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Gender and Productive Assets: Implications for Women's Economic Security and Productivity

Asset ownership and control rights are preferable to numerous policy alternatives for women's empowerment. This paper is an attempt at drawing attention to the complex inter-relationship between women agricultural producers and their lack of rights to land and related factors of production. It further explores implications of women's marginal rights to land for their economic security and agricultural productivity.


Gender and Productive Assets: Implications for Women’s Economic Security and Productivity

Govind Kelkar

Asset ownership and control rights are preferable to numerous policy alternatives for women’s empowerment. This paper is an attempt at drawing attention to the complex inter-relationship between women agricultural producers and their lack of rights to land and related factors of production. It further explores implications of women’s marginal rights to land for their economic security and agricultural productivity.

Govind Kelkar ( is with UN Women, South Asia Sub-regional Office, New Delhi.

n recent years, Asia has experienced a consistent poverty reducing pattern and low income inequality. A large number of studies noted that China and India have experienced rapid economic growth since the 1990s, and that this is reflected in poverty reduction trends (Tewari 2006; Hirway 2006; Unni and Raveendran 2006; Nathan et al 2008: Gittings 2005; Nagaraj 2005; Kelkar and Nathan 2005; SAARC 2006; Song and Chen 2006; Evans et al 2006; Thorat and Fan 2007). Their public investments in rural areas have significantly contributed to agricultural growth, improvement in real wages and non-farm employment.

However, the picture of overall gains in gender outcomes is more nuanced. Women’s experience of economic growth and macroeconomic reform is mediated through their gendered position within the household and outside, and more so with regard to the distribution of productive assets. There is growing dissatisfaction with market-oriented reforms in these conditions and the growing realisation that these reforms have paid little attention to mechanisms of gender and social equalities.

Despite the impressive economic growth, China and India account for more than 40% of the world’s poor, with a significant majority of women among them. Women agricultural workers are frequently discriminated against in their livelihood security, education and autonomy (Montes and Linder 2007; Kelkar 2007a, b). The gendered distribution of assets and resulting vulnerability of women substantially limits national efforts at overcoming poverty, thus indicating the need for policy attention to address persistent gender discrimination and the weaker starting point by women in ownership and control of productive assets.

In its efforts to end discrimination against women, the Committees on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requires all signatory states (179 of the 185 member countries of the United Nations) to modify or abolish all existing laws, customs, practices and regulations that discriminate against women. Part IV, Para 2 of Articles 15 and 16 of CEDAW, states that all signatory states must (1) “Recognise women’s rights to own, inherit and administer property in their own names;

(2) Provide equal rights for both spouses in respect to ownership, acquisition, management, administration” (UN 1980).

In a regional study of Latin America, Deere and Leon (2001) point out that signing CEDAW has had substantial effects on women’s rights to household assets and community property. “All but three Latin American countries recognise the dual-headed household….Nonetheless, everywhere in the region, there is a disjuncture between women’s formal equality before the law and real equality when it comes to accumulation and management of

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assets” (Deere and Doss 2006: 21). In the context of Asia, China, India and Vietnam have passed formal legislation protecting women’s property rights, including in agricultural land. However, social practices based on traditions and customs work to women’s disadvantage and further act to influence women’s ideology of economic dependence on men and a general reluctance to use the courts for legally provided asset rights.

Asset redistribution is superior to income redistribution. It provides a basis for overcoming distortions in the functioning of markets and for restructuring gender relations in the fields of property rights, access to technology, healthcare and governance. Asset ownership and control rights are preferable to numerous policy alternatives for women’s empowerment. These are likely to bring in changes in public opinion about gender roles and social cultural norms of deep-seated social inequalities of women such as the household division of labour, restraints on women’s speaking in public, constraints on women’s mobility and pervasive gender-based violence within the home and outside.

A review of the policy framework of inclusive growth in the development agenda of China and India needs a fresh look to see if effective efforts are made for rural women’s economic security and realisation of their ownership and control rights to land and other productive assets. This paper is an attempt to understand the complex inter-relationship between women agricultural producers and their lack of rights to land and related factors of production. The paper further explores implications of women’s marginal rights to land for their economic security and agricultural productivity. A recent analysis from China is used to argue that women’s decision-making in agriculture and management of farms does not lead to undermining of income from farms. Policy and practice of gender equality in the market economy of India and China need to address the role of market and private sector in furthering women’s ownership and control rights to agricultural land and related productive assets.

1 Gender and the Asset Question

Many of the feminist economist analyses have demonstrated that household and individual well-being are not necessarily the same

– that individuals living within the same household may have different control of household assets. That lack of control rights on assets shows how economic inequality accumulates over the life course of individuals, affects women’s lower wages and cripples their economic agency and decision-making to manage and innovate with assets. Lack of ownership and control rights to productive assets is increasingly being linked to negative development outcomes, specifically in relation to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Some recent studies point out that there exists a positive correlation between women’s ownership of specific assets and reduced vulnerability to experiencing access to productivity increasing technologies (Shapiro and Wolff 2001; Bhatla et al 2006; Kelkar 2007a, b; World Bank 2008). However, relatively, little research has been undertaken on the gendered distribution of productive assets and to determine how intra-household asset distribution affects women’s economic security and productivity.

