regard to who they would like to marry or whether or not they would like to stay in a marriage; procreation being treated as women’s duty and  determining the number of and spacing between children a male preserve; recognizing descent through male lineage; dime-a-dozen festivals like karwa-chauth and teej, which tell women that they are nothing without their husbands or like raksha-bandhan or rakhi that tell girls they can’t protect themselves and will always need the protection of their brothers; and so on. This barrier works by establishing women as ‘dependents’ and thereby reducing their bargaining power vis-à-vis their male family members and in doing so not recognizing women as equal members of the society.

Agriculture Extension. Photo Courtesy:
Institute for Integrated Rural Development
At the outer level, because of the denial or repression of the social and cultural rights, the discrimination against women continues to be evident in the economic fields as well. This includes job market and entrepreneurship opportunities. Denial of equality in the social and cultural realms means that women, without male relatives, have limited access to social security; continue to be treated as unwanted children so either get killed in the womb or attract little investment in their health and education, and as a result, have high rates of illiteracy in comparison to men; and live in the extreme poverty and with social exclusion.

In terms of economic impact of the above, women come out as a lower-grade human resource who cannot either meet demands of the job market or match the requisites of the entrepreneurship opportunities because they lack in relevant skills and education and do not have collaterals of offer. Where women are qualified to meet these demands, they are seen as incapable because of gender stereotypes. Sometimes, the job market cannot reject women on grounds of qualifications or a perceived lack of capacity due to the affirmative legal provisions but employers still go ahead and under-pay or deny equal opportunities to women because they are confident that the justice system will be inaccessible to women. 

The cumulative impact of the above is also felt on their political participation, which is no small deal. Limited or restricted political participation affects women’s ability to protect and promote their rights through public policies, laws and oversight. It prevents them from holding their elected representatives and the governance system accountable to them.

The basic problem is that discrimination against girls and women is engrained the socio-cultural, economic and political fabric of the country. The discriminations are deep-seated beliefs and practices that have been institutionalized. They are what may be termed as structural inequalities. These inequalities are pervasive in all public and private spheres, including the economy, education, labour, health, justice and decision-making and so on. These inequalities do not occur in isolation rather crossover from one sector to another and act simultaneously.

So what do we take from the fact that women have less means than men to satisfy basic needs like education, training, food, access to housing and to the specialized health services, like, safe child-birth, pre and post natal medical facilities, contraception, and women specific diseases; that they are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence; and that they have limited options when it comes to finding decent work and having a voice in shaping public in their countries? In my opinion, it shows the defeat of the isolated-strategies and calls for multi-pronged concerted strategies for promoting and protecting all of women’s human rights. 

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