Sunday, August 07, 2011

Independence to decide

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 7, 2011


The Other Half - 

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Limited assets, limited choices...Photo: Kamal Narang
Limited assets, limited choices...Photo: Kamal Narang
Both in urban and rural areas, women not only have fewer assets than men but have almost no say in decisions concerning them…
The eve of yet another Independence Day is a good time to ask once again: How independent are Indian women? What choices are they free to make? Is what they own really theirs? Do they have the freedom to decide what to acquire as assets and once they have something, to decide what to do with them?
These questions are relevant for more than one reason. The perennial debate about the skewed sex ratio, which has been addressed on several occasions in this column, always comes back to the central question of how women are valued, or rather why women in this country are valued so little that people think nothing of ensuring that girls are not born. Amongst the many suggestions put forward to deal with this unacceptable state of affairs is that women should have their own financial assets. This will enhance their worth in their families and in society. But will merely enacting laws and enabling legislation to help women acquire such assets and have the freedom to use them, make a difference?
Interesting survey
These questions hovered just under the surface earlier this week as Hema Swaminathan and Suchitra J.Y. of the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru, presented some of the findings of an innovative survey that they have completed. The Karnataka Household Asset Survey (KHAS) 2010-11 surveyed 4,110 households across eight districts in all four agro-climatic zones in the state. The study is part of a three-nation study to measure the gender asset gap.
It is different from other such surveys primarily because it has been able arrive at a way to measure the gender asset gap, or the difference between what men and women own. This has been done by deviating from the standard approach of talking to only one person in each household, namely the person deemed head of the household.
Instead, the researchers used a novel approach. They discussed with the family who was best informed about asset ownership and identified that person as the primary respondent. In addition, they selected the spouse or someone else, as the secondary respondent. In this way, in each household, they were able to get a female and male perspective.
The authors of the survey argue that surveys that measure the assets of a household mask gender inequalities. For instance, it is assumed that in wealthier households, the women too are better off. But this is not necessarily so as what the women can claim as their own, over which they have some decision-making rights, might be very little. KHAS found that women owned only 16 per cent of the total wealth in the richest 20 per cent of rural households. In the event of breakdown of marriage, these women are often rendered asset-less.
On the other hand, their data reveals that in the poorest 20 per cent of rural households, women owned 51 per cent of the wealth. But this did not mean there was greater gender equality in poor households as compared to the rich. This happens because such virtually asset-less households consist mostly of single women or widows. Compared to the rest of their assets, their personal jewellery is valued higher.
It is in the ownership of land and real estate that the real disparity stands out. In rural areas, 71 per cent of all plots of land were owned by men and only 14 per cent by women. Furthermore, the value of what women owned was much lower, often consisting of marginal land. The disparity was only marginally lower in urban areas.
One exception
The only asset where women surpassed men was in ownership of jewellery. Whether in village, or city, women had this as their primary asset. So while men generally owned land, houses and real estate, the women owned jewellery. If there were women who owned land or houses, these would usually be widows, who would have inherited property on the death of their spouses.
Just because a woman could claim that jewellery was her personal asset as she would have brought it with her to her marital home, or would have been gifted it during the course of the marriage, did she actually have a say if the family wanted to sell it for an urgent financial need? Women's ability to make such decisions is difficult to quantify in numbers but the qualitative survey, which forms part of the study, underlines the reality of women's decision-making powers within a household.
In a focus group discussion in Chamarajanagar District, Urban, for instance, the moderator asked, “If a wife does not want her husband to sell the property, then what happens?” A woman replied, “Then they don't listen to us and decide on their own”. In another discussion in Bellary district, the women were asked who decided about buying something for the house. One participant said both the husband and wife while another said, the men. And if the women disagree? “Men don't listen to them, they will do it anyway”, said one. And so whose decision is final? “Men's decision is final”.
This small vignette from the qualitative part of the study is illustrative of the reality. Irrespective of what women own, or how much, in the majority of cases they do not have the power or the independence to decide about the use of the resources. Married women often think they are secure in a house even if the husband owns it; but when it is crunch time, they will have no say.
The survey is rich in data on several aspects. These will be further studied and analysed and will throw up many more interesting aspects on this issue. One statistic that stood out, for instance, even though it is not related to the primary focus of the study, was the extent to which rural households continue to depend on fuel wood as their main source of cooking fuel — an astounding 93 per cent. What does this say about a country that is willing to make any kind of deal for its energy needs and yet does nothing to mitigate the immense hardship that primarily women must bear to meet this very basic of energy needs, cooking energy? To add to that burden is the absence of sanitation, available to only 23 per cent of households in rural areas. And piped water, supplied to an abysmal 17 per cent in rural areas. Asset ownership will have little meaning for millions of women if they are denied clean cooking fuel, sanitation and water.
Ignorant of laws
Another interesting sidelight of the survey was the fact that most women had no idea that a state like Karnataka has a law that actually gives women the right to have a say in the disposal of family property. Just enacting progressive laws makes little difference unless it is followed up by legal literacy, something that is lacking in a whole range of women-centred laws.
So how does data generated by a survey like KHAS help? We already know that women own less than men. We also know that generally women's views are ignored in decision-making. Yet, the extent to which this prevails has not been known. More such studies in different states would generate an India-wide picture. In the long run, any policy or law seeking to correct this imbalance can work only if it understands the distinct nature of problems like the gender asset gap.

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