There is a need to expand the gender and asset question to include various assets such as land, jewellery, house/homestead,

60 livestock, energy infrastructure and savings. The women’s movement, feminist researchers and civil society organisations in India and China have expressed deep dissatisfaction over current employment policies for failing to incorporate women’s concerns or overlooking gender relations of inequality (Kelkar 2005; Heintz 2006: Song and Zou 2003; Song and Jiggins 2003). They have pointed out two aspects of the process of globalisation: increased labour force participation, a process described as the feminisation of agricultural work and the unequal distribution of employment, with women concentrated in low quality, casualised and informalised work.

Rural women’s ownership and control rights to improved technologies such as planters, rainwater harvesting and grinding mills can increase the productivity of their farming tasks. The 2008 World Development Report – “Agriculture for Development in a Changing World” – notes that “labour regulations are needed that help incorporate a larger share of rural workers into the formal market and eliminate discrimination between women and men”. The World Bank’s rural strategy (2003) suggests that improvements in the well-being of the poor will only be possible through enhancement of their productive, social and environmental assets (World Bank 2003: 40).

Since the renewal of the women’s movement in the 1970s, it has been frequently debated and resolved that women’s subordination and patriarchal gender systems could be combated only if a fundamental change was made concerning women’s existing lack of rights to property and productive assets. Women’s independent right to own and control land and other assets are integrally linked to measures to change the ideology and structures of patriarchy within the family and in social relations. Poor peasant, agricultural labourer, dalit and adivasi women have repeatedly emphasised the need for measures that would enable women to have inalienable rights to land, property and other productive assets and rectify existing wage disparity where women workers are lower paid than men.

In a recent meeting in a village at Maharashtra, a woman farmer stated: “When the land is in my husband’s name, I am only a worker. When it is in my name I have some position in society and my children and husband will respect me. So my responsibility is much greater to my own land and I take care of my fields like my children”.

In a civil society discourse, community perceptions are given weight in participatory assessments even though these reflect social norms and values that tend to overlook gender inequalities in access to resources, voice and women’s vulnerability to violence and economic risks. With regard to community goods and common properties, an alternative to individual titling to land and other productive assets may be collective control and management rights by gender inclusive local community bodies. Also, it needs to be legally ensured that such assets can only be converted to new use with free, prior and informed consent of the majority of women in the local community.

The study of social norms and practices in gender distribution of assets is crucially important to understand the gender equality constraints and possibility of women’s economic development. It is important to examine the gendered distribution of assets,

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because there is concern about the widespread inequality by gender in the emerging economies of Asia. Without specific results based on research findings, it is difficult to say that gender inequality in asset control is the stylised fact of the process of economic development.

While economic growth is considered the most powerful instrument for reducing poverty, the power of social and cultural institutions still helps to determine the extent to which women are included or allowed economic independence, improve their lives free of violence, attain better education and health, and achieve greater control over their lives. Thus, there is a need to ask the question: How should growth strategies (and social institutions) be designed to provide maximal support for development of women? It is increasingly acknowledged that there is a need for inclusion of women in adequate/proportionate number in the management of productive assets and opportunities in the local markets. In the context of growing feminisation of agricultural work and the informal sector, women need appropriate skills and unmediated control of productive assets in order to successfully manage their lives and increase productivity.

The persistence of gender inequality is a problem that is sharper in the fast-growing economies of India and China than in any other emerging economy on such a scale in the world. The inequality of women in the process of development relates closely to their marginal status in asset ownership and control and in employment opportunities. The inequality of women also applies to sex-related mortality rates in China, India and recently noted in Vietnam “providing the bulk of estimated ‘missing women’ in the world” (Sen 2000: 423; UNFPA 2007). The excess of girl child mortality and the widespread practice of patrilineal family system in the two countries result in men’s dominant status in property inheritance, control of residential and agricultural assets in patrilocal household power structures and women’s lower status in family and society.

There is a policy recognition of the seriousness of the problem and major policy measures have been introduced for gender equality and economic empowerment of women. In China, the 2003 Land Contracting Law stipulates clearly that women and men have equal rights in contracting land. Article 30 of the Chinese Land Contracting Law, 2003 says that when a woman marries during the land contracting term, the contract-issuing party cannot take away her original contracted land unless she receives land in the marital village. The land rights of widowed or divor ced women are legally insured. In India, the inheritance laws governing Hindus were reformed through the Hindu Succession Amendment Act 2005, bringing women’s legal equality as daughters to inherit agricultural land. Women as “wives married into the family are still deprived of any share in the coparcenary property as a matter of right” (Lawyer’s Collective Women’s Rights Initiative 2011: 35). In the case of urban households, however, the jointtitling to marital property is reported to have increased women’s bargaining position for intra-household resources (Datta 2006).

