India, Poverty, and Gender

Impetus for Iman Grewal’s Thesis Study

Flipping through a National Geographic Magazine in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, I came across a story entitled “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides.”  I read the story with interest and paused often to take in the photographs of girl-brides, some as young as five years old.  On the last page of the article was the photograph of thirteen-year-old Sunil standing by herself in front of a white wall decorated with posters of women both in traditional and “modern” clothes.  I lingered over Sunil’s picture for a long time, and continue to wonder if it is the confident lift of her shoulder, the defiant tilt of her chin, or the light of no-nonsense strength in her eyes—or perhaps a combination of these features (especially as it stood in stark contrast to the other photographs in the article)—that captures my fascination every time I look at the photograph.  At the age of eleven, Sunil’s parents arranged her marriage.  Aware of the fact that marriage for girls before the age of eighteen had been made illegal following India’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Sunil threatened to inform the police unless her parents agreed to call off the wedding and let her stay in school.  Sunil’s informed and courageous stand worked; two years later, according to the article, she is still in school, surprisingly with her mother’s support who now believes that education will give Sunil an “edge against others” (Gorney, 2011, p. 98).

Sunil’s awareness of her right to an education combined with her ability to exercise this right gave her the courage to resist the limits that her family and society placed on her freedom to choose a life she desires, and has a right to desire.  While constructs of childhood have varied across time and culture, it is only in the past few decades that children are beginning to be recognized as autonomous beings deserving of their own rights.  It is this emerging new construct of childhood that recognizes that childhood cannot and must not be understood as an a-historic, monolithic, or universal construct.  Instead it must be understood as an historical and social construct that varies based on (but not limited to) a child’s race, gender, class, ethnicity, region, and religion and to which each society assigns varying expectations, opportunities, and values (Pufall & Unsworth, 2004).  In India’s highly socially stratified society, children are placed near the bottom of the hierarchy, their status affording them sparse legal, social, or economic protection (Kakar, 1982; Bhakry, 2006).  Under India’s long history of patrifocal family structure (discussed in Chapter 2), children are seen as members of a family rather than as individuals, as property of their fathers rather than as autonomous, and boys are far more highly valued than girls.  Kismet (destiny), believed to be shaped by one’s deeds from the previous life, is widely accepted to determine an individual’s life course (Kakar, 1982; Clarke, 2001; Bhakry, 2006).  Besides being highly socially stratified, Indian society is also extremely economically stratified so that children in poverty have a lower status than children of wealthy families.  The intersection of poverty and gender means that girls living in poverty (like Sunil) are on the lowest rung of the social status hierarchy.  Within this social, economic, and political context, then, Sunil’s gender, age, and class renders her defiant stand that much more exceptional and admirable.  

It is relevant at this point to ponder what other choice Sunil could have made in the absence of the rights granted to her by the Indian Government and various international rights conventions, especially the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989).  Rights, Alderson (2008) offers, are a powerful tool for social justice since, once granted, rights can be equally claimed by everyone thereby extending equality, worth, and dignity to every person.  Rights therefore are a “valuable commodity,” especially for those such as children without other means of power (Freeman, 1997 p. 14).  The CRC is the first legally-binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political, and social—for children.  Article 28 of the CRC gives children the right to education by recognizing that education is a necessary precursor to the attainment of all other rights, and the belief that education has the potential to act both as a “freeing” and “equalizing” agent.  

Inequality of various kinds is part of every society but, in India, class, caste, gender, and region-based inequalities have created “lethal divisions and disparities” (Dreze & Sen, 2013, p. 213).  In the Capabilities Approach, Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2000) propose that inequality must be understood in terms of its impact on individual capabilities—where capability is a combination of actual freedom to choose and actual functioning.  They argue that inequalities limit an individual’s actual freedoms to choose from among possibilities, to do and to be what she values and has reason to value.  In other words, inequalities, particularly poverty and gender based inequalities, create a gap between what an individual does and becomes and what an individual is actually capable of doing and becoming.  Nussbaum (2000) says that there is a sense of waste and tragedy when an individual is given a life that “blights powers of human action and expression” (p. 83).  A “good life,” on the other hand, is one in which an individual has genuine choice as opposed to being forced into a particular path.  Within this framework, then, girls who are forced to marry at an early age when they would prefer to stay in school do not have a “good life”; theirs is a life of tragedy and waste.  Similar to the rights framework, the Capability Approach gives due importance to education and sees it as essential to the fulfillment of all central capabilities.  Both Sen (1999, 2013) and Nussbaum (2000, 2011a) are strong supporters of education, particularly education of women and girls living in poverty for whom education has the potential to increase their actual freedoms and functioning by increasing access to information and strengthening capabilities in the political, social, and economic spheres. 

Elizabeth Gersabeck