Menon, Nikhila (2014). 'IS 'MOBILITY A CAPABILITY'? : EXAMINING GENDERED MOBILITY AND AUTONOMY OF INFORMAL WOMEN WORKERS IN FISHERIES SECTOR IN KERALA, INDIA' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Globalisationhascreated numerous informal work arrangements across the world which improved the mobility of women in terms of facilitating movement outside the household for paid work. Economists and sociologistshaveargued that paid work outside the household improves women's earning capacity, thereby their sense of self-worth and decision making capacity or autonomy. Developing countries being labour surplus economies have seen substantial growth in informal work with significant percentage of women workers employed in informal sector. Scholars have opined that movement outside the household, which is mobility associated with work improves the agency of women through greater exposure to outside world (Sen: 1999). However, at several instances it can be seen that mobility associated with work has not necessarily translated to wellbeing of women workers, especially in the case of informal work which hasexploitative wages and working conditions.


Mobility defined as the freedom and ability to move is constrained for women in many cultures across the world. It has intrinsic value and substantial role in human development. However, in the development studies domain, the focus on mobility of women has been negligible and gendered mobility has remained as one of the indicators used to measure specific aspects of women's autonomy. The existing studies have not attempted to measure mobility of women as a single construct as experienced by women belonging to diverse socio-economic and cultural contexts. Therefore, this paper aims to examine whether mobility associated with informal work is a capability for women and tries to measure women's mobility as a single construct and analyses its linkages to household autonomy (decision-making) of women in the context of Kerala, India.


The paper introduces the concept of 'transformational mobility' as a capability which enhances real freedoms for movement wherein all decisions on mobility vests on oneself. The main question that the paper examines is whether mobility associated with informal work is a capability and is it 'transformational' for women workers. It also tries to examine how 'transformational mobility' improves women's household autonomy in the cultural context of Kerala. Based on Sen's capability approach, I argue that not all mobility associated with work can become transformational for women. In the light of informal women workers in the micro level fisheries sector, the paper empirically proves that paid work and the mobility associated with informal work are not transformational for majority of women and have not improved household autonomy of women in the state of Kerala. Kerala is a unique setting with positive development indicators for women and active unionisation of workers and the paper is based on the field study of the informal women workers in the pre-processing units in the fisheries sector in the socially progressive state of Kerala.


In this paper,a new measure of mobility is introduced using Rasch rating scale model which uses a mathematical framework to measure the item responses by individuals on a likert scale for measuring the mobility of women workers. It is an innovative method in development studies which enables measurement of mobility of women as experienced by them as a single construct based on the responses to questions on mobility from the primary survey which I conducted in Kerala. Further, the pathways to autonomy of women with transformational mobility are analysed using crisp set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). It examines the combination of causal conditions which bring about transformational mobility among informal women workers in the context of Kerala based on the qualitative interviews and the survey data which enable an in-depth understanding of mobility and autonomy of women on a case-oriented manner.


This paper provides an alternative view to the existing understanding of gendered mobility and its linkages to household autonomy of informal women workers. It empirically proves that transformational mobility is distinctly absent and mobility associated with informal work is not a capability for women workers in fisheries in Kerala, India. The paper highlights that the positive role attributed to informal work and the mobility associated with paid work in enhancing the autonomy of women workers is suspect. 


Mobility remains gendered and when it is associated with the demeaning informal work in fisheries in Kerala, it does not improve the household dynamics which are still governed by patriarchal social structure and gender norms. From the policy perspective the paper highlights that with increased availability of work in informal settings it is important to focus on the quality of work generated to improve the self-esteem and well-being of women workers.