It is encouraging to see that the two major economies of Asia have made specific policy efforts at addressing some key aspects of gender inequality However, such policy measures are not sufficient for the provision of secure economic rights to women. In

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practice, these legal measures are not upheld by private and public enforcement or changed customs and traditions favouring inclusion of women in management of production assets. In a context of arguing for the institutional change for economic development Rodrik observed that the key word is “control” rather than “ownership”. “Formal property rights do not count for much if they do not confer control rights. By the same token, sufficiently strong control rights may do the trick even in the absence of formal property rights” (Rodrik 2007: 156).

2 Relevance of the Research: What Kind of Research Has Been Done?

Researchers and women’s organisations have been voicing concerns about the growing assetlessness of women and increasing gender wage disparity. The growing assetlessness, including, landlessness on the part of women, is seen as a result of the policy focus on tenure security for the households and the pre-existing systems of patrilocal residence and patrilineal inheritance rights. Some recent studies directly associated with property rights of women have questioned the policy silence on gender-based disadvantage of women in ownership and control rights to land and productive resources which severely limit their ability to address vulnerability and manage economic options, and thereby, disallowing women to exit from violent relationships (Lawyer’s Collective Women’s Rights Initiative 2011; Bhatla et al 2006; Li and Bruce 2006, Kelkar and Yunxian 2007).

A gender scan of national millennium development goal (MDG) reports of 78 countries noted the critical lack of women’s equality in access to productive assets. “In the majority of countries, women do not have legal rights to land and property, rendering them economically insecure and depriving them of economic returns such as access to credit, decent work and assured income” (UNDP 2005: 6). A notable missing link, however, is the connection between women’s right to productive assets and HIV/AIDS. Women’s vulnerability to the virus is primarily a result of their assetless status (Kelkar 2007a, b). In a situation of having no control over land, house and other productive assets, women become powerless to negotiate safe sex or to resist violence in violation of their sexual and reproductive rights. In rural areas, this is compounded by their limited access to knowledge on how to protect themselves from becoming infected, within and outside marital relations.

The increasing number of micro studies illustrate the relationship between assets and poverty and provide information about distribution of particular type of assets (such as land and livestock) in a particular location. Some recent macro studies have shown that women in rural areas of the concerned countries own a minuscule proportion of land and technology (Kelkar 2007a, b; Linxui et al 2007) which affects their potential for building assets, and perpetuates women’s dependence on men as the household heads with control rights to land and other productive assets. Documentation of gender disparities in ownership and control of productive assets has been of relevance in three research areas.

The first one related to the link between gender-based inequalities in land, capital and education and their adverse impact on women’s ability to make use of opportunities afforded by economic development (World Bank 2001; Dollar and Gatti 1999; Kelkar and Nathan 2003; Agarwal 1994; Ling and Zhongyi 2000). In a four-country study (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia and South Africa) Quisumbing and Maluccio (2003) used recall methods to collect data on assets brought to marriage. In all four cases, men brought more assets or wealth to marriage than women. This asset difference reflected on women’s inequalities within marriage throughout the lifecycle, in terms of women’s limited access to information on new technologies, agricultural extension, preventing diseases of farm animals, and so on. This, in turn, limits the efficiency and income from agricultural activities.

Land reforms in India have a differentiated impact on different rural classes, as well as on men and women within each class. By and large, women have been losers in relation to men of their class. Studies in India indicate that planned changes from rural development and agrarian transformation through land reforms did not succeed in halting the process of decline in the position of peasant women. In a case study of Palakkad district in Kerala, for instance, there was conclusive evidence that changes in land relations from 1920s affected women differently (Sardamoni 1983). During my fieldwork in the late 1980s, in the villages of Etawah district, Uttar Pradesh, Raj Kumari, a chamar woman, sharply remarked, “Women never control any assets …Land is passed on from father to son. Even jewellery that is gifted to a woman on her marriage is not given to her; it is kept by the parents-in-law. If a man dies or remarries, the woman is completely dependent on others for survival (Kelkar 1993: 122).Similar reports came from rural areas of China and Vietnam, where women have been struggling against prejudices of state officials, as well as those of the men of their community, towards women having independent land rights (Wang et al 2003; Tran Thi Que 2000).

A second area of research investigates the implications of gender inequality in intra-household allocation of assets and decision-making process. The unitary household models, expounded originally by Gary Becker in the 1960s (i e, the household is a collection of individuals who have a single set of interests, thereby precluding any conflict or inequality among the members) have been increasingly questioned (Sen 1990; Kelkar 1993; Agarwal 1994; Kabeer 1999; Kelkar et al 2003). Research has shown that if household allocation of assets is not gender balanced, it may impact intra-household bargaining, inter-spousal decisions concerning production, consumption entitlements and formation of human capabilities. Further, the respective bargaining power of women and men within the cooperative conflict existence depends much on their assets and power outside the family/household.

