Note: This is the sixth and final post in a series, the whole of which is an article by Martha Nussbaum. The article, entitled "Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities," appeared in the Journal of Human Development (Vol. 6, No. 2, July 2005). Comments are encouraged on parts or on the whole.
Strategies for women’s empowerment
How can we make progress against violence of all the kinds I have described? This is a vast topic, and yet I feel that it can be illuminated by the theoretical approach I have defended. In addition to the obvious strategies of legal reform and better law enforcement, the capabilities approach urges us to think about how we might mobilize one capability to help another. If the analysis of the second section shows that the bad things all hang together, it is also true that supporting one capability helps support others, and sometimes, in an area as culturally contested as this one, the indirect approach through a different capability may be the best. Good women’s organizations typically do not march into a village saying ‘We are here to change gender roles and stop men from beating their wives’. Even when violence is a big part of their agenda, they typically pursue more indirect strategies, giving women greater bargaining power and exit options through economic empowerment.
Agarwal’s study shows that material empowerment matters. In particular, she shows that women who own land do much better on violence than women who do not. In fact, land ownership was by far the single most powerful variable in explaining differences in rates of subjection to violence. Some of these women are helped by land because it enables them to leave abusive marriages; some simply have a stronger bargaining position in their household because of ownership. In any case, Agarwal’s conclusion that reform in property law is a key element in fighting the problem of violence is surely well argued, and, wherever unequal laws of ownership exist, that approach should be tried (Agarwal, 1994; Agarwal and Panda, 2003).
Similarly, credit has a good, although more contested, record in giving women help against violence. There may be cases in which having a loan makes a woman a target for abuse but, on the whole, credit, like land, gives a woman exit options and increased bargaining power. So too with employment outside the home, which gives a woman a greater perceived contribution to the welfare of the family, and also the option to leave an abusive marriage without going into a dangerous or degrading occupation. Education is of course a key to the solution of the problem in several ways, both as a source of consciousness raising and as a source of options (Nussbaum, 2004b). In Agarwal’s Kerala study it was not a significant variable, but that is probably because of the universality of education in Kerala, and also because of the fact that education is not associated with ample employment opportunities. Many educated women from Kerala, leaving their marriages, end up as sex workers in Delhi.
Another capability that can be deployed effectively against violence is political participation. In many countries, laws concerning violence have been toughened through the work of the women’s movement. In India, giving women one-third reservation in the panchayats has clearly changed the power structure at the local level, focusing new attention on issues of importance to women and children.
Finally, however, I would like to emphasize the supreme importance of two closely connected capabilities that are, in my view, architectonic; that is, they organize and suffuse all of the others — practical reason and affiliation. A good women’s organization deploys these capabilities as keys to everything that it does, bringing women together in new relationship of equality and solidarity, and spurring reflection on their shared predicaments. To cite just one example, Adithi, a non-governmental organization in Bihar, India, typically asks women to draw several maps of their village situation: a geographical map, a historical map, and, most important, a power map. The women then reflect together about points of intervention they might choose to change the power structure. (The project is called ‘Reflect’.) At the same time, they join with one another in new relationships. Often they have previously been isolated in the home. Now, in a group that emphasizes mutuality and equality, they sing songs expressive of their determination to take charge of their situation, think about it, and change it. It was in rural Bihar, in the Sitamarhi area, sitting on the ground with a group of extremely poor women, that I heard and joined in the song that I mentioned at the beginning: ‘In every house there is fear; let’s do away with that fear. Let’s build a women’s organization.’ Another song is also pertinent: it is a rewritten version of a traditional song in which a woman bemoans the bad fate that characterizes a woman’s life. The old version went: ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ and then the woman lists all the bad things that have happened to her. Now, the question becomes not a request for information, but a piece of political criticism: ‘Woman, why are you crying? Your tears should become your thoughts.’ Here we have practical reason and affiliation, working together. In every part of India I have visited, women know how to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ — in Bengali, in Telugu, in whatever their regional language.
I believe that these two capabilities are the deepest level on which the world community must approach the problem of violence against women, and that this commitment means promoting new forms of deliberation and affiliation. This insight might have been missed had we approached the problem as an isolated issue, rather than through the prism of an interlocking set of human capabilities. By showing us multiple relationships among a woman’s capabilities and multiple points of intervention, multiple strategies for empowerment through practical reason and affiliation, the capabilities approach makes a distinctive contribution to the resolution of one of the most terrible and tenacious problems of human life.