Gender Challenges by Bina Agarwal

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Gender Challenges earlier this month. Gender Challenges is a monumental three-volume compendium of selected papers written by Bina Agarwal over three decades and published by Oxford University Press. This impressive body of work examines gender inequality in different countries and communities, relating to agriculture, food security, property, land rights, and the environment, and how policy makers can tackle them. Bina, a Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the Global Development Institute of the University of Manchester approaches these issues from a gender perspective and challenges mainstream assumptions in the social sciences and policy. She rightly uses both qualitative and quantitative analysis. The issues are not simply presented as economic ones. Bina uses many disciplines from the social sciences and also law to examine gender inequalities and suggest workable solutions. Reading the work, what first struck me was the variety of ways women are affected globally and the inadequate one-size-fits-all approach of policy makers in these countries.

The first volume looks at agriculture, technology and food security and covers her writings from 1981 to today. In the early years, agricultural growth was made possible by the Green Revolution but women’s role was ignored. A key assumption questioned by Bina is the idea that women are less efficient than men in farming, and the attributing of the gender wage gap to productivity differences rather than to gender discrimination. These assumptions are also challenged by her using data from an experiment with potato-digging equipment which found that women are more efficient than men in doing the same job: they took 69 hours compared to 185 hours taken by man. This fits her larger point that if women had the same equipment, land, and inputs they would get better results. She also writes about the undercounting of women’s work in data and suggests new group approaches to farming.

The second volume delves into property, family and the state. Here Bina demonstrates the great importance of women having command over immovable property, especially land, not just for their economic well being but also their social status and political position. She argues that gender inequality in land is linked to women’s lack of bargaining power with families, society and the state. Owning property would increase that bargaining power. At the launch event, a discussion about the links between women owning immovable property and domestic violence was very interesting. If women own land or a house, they are less likely to face domestic violence. This discussion also highlighted the serious repercussions that would follow with continuing high gender inequality in property ownership. In this volume, Bina researched laws historically and currently across many countries and showed why despite progressive laws, social customs prevent gender equality. This is what impresses me most about her work: the time that went into researching the roots of these challenges is monumental. This analysis leads to the conclusion that access to and control over agricultural land is of high importance in determining rural women’s economic well-being and also the well-being of their families.

The third and final volume looks at environmental change and collective action. Bina Agarwal proposes that the lack of a gender perspective when analysing sustainable development and environmental governance can mean the practices we promote can be ineffective. One example is the community forestry programme launched in India and Nepal in the 1990’s. This programme mostly excludes women who are the major users of forests. The bigger question she raises is: what impact would women’s presence have on environmental governance? Bina shows, using primary data that she and her research team collected, that forest conservation would be substantially better with more women in governance. In this volume, criticism is also presented against ecofeminism with Bina offering an alternative which she terms ‘feminist environmentalism’. The problem with ecofeminism is that it assumes a relationship between women and nature and doesn’t analyse how women actually live their lives. In her alternative perspective, women’s and men’s relationship with nature is understood as rooted in their material reality and their everyday use of forests and other resources.

Gender Challenges does what a lot of other academic work fails to do—it brings together a breadth of knowledge compiled over decades, and presents it in a way that readers from any background can enjoy it. The struggle for gender equality needs radical and original thinking. Bina’s contributions offer this. As Diane Elson (Emeritus Professor, University of Essex), who was in conversation with Bina Agarwal at the launch alongwith Lucia Fry and Fiona Devine rightly says, these works are vital reading and offer new thinking in economics and also other social sciences.

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