The third area of research explores building of productive assets, based on gender-specific perceived interest in the process of feminisation of agriculture and microcredit organisations or selfhelp groups (Kelkar et al 2004) Admittedly, cultural and social norms influence the asset-building behaviour of women and men, such as savings for a dowry, education of children and siblings, supporting a family member in times of distress, and so on. What is important to note is the women’s growing aspiration to own and control such assets without mediation of the household or its head.

Social and cultural norms change when women acquire control on land/property/assets. My fieldwork findings (in connection with production networks, microfinance and sex trafficking) in rural Bangladesh, India and Nepal, suggest that women’s control of land and assets results into effectively breaking the vicious circle of poverty-patriarchy-illiteracy-illhealth, including HIV infection. With independent land rights, women are able to address the local world of male dominance, and of stigma and humiliation in case of any transgression of gender norms. In rural Bangladesh, women often use the phrase, Garam Taka (weighty money). It is the money that has weight, and women’s control over their earnings gives them weight within the household (Kelkar et al 2004).

If you have no money, there is no value for your choice. You are sitting in a corner like a little thief…if you have assets, everyone loves you, [anonymous collective discussion in rural Bangladesh (Kelkar et al 2004)].

If we have sampotti (property and assets), our samman (dignity/prestige) will be permanent. Samman is closely linked with sampotti, says Gul Akhtar, who has recently acquired 1.5 decimals of agricultural land in her own name (ibid 2004).

The question of women’s landownership remains current in most of south Asia. It is not just landownership, but also all that goes with it – access to institutional credit, control of seeds and crop management and training and extension facilities. They are relevant for matters like raising wages, since the reservation wage (ie, the wage at which a person will enter the labour market) does go up with ownership of land.

3 Gendered System in Agriculture

The phenomenon of increasing feminisation of agricultural work has drawn policy attention in recent years. However, the causes, the extent and its impact on women and productivity have not received sufficient concern in policy and practice throughout Asia. Women constitute about 70% of the agricultural labour force and perform more than 70% of farm labour, though it varies from place to place. A general pattern is that the poorer the area, the higher women’s contribution, largely as subsistence farmers, who farm small pieces of land, often less than 0.2 hectares (ha) (Kelkar 2007a, b).

Insufficient attention to some work sites where women are most active, such as cultivation of crops and vegetables, regeneration of degraded forests, wasteland development and watershed development, has meant that women’s contributions and concerns remain invisible in planning and thus are ignored in agriculture knowledge and technology institutions (Sujaya 2006). Further, the stress on self-employment and dependence on institutional credit in most land-based economic activities meant that women, who are mostly landless in many countries of Asia, would not be eligible for assistance beyond the rearing of livestock for income.

Although it has been recognised that rural women have an important role in livestock (such as animal care, grazing, fodder collection, cleaning of animal shed, processing of milk and sale of livestock products), their control over livestock and product is minimal. With some regional variations, women account for 93%

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of employment in dairy production in India. But 75% of dairy cooperative membership is male (ibid). Liu Cheng Fang, in her recent study of questioning the managerial feminisation of agriculture in China noted: “Whereas women contributed 64% of production work in livestock, men control 59% of the marketing work. This is a sign that as far as the traditional femaledominated livestock sector is concerned, feminisation is more in relation to labour and not, according to the earning control measure, in management (2007: 14).

The feminisation of agricultural labour in Asia is determined by two major factors. First, compared to men, women have much poorer access, control and ownership of land and other productive resources and they have inadequate access to public services, new agricultural technologies, extension and credit. Technologies are often designed for irrigated land in favourable areas and for male farmers. Poor farmers, mainly women, lack appropriate technologies. Single women and women-headed households represent a disproportionate share of the poor farmers in many Asian countries. Second, the present structure of rural society makes it difficult for all members of the household to migrate, since cities have even more limited resources for masses of assetpoor, who lack not only income, but production-related assets, human capabilities, social capital and physical assets. Women constitute the majority of such people. As a consequence, men leave to become temporary labourers in cities. Women are left behind to take care of agriculture and land (a kind of insurance for migrant workers), children and the elderly. Thus, they have the compounded burden of productive and reproductive work. Its impact on agricultural productivity is yet to be determined.

4 Gender Wage Differentials

There is an important question of gender wage differentials in agriculture and related industries. One possible explanation is that the differences in educational attainments and work skills between women and men are reflected in wage differentials (Gustafsson and Li 2000). That, if women’s skills and educational attainments are significantly lower than men’s, there would be a systematic wage differential between the two genders in the labour market. And, women are most likely to be crowded in low paid jobs, due to their lower human endowments and lower mobility (due to their domestic responsibilities).

