Do women in India require empowerment?

A blog post in three parts.

Part One: A question.

Do women in India require empowerment? This was a question posed to me on a recent trip to Bihar. I said yes. But the answer is actually very simplistic to what we see in the field. This question is attached to a larger group of questions – what is empowerment? What does it look like? How do we define and measure it? What are the contours of change that influence women’s empowerment? These are questions that we often grapple with in the GrOW project. But we are not the only ones trying to articulate the complexity and the implications of the term (Batliwala, 2007). For example, the text book definition of empowerment often means to give power to, to enable (someone) to, but that often means that someone else is providing the ‘power’ to those disempowered. That is not what we are examining in the field.

We are examining empowerment as a social-political process that has power at the center of our analytical framework – how do women take power, use power, own power? So, our study moves beyond the concepts of upliftment, welfare, or even ‘development’ to examining contestations of power structures, whether they are within governance structures, families, or in work spaces. So, empowerment in the way that we have framed is not a neat shift between point A to point B (Batliwala 2007; Ghose and Mullick, 2014; Jandhyala 2003). It is constantly negotiated, it is complex, and it continually changes its form. So, empowerment, or the measurement per se, is not easy to get a grip on and is more akin to holding on to the morning mist. We can see the evidence of it, but to quantify it is not as easy as it looks.

But the question remains: Do women in India require empowerment?

Part Two: A vignette.

We arrive at a village to do our pilot study. I get down from the car surrounded by gleeful children and we make our way through the village to arrive at a household. It’s a two-room brick house with a staircase between the two rooms that goes right up to the roof. We sit in the court yard, a hand pump right in the middle.

The interview is with a young woman, all of 23, with three young children, all under the age of five. The oldest is a young girl with short spiky hair – she is to turn five in two months. She is eating out of a steel bowl – her food, broken up chappati and milk. The woman sits with her young baby, 7 months old, who is sleeping. The young girl, meanwhile, climbs the chair her mother is sitting on and sits precariously on the plastic back of the chair, watching us while she slowly, methodically, eats her food. No one around, including her mother, seems to be worried about the prospect that the child might fall from her perch and hurt herself.

Duly, she gets bored, and disposes of her vessel. She washes her hands. Then, she brings out a small steel pot from a corner of the house and takes off her slightly tattered dress. Her small hands pump up the water from the hand pump in the courtyard. It fills the steel pot, and in one small smooth stroke, she pours the water over her head. She shivers, but she continues the same routine – pump, fill, pour. The routine is interspersed with tiny yells of delight.

We are all amused, and her mother looks at her indulgently. Then, when she is finished, she yells at the top of her voice – MA! MY CLOTHES!! Her mother shushs her, and tells her to wait for two minutes, and she’ll get it out of the cupboard. This is clearly too much time for the little girl to wait. So she marches into one of the rooms to pick out her clothes. She re-emerges a few minutes later, her dry clothes patchy with dark water spots from her frail body, her wet hair plastered against her skull. She squats next to me, and plays with a torn doll, oblivious to everything around her.

Her mother, in the meantime, is telling us that she has never learned to read, has never gone to school, has no idea what the legal age to get married is, votes but doesn’t know the candidates, does not think she can do anything on her own, and does not venture outside the village for any reason. I look at the energies emanating from the child sitting next to me – energies so vibrant I can almost touch them – and look at the woman sitting opposite me – her eyes puzzled and her posture inert. And I pause to wonder about what we do to girls in our country.

We take defiant young children and turn them into submissive, silent women.

Part Three: Return to the question.

When I think about the question – do women in India require empowerment – the image in my head is this: a young girl’s tiny thin arm lifted against the blue-white sky, holding the shiny pot, water slicing through the warm air to plaster her hair against her skin, as the sounds of her delight mingle with her mother’s hesitant murmured replies of no, I don’t know, no, I don’t know, no, why will I know that, no, no, no, no, and no.

All the deliciousness of the freedom that marks the young girl’s spirit, as she takes that pot of water and pours it on her head is not accompanied by the freedoms that are critical for her as she grows up – freedom of movement, freedom to pursue any kind or form of education, freedom from set identities such as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, freedom to critique without being shouted or beaten down, freedom to lead, freedom from stable sexual mores, freedom to choose whoever, whatever, whenever.

So, our conceptualisation of empowerment, therefore, is not as simple as the change of a woman’s response on a self-efficacy question from a no to a yes. The process (and the methodology that engages with this process) is never that simple or easy. Empowerment, instead, is a multi-pronged breaking down and building up of social structures, mores, identities, narratives, and stories, whose goals are not always stable. And yes, women in India do require this kind of empowerment.

Niveditha Menon
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]