Does Gender-Just Policy Enhance Women’s Well-Being? Theoretical Explorations of Gender and Evidence from Policy Intervention in India

Khanna, Tina (2014). 'Does Gender-Just Policy Enhance Women's Well-Being? Theoretical Explorations of Gender and Evidence from Policy Intervention in India' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Gender equality has been at the cutting edge of development discourse over the last two decades. It remains a core concern in the Capability Approach espoused by Amartya Sen (1982), and expanded further by Martha Nussbaum (2000). For feminist this approach is valuable as they seek to engage and deliberate upon questions of gender equity and justice within the capabilities approach framework i.e. - 'Do men and women have real freedom and equal opportunities to realize their full potential as human beings'? The proposed paper will center stage the relevance of gender theory in investigating ways in which unequal gender norms prevent women to convert capabilities into functioning. Second, it will explore whether gender-just policies results in expansion of capabilities for women and enhance their well-being in India.


Gender inequality is deeply ingrained and is a pervasive feature of human society, although it varies in its extent and form across different countries. Feminists have played a critical role in unraveling the causes/factors that perpetuate these inequalities. By debunking the biological determinism argument that justifies and naturalizes inequality between men and women based on biological and natural differences, feminists have illustrated that gender is socially constructed and culturally learned. Simone de Beauvoir, one of the most influential figures pronounced that 'one is not born, but rather becomes a woman' (1989). She emphasizes the opinion that ideally it is not one's physiological composition but their subjectivity that should decide their identification with a certain gender. But the freedom for such subjective identification is not always granted by society. Patterns of socialization force women to conform to their gender identity, i.e., their social experience severely limit their individual experience of themselves, leaving them bereft of the choice of self-determination. Therefore, unlike men, women do not have the freedom and opportunity to realize their full potential as 'human beings'. By deconstructing gender as a social construct feminists have made an important contribution by illuminating that gender differences are open to intervention and transformation. They claim equal rights and equal opportunity to promote gender equity and social justice. This understanding and knowledge is critical to engender policies and programs interventions – which can expand and create better opportunities and choices for women for their well-being.


Across South Asia, the last two decades have seen progressive legislation and policies to safeguard women's rights, and to promote their well-being. In India, quota-based reservation for women in local elected bodies (Panchayati Raj Institutions- PRIs) is one of the progressive policy enacted by the government to encourage women's participation and their well-being. Governance in India is imbued with a predominantly patriarchal character, and this is reflected in the fact that women are poorly represented in elected bodies across all levels of governance. Quota-based reservation in local governance therefore provides an opportunity for women to function in a role hitherto unimagined by them due to their adaptive preference. Important questions thus arise when considering whether such affirmative action has resulted in women's participation and their well-being?


Empirical studies conducted in India have exposed both limitations and gains to women's entry and participation in PRIs. Women who join governance suffer from capability deprivation for instance lack of education and limited exposure outside home deprives women of basic capabilities and functioning's in fundamental ways. There are serious forms of un-freedom hidden within families that has potential impact on women's participation and well-being. Social barriers such oppressive patriarchal structures, physical violence in public and domestic spheres and household work and child care constrain their ability to fulfill their governance roles (Jayal, 2006). Also, women from socially disadvantageous groups namely schedule caste and tribes suffer from capability deprivation spawned by caste dynamics. In addition to social barriers, women continue to suffer from a number of institutional constraints namely inadequate devolution of functions, lack of financial and planning autonomy, bureaucratic influence. These barriers adversely affect women's participation and their ability to articulate women's interest and their well-being (Mukhopadhyay, 2005). A host of studies have also highlighted promising gains for women in terms of their expansion of capabilities and achieved functioning. Some of these include increased self-confidence for women, spatial mobility, develop social networks, increased and improved status in the family and community, increased decision making within households (Jayal, 2006). The biggest gain is seen in terms of perception shift for women being seen performing public role as elected representative beyond their traditional gender roles.


The second part of the proposed paper (through a survey of empirical qualitative and quantitative studies) seeks to examine the influence of quota-based reservation in enhancing women's capabilities and well-being and the associated barriers by applying the lens of capabilities approach. In doing so it will critically explore few aspects of central capabilities suggested by Nussbaum (2000), and elaborated further by Robeyns (2003). These include but not limited to bodily integrity, freedom of spatial mobility, psychological functioning, and political empowerment. The paper also seeks to highlight the relevance of gender-just policies as they are necessary however for several reasons they are not adequate or sufficient to meet the goal of gender equality and women's well-being.

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