According to the National Census of China in 2000, women have an average of 1.1 years less schooling than men in the country as a whole. But the unexplained factor (gender discrimination) in the gender wage differentials in rural areas has been constant, with some decline in the period 1988-1995 (Mason et al 2000). What is important to note, however, is a recent study by Wang and Cai (2006), who in their analysis of China’s labour market concludes that the major share (93.5%) of the wage differentials between women and men is attributed to discrimination rather than to capital differences between the genders. Likewise, MacPhail and Dong (2006) have note the rising gender wage gap in the rural provinces of Shandong and Jiangsu, China. Hirway (2006) arrives at similar findings in her study of the labour market in India. The wage differential is largely due to gender discrimination which encourages women’s engagement in low levels of occupation,

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like unskilled and semi-skilled work, low level management work and other related productive work. A notable exception in this regard is the operationalising of gender parity of wages in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme in rural India (Kelkar 2009).

If women have access to more highly paid market work, they are likely to spend lower number of hours for house work. As observed in case of China and India, women with a higher share of household income are less likely to take the major responsibility for house work (MacPhail and Dong 2006; Kelkar 2005). It is not surprising, therefore, that despite exhaustion due to longer working day and lower wages, women highly value market work. The earnings from market work are seen as important by women as it raises their standing to that of an economic contributor to the household.

The wage differentials between female and male agricultural workers are based on a pre-assumed gender character. Employers and contractors offer simply lower wages to women, regardless of their performance on the job. In the given situation of social and economic neglect, women have no better options. They must work longer and harder to make ends meet, leading to exhaustion, injuries from stress and overwork, a common problem reported by numerous agricultural workers. “The wage rate reflects the opportunity costs of leisure and home production time, and an increase in the wage rate is expected to reduce the number of hours the person allocates to leisure and home production by including her/him to supply additional hours to the labour market (assuming a substitution effect)” (MacPhail and Dong 2006:44). Thus, there appears to be a negative relationship between the wage rate and time for house work.

Recent studies have drawn attention to the extremely low levels at which women’s wages are pegged and the fact that they are likely to face downward pressure to ensure a competitive edge for exports. The data available for regular workers (excluding casual workers or self-employed) shows that the ratio of gender earnings has fallen, and the process has been more rapid in rural areas according to some recent data (Government of India, NSS 55th Round in ISST 2007). Employment losses from trade liberalisation in India were seen largely in the informal sector (with dominant workforce of women), while the gains were concentrated among skilled workers (Winter 2000). A study of gender and agriculture in Maharashtra region (Parikh et al 2004) noted the increase in the number of women working in the capacity of labourers, while most of the cultivators are men: from 51.56% (men 38.70%) in 1991 to 54.22% (men 41.63%) in 2000. The NSS 55th Round of 1999-2000 noted that 57.70% rural women and 54.60% rural men were engaged as agricultural labourers in the same region. The daily agricultural wage of women was reported in the range of Rs 35-38, while that of men was Rs 45-50, with unemployment in the range of 8-10% (NSS 55th Round, as given in Parikh et al 2004).

5 Economic Security and the Right to Assets

A study conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) observes that economic security is worsened by the fact that policies and institutions do not realise that promoting women’s control rights to incomes and resources would help boost growth and development. This is one of the “main forms of gender inequality across the world” (ILO 2004: 86) and systematically neglected in social policy and income statistics. In Asia, “a large proportion of women are not able to retain their earned income – over 40% in Bangladesh, over 40% in Gujarat and close to 70% in Indonesia”. With regard to control over the way their income is spent, in China 57% of women reported that they have “greater control than their husband on daily expenditure items. However, on bigger items, only 7% of the wives have greater control over the decisions” (MacPhail and Dong 2006: 33). In south Asia, far fewer women could make their decisions. Furthermore, discriminatory barriers and socio-cultural rigidities remain the major reasons blocking women from obtaining effective control over property, assets and restricting their mobility within workplace or employment/self-employment structures.

Secure and inalienable use rights, with full control, if not full ownership, are necessary for investment. In the absence of this security of use rights, which women feel is now at least partially available because of the law, women clearly would not invest their own money in improving the land. Of course, the security of use rights in requiring a wife’s signature is still limited. It is not the same as having a plot of land registered in one’s own name. Women often point to the limited nature of the security of use rights they now have. That it was still possible for a man to produce another woman as his wife and bribe officials to allow the sale of land! When women purchased land in their own names, as a number of women had, they were obviously much more secure in their right to the land.

Not being landowners is at least part of the reason why women are not perceived as “farmers” even when they do most of the farm work. As a result, agricultural extension and information on new technologies are almost exclusively directed to men, even when women are increasingly responsible for farm work. Although vegetable growing is almost universally women’s work, projects that aim to diversify agricultural production by promoting commercial vegetable growing (as in Bangladesh, India and Vietnam) often train, or used to train, the men. Something is “inevitably” lost when the knowledge is “passed on” to women. If women were accepted as owners and hence as farmers, it is more likely that they would be targeted for training as farm managers, and not only as home managers.

