“Owning property empowers women in unique ways”: An Interview with Bina Agarwal

Bina Agarwal
17 January, 2016

Bina Agarwal is a Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester, UK. Prior to this, she was the Director and Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. Agarwal has written extensively on land, livelihoods and property rights; environment and development; the political economy of gender; poverty and inequality; legal change; and agriculture and technological transformation. Her best known work is A Field of One's Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (1994)—which won the AK Coomaraswamy Book Prize, the Edgar Graham Book Prize and the KH Batheja Award.

In 2005, she spearheaded a successful campaign for the comprehensive amendment of Hindu Inheritance law in India to make it gender equal. Agarwal received a Padma Shri in 2008 for her contributions to education.

Samira Bose, an intern at The Caravan, spoke to Agarwal over email following the launch of “Gender Challenges,” a three-volume compendium of Agarwal's selected papers, written over three decades on 5 January 2016 in Delhi. They discussed her work, the intersection of gender and economics and her conversation with Amartya Sen at the launch.

Samira Bose: What led you to research rural economy? What were some of the issues you focused on?

Bina Agarwal: In the mid-1970s, as a doctoral student, I wanted to work on a subject of contemporary interest and policy relevance. India was largely agrarian then, so the rural economy was an obvious choice. The green revolution was at its height and there was a major debate on the appropriateness of farm mechanisation in a labour surplus economy. Most studies favoured tractorisation, arguing that it added to output without displacing labour. But this argument rested on a flawed methodology, since the studies simply compared tractor and non-tractor farms without controlling for the effect of other factors, such as fertilizer use and irrigation. I disaggregated the effects of mechanisation by operations and crops, using Cost of Cultivation data for Punjab and found that once you controlled for other factors, tractors did displace labour while adding little to output.

On completing my thesis, Mechanisation in Indian Agriculture (1983), I wanted to explore the impact of mechanization and High Yielding Varieties (HYVs), especially on female labour. The prevalent feminist assumption was that mechanization would displace women. My results for three Indian states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Orissa) showed the contrary. Tractors which are used mainly for ploughing did not displace women, since women rarely plough and the use of tractors was limited in any case. Tubewells (another form of mechanization) along with HYVs actually increased female employment by increasing the farm’s cropping intensity and output and hence labour demand for transplanting, weeding and harvesting—operations which mainly employ women. These results underscored the need in gender analysis to take a critical approach not only towards mainstream economics but also towards populist views within feminist studies.

My subsequent research on agricultural modernisation in Asia and Africa made clear that women have a very unequal place in the rural economy because they own little land, the most important productive resource. My later work flowed naturally from these insights.

Even today, the rural economy remains crucially important, especially for women who continue to live and work there while men increasingly migrate to cities. And research on rural India—its fields, forests and the institutions which determine access to them—remains relevant for both analysis and policy.

SB: In A Field of One's Own, you state “the single most important factor affecting women's situation is the gender gap in command over property.” Could you expand on this?

BA: While working on women farmers it became clear to me that their disadvantaged position was closely linked to their lack of command over productive assets, especially land, in their own right. This also reduced their access to credit, inputs and technology. In fact, anyone working on rural India knows that land ownership can determine whether a family is poor or prosperous —the social respect it commands, and the political clout it has. And women of landed households are assumed to be well-off even if they have no property of their own. In reality, there are huge gender inequalities within households in the distribution of resources and tasks, in education and health care, and even in the survival of girl children. In homes owning tractors, I found women cooking with primitive and smoky stoves with serious health consequences. Women without independent assets have limited bargaining power within families and communities. Yet the question of women’s property had been little researched, so I decided to probe it, not just for India but for all of South Asia, since cross-country comparisons provide special insights.

SB: You argue in your article "Toward Freedom from Domestic Violence" (Gender Challenges) that the ownership of immovable property protects women from marital violence. Please elaborate.

BA: This article is based on a survey of ever-married women in 500 randomly selected rural and urban households in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, collected by a colleague, Pradeep Panda, with a followup panel survey undertaken by both of us. We found that 35 percent of the women reported physical violence from spouses, underlining how deep patriarchy runs even in Kerala despite its positive social indicators. But the incidence was dramatically lower among women who owned a house (10 percent), or land (18 percent), or both (7 percent) than among propertyless women (49 percent). Women’s ownership of property acted as an effective deterrent to spousal violence, even after we econometrically controlled for the woman’s employment status relative to her husband’s, social support, both spouses’ childhood exposure to violence, marriage duration, alcohol abuse by husbands, and so on.

In fact, employment had a contrary effect. An employed woman married to an unemployed man was more likely to face violence (except if she had a formal sector job), whereas a propertied woman married to a propertyless man was still protected. This further supports my contention that owning property empowers women in unique ways.

SB: What changes did your campaign to amend the Hindu inheritance law in 2005 bring about? What changes are still needed?

BA: The 2005 Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act (HSAA) brought many significant changes. For instance, it gives women the same right as men to inherit agricultural land in all states. Daughters also have equal claims to coparcenary joint family property, and a right to reside in and even ask for partition of the ancestral home. But we still need law reform on several counts: first, in recognising women’s rights in marital property; second, giving Muslim women rights in agricultural land by amending the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937; and third, codifying the laws of tribal communities to give women (who are subject to unequal customary law) equal rights. Of course the issue of a uniform inheritance law remains contentious.

SB: What are the main points of difference between your approach to gender inequality and Amartya Sen’s?

BA: Amartya Sen and I share much common ground. And I have learnt a great deal from his work, especially his entitlement approach to food security, his characterisation of intra-family interactions as involving both cooperation and conflict, and his capability approach. But there are also some notable differences in our respective work on gender inequality.

First, and perhaps the most important difference lies in the primacy I give to women’s access to resources—both private property resources such as land and housing, and common property resources such as forests. In turn these enhance women’s access to health care, education, and food security, and give them greater autonomy and bargaining power. Land ownership also provides women social status and security against domestic violence in ways that simply being educated or employed appears not to, although these are also essential. There is also substantial global evidence that a mother’s ownership of assets has a much greater impact on child survival, education and nutrition than where only the father owns assets. There is thus a special synergy between women’s ownership of landed assets and other social outcomes. In fact, for viable rural employment, access to land is necessary.

Similarly, I emphasise the importance of women’s (especially landless women’s) access to forests for fulfilling their subsistence needs, such as for firewood (the single most important cooking fuel in rural households), fodder, and wild foods.

Second, I have been writing about the disproportionate negative impact on women of environmental degradation and the significant positive impact from their participating in forest governance. These issues are not discussed by Professor Sen.

Third, more of my research is based on fieldwork (than Professor Sen’s), driven partly by the kinds of questions I ask, which cannot be answered with existing data. For instance, for researching gender and forest governance, I traveled for several months across seven states of India and parts of Nepal in 1998-99, interviewing villagers about their community forestry institutions and women’s participation in them. Later, through a team I collected systematic data on community forestry in India and Nepal to test if women’s presence improved forest conditions (it did) and what percentage of women mattered (25-33 percent formed the critical mass). It was only through fieldwork that I could address such questions.

Fourth, I developed the concept of “relative” capabilities (beyond absolute capabilities) for understanding well-being outcomes. My work on domestic violence, for instance, demonstrates that, despite high absolute capabilities in terms of education and employment, women can still face domestic violence if their husbands react negatively to their wives appearing “superior” to them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.