Several women in India face domestic violence, are not allowed to work, and need to seek permission from husbands or in-laws to carry out basic tasks. In this note, Singhal and Vernekar share their experiences of encountering oppression of women during field visits. They highlight the dilemma of deciding whether to report the incidents – given community acceptance for such abusive practices, limited agency, and adaptive preferences.
While conducting research for a project1 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat we received a panicked phone call from a female respondent who had participated in our survey earlier in the day. She pleaded with us to expunge her responses. When we asked her why, she admitted it was because her husband beat her on hearing she had let us into their home. We removed her responses from our study. However, we took no action against an apparent case of domestic violence.
Similarly, during a month-long stint living in Jhinjhwa village in Rajasthan, the women we were building local businesses with, nonchalantly discussed how their husbands beat them for returning home late from our meetings. In this case too, our supervisors advised us to not intervene – neither by talking to the women, nor taking any action against the abusive men. These are just some of many such incidents we have encountered during our field visits where women were being subjected to domestic abuse.
There is an ethical conflict faced by a growing breed of researchers whose work in the social sector takes them to the field. We might be committed to the cause of development and yet our work prevents us from getting involved in to long-term interventions that many others - activists and social workers – undertake. We come across situations that fundamentally outrage us but we have to resign to the inability to take action and remain focussed on the study of developmental policies and interventions.
Exploring limited agency
Several Indian women live in circumstances where their fundamental rights to equality are violated – they are subjected to routine physical abuse, and rape even within their households. Such oppression constitutes what is called limited agency2 of women. In its most generic form, agency refers to the ability of a person to exercise his or her own will (Sen 2005).
Agency is important not just because it is implicit in the fundamental right to freedom, but also because it is found to be associated with greater social and economic efficiency. For example, children of mothers who enjoy greater agency within the household tend to be healthier (Rosenzweig and Schultz 1982) and show better learning outcomes (Thomas 1990), and greater agency is found to contribute to greater over-all well-being of an individual (Alkire 2005).
Using data from the nationally-representative India Human Development Survey (IHDS) (2011-12) we present an image of this limited agency. Of more than 39,000 women who responded to questions in the ‘Women’s Questionnaire’, 55% of rural and 45% of urban women are likely to be beaten by their husbands for leaving the house without permission. Other reasons cited for being physically abused include not taking care of the children properly or not cooking food properly. Though community acceptance of this practice is high all over, it is marginally higher for women belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and for Muslim women.
Table 1. Limited agency of Indian women
The oppression of the Indian woman does not stop at domestic abuse. Almost 80% women across caste categories reported that they have to seek permission from their husbands or in-laws to visit a medical facility for themselves. Over 40% women belonging to general/ forward caste categories reported that they would not be allowed to work outside of the home, as compared to approximately 28% SC women, and 32% Scheduled Tribe (SC) women. It should be noted here that economic deprivation is a possible reason for SC/ST women being allowed to work (Kodoth 2005).
It is important to note that the data presented here are responses to questions that ask for the women’s perception of the situation. The actual extent of oppression is likely to be even greater as women might not report abuse for fear of repercussion from abusive family members. Additionally, women belonging to middle-class families are less likely to report that they were subjected to violence, as compared to their poorer counterparts, because there is more stigma attached to the practice for them (Renzetti 2009).
We are outraged when we come face-to-face with such situations of limited agency. Our instinct is to intervene – to talk to the women, and to gain their consent to possibly take legal action against the people abusing them. However we may not fully understand the complexities of the social structure that they are a part of, or the dynamics within their household because, what the data does not capture, is the state of mind of women living in these circumstances.
It is paternalistic for us to assume we know better and to try to intervene, especially when the women do not ask for help. Yet, even if normalised, we know women do not enjoy being abused. This begs the question: why aren’t they asking for our help?
Studies conducted, primarily in rural India, identify a strong patriarchal social structure that creates a cycle of deprivation: women have limited agency especially outside of their post-marital households, leading to a higher likelihood that they are financially dependent on their husbands (Duflo 2012). What consequences will our action have on the woman’s livelihood and that of her children if they are not economically supported within the household?
Community acceptance and adaptive preferences
Once again, we know that a large section of Indian society, especially communities of forward castes, do not support the right of a woman to separate from or divorce her husband, more so if they have children. In communities where domestic violence is a socially accepted reality, a woman might face social sanctions such as ostracisation (Amato 1994).