Despite official knowledge on feminisation of agricultural work, women lack title to land which is one of the causes for the persistent gender inequality. An analysis of the state of Indian farmers by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) emphasises that lack of title to land makes it difficult for women farmers to access institutional credit. “For example, hardly 5% of women seem to have been issued with Kisan credit cards out of the many millions to whom such cards have been issued…Extension and input supply services also do not reach women at the right time and place. Therefore, as stressed by the NCF, there is need for a new deal for women in agriculture” (Swaminathan 2005). A new deal for women in agriculture, along with necessary inputs, technology and credit support could increase the efficiency of resource use and thus contribute to increasing production.

6 Women and Asset Building

Generally speaking, an asset is defined as “a stock of financial, human, natural or social resources that can be acquired, developed, improved and transferred across generations. It generates flows or consumption, as well as additional stock” (Ford Foundation 2004). In the feminisation of poverty-related debates, land has emerged as a critical productive asset needed for significant majority of rural women in Asia. The entitlement to land helps women to improve their position within the home and outside, significantly improving their consultative roles and decision-making.

The asset-based approaches are not simply income transfers that women or men use to build livelihoods. Such approaches give them the capability, an individual and collective agency to reproduce, challenge or change the rules that govern the control, use and transformation of income-based resources (Sen 1997). Hence, they add value to choices of production and consumption made by households. The gender-specific asset building approach, therefore, becomes a pre-condition for women’s economic empowerment.

Caroline Moser draws attention to distinction between the first and the second generation of asset accumulation policy. In an effort to move out of poverty, the first generation asset accumulation policy provides social and economic infrastructure such as water, roads, energy, housing plots, microfinance, improved healthcare and education. The second generation asset accumulation policy aims at strengthening accumulated assets, ensuring their consolidation and preventing erosion. Importantly, such strategies “go beyond the issue of welfare and poverty reduction” to strengthening institutional structures for social justice and empowering women and men in local communities in accessing information and realising their legal, economic and social rights (Moser 2007; 95-96).

It is argued that women gain control over land, they gain the independence necessary to exercise their agency, confront injustice and inequality and pursue productive livelihoods. An asset-effect can change the way people think and interact in day-to-day life. If asset-based policy is being created, a major challenge will be to aim for women’s inclusiveness in the policy. The policy goal should be to bring the excluded groups of people, particularly women into the system with adequate and independent resources in their names and ownership, providing them in their households’ social protection (Sherridan 2001: 302). That ownership of assets enhances efficiency, a greater control on time and efforts to pursue other endeavours, with consequences of improved standing in the community and increase in social influence.

This is borne by an Aquaculture Development Project in Bangladesh. In this project women were exclusively trained in fish aquaculture and provided credit for commercial fish culture in ponds owned by their men. With this knowledge and credit, women were able to transform pond aquaculture from a semisubsistence mode to a regular commercial mode, with an increase in productivity of more than 50% (Nathan and Jahan 2004). Women’s self-help groups in Andhra Pradesh used microcredit to lease lands that were being fitfully cultivated and develop them into regular cultivation with higher productivity than earlier.

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Women’s ownership and control rights to land cannot only lead to higher and better quality production but it can enable them to control the use of household income for the well-being of themselves and other members of the household. It can also benefit women by being associated with a reduction in violence. Recent studies in India and other countries have estimated the costs of domestic violence against women. This cost includes the direct economic loss experienced by the individual (such as through absence from paid work and/or lost productivity, expenses related to physical and mental healthcare, lost lifetime earnings due to disability, etc), government’s costs through its health and social sector expenses, the criminal justice system, employer and third-party expenses. The India study shows that domestic violence against women can push economically fragile households into economic crisis (UNIFEM 2005). An earlier study in India (UNIFEM 2003) estimates that women lost, on average, five working days after an incident of violence. Violence against women also has personal and social effects, besides the calculable economic costs. It is a question of women’s agency, very much needed for better outcomes from management and ownership of assets by women.

By exercising control rights to land, livestock, energy infrastructure, and housing and with a general improvement in women’s economic status, there can be a reduction of violence against women. The improvement in economic status does not by itself result in a reduction in violence against women. But it surely does strengthen women’s economic agency and position, enabling them to resist and thus bring about a reduction in violence.

Transforming the management and ownership status of household assets can help increase productivity, particularly where these resources are underutilised. In Pakistan, Nepal and parts of India, large-scale migration of men has left women as de facto farm managers. But the management decisions are constrained by their inability to access credit on time, as the land remains in the names of men, and their signatures are needed before credit can be given. There are consequent losses due to failure to procure and use inputs on time.

