Books

The land means freedom

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30 April 2021

Authoritative, original, and pioneering are the assumptions of Gender Inequalities in Developing Economies, a volume by Indian economist Bina Agarwal, Il Mulino editions; a collection of essays focused on the political economy of development, seen from a gender perspective.

Born in 1951, Bina Agarwal is a full professor at the University of Manchester of Development Economics and Environment, winner of the Balzan Prize in 2017. In her book, she demonstrates, with extensive research conducted in the field in developing Countries, how poverty and gender inequality are closely related.

The people working in agriculture in South Asia are increasingly female, with women accounting for more than half of the workforce.  Argwal’s research goes so far as to prefigure an alternative model to small-scale family farming, which forces women into the role of invisible presences, lacking decision-making, negotiating power and control over the goods they cultivate, since they belong to their husbands.

As Alberto Quadrio Curzio, economist and president emeritus of the Accademia dei Lincei, makes clear in his preface: the findings of Bina Agarwal’s studies illustrate “why attention to women’s independent property rights is so important to their economic, social and political power; what legal rights they enjoy; the social norms and cultural practices that hinder these rights in practice; and the ways forward for effective change”. It is in fact the possession of property, land in particular, by women that affects their economic, social and political status. Moreover, and this is one of the most innovative theses of this essay, Agarwal’s field research shows that the risk of marital violence is greatly reduced by women’s ownership of property. On an empirical level, Agarwal writes, “it is shown that owning a house or land significantly reduces a woman’s risk of marital violence. The incidence of physical violence among unmarried women without property was 49 per cent, while for women who own both a house and land it was only 7 per cent”. According to the Indian economist, therefore, the backlash against patriarchy is achieved when the woman can boast an actual possession of property, understood also as an alternative place ‘outside the family’, which makes her potentially free to leave in case of mistreatment and abuse”. Agarwal continues: “One could speculate that real estate provides a woman with economic and physical security increases her self-esteem and visibly signals the strength of her fallback position and the tangible possibility of a way out. This can both discourage violence and provide an escape strategy in case violence occurs. In contrast, having a job does not seem to provide the same protection. In fact, women who are better employed than their husbands face a higher risk of violence: husbands are hostile because of their wives' stronger position. In contrast, inequality in ownership of property is not associated with such perverse effects, as a female owner married to a man without property is not subject to more violence”.

However, that is not all. Agarwal’s desired change of land ownership not only protects them from male violence, but also has positive economic effects on the community’s agricultural productivity, poverty and inequality reduction, food security and social cohesion.

Studies conducted in a comparative and interdisciplinary manner in rural areas of India and other underdeveloped Countries show that women are able to perform as well or better than men are if they are given equal access to land, water, technology and markets. The quality of performance improves when they are able to unite and no longer depend on the logic of family work, where their contribution remains invisible and where the first stage of gender inequality is formed because men manage that work.

Instead, women, even those who do not own land, can enter to form a group, thus creating dynamics of cooperative women's work that ensure their autonomy in making decisions about production, as well as strengthening them by virtue of an independent identity as a farmer. In profoundly patriarchal societies, therefore, work, a house and land represent concrete options for escaping male violence, giving women the chance to build a life beyond oppression. This is true in India as in the West.

By Elena Buia Rutt