In the case that she chooses to separate from her husband, does she have the capability and opportunity to become financially independent to support herself and her children?
Further, we need to consider the trauma of women when they become aware of being violated. The concept of adaptive preferences suggests that women living in situations of deprivation become accustomed to such deprivation (Sen 1980). As a result of this they might not immediately recognise the opportunities they are being deprived of (Khader 2011). In the possible absence of this awareness, when deprivation and inequality are the norm, should we question her and her lifestyle?
Thinking before intervening
In the case of the first female respondent, our project gave us only a single window into her life. We had no context about her household, her husband, their relationship, or anything else about her. In such an instance, even just calling her back might have had terrible consequences for her.
However, in the case of our project in Jhinjhwa, we were trying to assimilate with the community, especially with the women, and we knew much more about their lives. Although we were advised against it, we could have started a conversation with them about their lives at home. This is only true because we were at the liberty of identifying whether these particular women had access to support – support in the form of recourse to policies protecting them, to social workers or NGOs who could help them, or to support systems within their community and household.
Finally, we were in a position whereby we could lay out all the options available to them and the consequences of their decisions if they chose to act or speak against abuse. We could have equipped them to make an informed decision about their own circumstance, even at the risk of them choosing to prolong their oppression.
If we want to defend the rights of these women we must first make the distinction between those we can and cannot help. It is crucial that before we take any action we become completely aware of the possible consequences of that action on the lives of those we try to help.
The authors gratefully acknowledge comments and suggestions by Ankur Sarin, Anjali Mody, J. Devika, and Praveena Kodoth.
- The study is being jointly conducted by researchers from Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, and Centre for Policy Research Delhi, to investigate the take-up, application and admission experiences of section 12(1)(c) of Right to Education Act in Ahmedabad.
- Concepts of agency and adaptive preferences have been extensively discussed by Sen (1980, 1985a, 1985b, 2005), Nussbaum (2001a, 2001b, 2005), and Alkire (2005), among others, in their work on capabilities, agency and well-being.
- Alkire, Sabina (2005), "Subjective quantitative studies of human agency", Social Indicators Research, 74(1):217-260.
- Amato, Paul R (1994), "The impact of divorce on men and women in India and the United States", Journal of comparative family studies, 25(2):207-221.
- Desai, Sonalde, Reeve Vanneman and National Council of Applied Economic Research (2015), ‘India Human Development Survey-II (IHDS-II), 2011-12 (ICPSR 36151)’, Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, Ann Arobor, Michigan.
- Duflo, Esther (2012), "Women empowerment and economic development", Journal of Economic Literature, 50(4):1051-1079. Available here.
- Khader, SJ (2011), Adaptive preferences and women’s empowerment, Oxford University Press, New York.
- Kodoth, Praveena (2005), "Fostering insecure livelihoods: dowry and female seclusion in left developmental contexts in West Bengal and Kerala", Economic and Political Weekly, 40(25):2543-2554.
- Nussbaum, Martha C (2001a), "Symposium on Amartya Sen's philosophy: 5 Adaptive preferences and women's options", Economics & Philosophy, 17(1):67-88.
- Nussbaum, MC (2001b), Women and human development: The capabilities approach, Vol. 3, Cambridge University Press.
- Nussbaum, Martha C (2005), "Women's bodies: Violence, security, capabilities", Journal of Human Development, 6(2):167-183.
- Renzetti, CM (2009), ‘Economic stress and domestic violence’, Applied Research Forum, National Online Resource Center on violence against women.
- Rosenzweig, Mark R, and Paul T Schultz (1982), "Market opportunities, genetic endowments, and intrafamily resource distribution: Child survival in rural India", The American Economic Review, 72(4):803-815.
- Sen, AK (1980), ‘Equality of What?’, in S McMurrin (Ed.), Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol. I, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Sen, AK (1985a), Commodities and Capabilities, North-Holland, Amsterdam.
- Sen, Amartya (1985b), “Well-being, agency and freedom: The Dewey lectures 1984”, The journal of philosophy, 82(4):169-221.
- Sen, Amartya (2005), "Human rights and capabilities", Journal of human development, 6(2):151-166.
- Thomas, Duncan (1990), "Intra-household resource allocation: An inferential approach", Journal of human resources, 25(4):635-664. Available here.