In Asian countries, microfinance has become a source of capital for women to acquire access to land. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Bangladesh, in fact, discourage women from using loans to acquire land, since the return from land is neither quick nor regular. But women nevertheless use loans to lease land, often leveraging their own capital with finance from their husbands. There are few purchases of land, but leasing land has become quite common for women members of credit groups. Of 261 women of several microfinance groups in rural Bangladesh, 117 reported land acquisition through purchase or lease. In 87 instances, (including three of inheritance), the land was in women’s names. Ten of these instances were those of two groups of women leasing land for vegetable production. In four instances, land was acquired in the joint names of husband and wife, while in 26 instances, the land was in the name of the men alone (for details, see Kelkar et al 2004).

The above-mentioned are market-mediated forms of land reform, in which those wishing to lease in land, acquire it from those wishing to lease out land. There are also other types of

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market-mediated land reform, for instance, in which land is purchased from a willing seller and transferred to a willing buyer. Unlike many of the state-sponsored schemes for distribution of government-owned land, in this case, relatively good quality land is transferred to the landless.

In India, the Deccan Development Society (DDS) has deliberately used savings and credit to enable groups of women to take land on lease. Very poor women can substitute labour for personal cash contribution. Leasing in land as a group makes the women stronger in the lease market. They are also able to lease larger areas of land. The women sanghams (groups) have developed 1,000 acres of common land in and around their villages by raising neighbourhood forests in 28 villages. They now own tree pattas (title deeds) in their own names.

In the state of Andhra Pradesh, the government agencies, like the Integrated Tribal Development Authority and Scheduled Caste Development Corporation, have purchased land from owners wishing to lease the land and have transferred it, free of any charge, to the landless. All such land was transferred in the names of women. Among the Chenchu, land has been transferred in the names of women. Chenchu men too concede that this is better for the household, as there is little chance that women, unlike men, will lose the land because of drinking or gambling debts (Nathan et al 2003). Instead of waiting for a state-enforced land reform, women are making use of access to capital and the market system to acquire land.

7 Gender Differences in Management of Assets

It is well known that because of different gender responsibilities women and men tend to have different priorities with regard to land use and forest cover. Men whose responsibilities are cash earning tend to be in favour of timber trees. Women, whose responsibilities include the provision of food, tend to favour multiuse trees with a bias towards fuel and fodder production. Ignoring fuel and fodder needs in forest management decisions pushes their supply onto open access and state forests, with harmful impact for overall forest regeneration, as has happened with community forestry in Nepal. An overall review of forest regeneration movements (Kelkar et al 2003) showed both that management and regeneration suffered and conversely, when women were mobilised, there was a greater impact on forest cover and environmental regeneration.

A review of intensification of farming practices in upland Asia showed that the collection of fuel from forest lands was the last part of the household labour to be intensified and that it resulted from the very low opportunity cost of women’s labour which resulted in the overuse of women’s labour and the wood fuel that was produced with that labour (Kelkar and Nathan 2005).

According to some earlier studies, women-headed households and women-cultivated plots have produced lower yields. For a variety of reasons, women are considered less efficient crop producers (Saito et al 1994; Quisumbing 1994). These are not seen to be true in a recent analysis of the effect of womenheaded households on the efficiency of farming for all crops, rich wheat and maize, using village fixed effects and controls for ability in China (for a detailed statistical analysis, see Rozelle et al 2006: 72-75). Using more than 5,000 plot level observations in 60 villages in six provinces in rural China, the authors conclude: “when all the other variables in our model are held constant, women-run farms are not less efficient than those of men, implying that women-run farms earn at least as much revenue on their plots as farms run by men” (ibid: 74).

Similarly, in 2003-04, the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Agriculture Science Centre) monitored 40 women-run dairy units in Andhra Pradesh and noted that “the average milk yield increased from 380 to 610 litres per dairy, with a net increase in profit of Rs 3,200,00 to Rs 5,800,00 per unit per annum” (DARE/ICAR 2003-04: 178).

Aquaculture in fish ponds is an important livelihood in Bangladesh. But like land, ponds too are entirely owned and controlled by men. Two recent initiatives, however, show how women can get access and control over aquaculture activities in fish ponds. In the mid-1990s, the Government of Bangladesh gave user rights over fishponds to women in the Oxbow Lakes Project of the Government of Bangladesh-International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). They were also provided training and credit through an NGO. Since getting user rights to these ponds, women have had to fight to retain control over them. There have been frequent attempts by men, connected to the ruling political parties, to take over these fishponds. So far, in a majority of cases, women have retained these ponds and used the income from fish culture activities to improve their own well-being and that of their households (Nathan and Apu 1998).

More recently, in the Aquaculture Development Project of Faridpur (Government of Bangladesh and IFAD) women, whose husbands’ owned ponds, were given capital and training for aquaculture. With this, they increased household income from fish ponds, and their own control over this income. Though the ponds remained in their husbands’ names, the fish enterprise was clearly their own. As one woman put it, “the pond belongs to my husband, but the fish belong to me” (Nathan and Jahan 2004: 11). Women, who have established their control over the fish aquaculture enterprises, have used the lumpy income from fish to build assets like cattle and shops, and take land on lease. They have developed confidence in dealing with officials and other outsiders. Their self-esteem and respect for them within their families and in the villages have increased.

Both of the above instances are about changes in the way assets are managed: in the first case, what was government-owned has been handed over to women; in the second case, women used capital and knowledge to take over effective management of ponds from their husbands (Nathan and Jahan 2004).

Access to capital can enable women to get control over land and related productive assets. But what is done in these projects in small numbers can be generalised by a law to end the traditional systems that deny women’s rights to land. Passing such laws is only the first step. The rights have to be won in practice. “Without reasonable income security, people lack real freedom to make rational choices and be socially responsible. Without collective and individual voice, the vulnerable will remain that way” (ILO 2004: 275).

Technological empowerment of women in agriculture (currently a programme in India) has to be backed up with unmediated asset control and ownership of women; a process to enhance agricultural management skills and knowledge; a widespread gender sensitisation in rural areas through information and communication technologies, which helps to develop the social understanding of women as producers, farmers and economic contributors. In other words, women’s unmediated control and ownership of land, new technologies and management skills give them and their households a livelihood with dignity. At the same time, this is a stronger measure in overcoming poverty.

8 Policy Framework

Importantly policies protecting rights of women exist in all Asian countries but, implementation varies. The deep-seated social inequalities (e g, the household division of labour, gender norms on women speaking in public, constraints on women’s mobility and pervasive violence within the home and outside) go against women having an effective voice in asset management within home and outside. There is a persistent policy pattern that despite planning for women’s empowerment, women’s dependency in the gendered system of productive assets is often neglected in the formulation and implementation of policies for social and economic development. It is correctly stated that “Freedom from the fear of violence and coercion is essential for the exercise of women’s agency” (UNDP 2005: 19). An argument in this regard is that such freedom is contingent on women’s economic security and empowerment through their independent/unmediated access, control and ownership rights to productive assets.

In identifying policy framework issues of particular relevance to India related to the political economy of gendered distribution of productive assets, it is important to draw attention to some distinct issues that may otherwise be neglected in more conventional studies on poverty and inclusive growth. The three particularly important issues for policy consideration include: (1) the changing nature of women’s productive work in agriculture and the unorganised/informal sector; (2) the productivity implications of gender asset inequality in the fast-growing economies of Asia; and (3) a priority of context-specific policy change in the women’s control rights to land and other productive assets. These will also include measures to monitor and assess success, including trends indicative of the scale of change in institutional barriers against effective implementation of policies. What could be done to further strengthen security and protection against “down-side” risks at every moment in the process of market economy, such as increased domestic violence against women at the initial stage of micro-finance/self-help groups in rural areas; and a general social discouragement to implement measures for women’s economic empowerment?

A review of Indian plan documents shows that the challenge is not to reinstitute policy for women’s economic security, but to redeploy the machinery already in place to be used in a more effective and gender responsive manner. The overarching vision that informs the design of policy for women’s economic empowerment has hardly ever articulated the need for implementation targets. These errors of omissions and systematic de-emphasising

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of gender equality in development policies need to be made visible through social audits of gender equality, measures and workshops aimed at context-specific gender sensitisation. An integrated approach that links equality-based distribution of productive assets with women’s empowerment through policy implementation is the need of the hour for sustainable development and for addressing risk arising from “policy fatigue” (Narayanamoorthy 2007).

Technological change and economic development policies need to be supported by programmes for equality-based gender and social relations and necessary institutions at micro, meso and macro levels. As widely recognised in development literature, women’s equality in social, economic relations and local institutions in substantial representation are the two main factors for facilitating conditions for economic growth and human development. Such an approach will enable rural poor women and men to have greater access to institutional credit, promote greater bargaining power against unjust practices in the market and facilitate implementation of development policies. Self-help groups, gender inclusive panchayati raj institutions, All China Women’s Federation in China and other community-based organisations can be the efficient models of such institutional arrangements at the local level. These organisations can play an active role in diffusing knowledge on women’s control rights to productive assets.

Social relations within a community are not gender-neutral; neither are the effects of redistribution of land. It has been


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    China after 1978: Craters on the Moon

    The breathtakingly rapid economic growth in China since 1978 has attracted world-wide attention. But the condition of more than 350 million workers is abysmal, especially that of the migrants among them. Why do the migrants put up with so much hardship in the urban factories? Has post-reform China forsaken the earlier goal of “socialist equality”? What has been the contribution of rural industries to regional development, alleviation of poverty and spatial inequality, and in relieving the grim employment situation? How has the meltdown in the global economy in the second half of 2008 affected the domestic economy? What of the current leadership’s call for a “harmonious society”? Does it signal an important “course correction”?

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