Customs that can kill women

Women, Culture and Development - Mortgaging Women's Lives
May 24, 1996

These two books make important contributions to recent thinking on the role of women in non-European societies. Whereas Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover's anthology evaluates the philosophical bases of the concepts of justice and equity, Pamela Sparr's anthology elucidates the impact of International Monetary Fund/World Bank inspired structural adjustment policies. Women are central to both books; the unequal relationship of power, between men and women, inside and outside the family, makes it problematic to engage in a gender-neutral discussion either on development or on justice. Gender likewise becomes an essential consideration, as the contributions in these books show, in understanding women's resistance to disempowerment and social injustice.

The essays in Nussbaum and Glover's anthology project a powerful and timely critique of cultural relativism in assessing the quality of life. Women are the majority of the poor and powerless anywhere, but their share is staggeringly high in relatively more traditional societies. Women's lack of power is perhaps most manifest, as Amartya Sen argues in this book, in differing rates of mortality between women, men and children in various countries. As Sen points out, if we took the European and North American ratio of women to men, around 1.05, to be the biological norm, the number of "missing" women in Asia and North Africa would be huge. In China alone it would be more than 50 million.

It is against this background that the anthology cautions us on unquestioningly accepting tradition and customs. It would be simplistic, as Nussbaum so cogently argues, to ascribe the phenomenon of more than 100 million "missing women" to poverty alone. She writes: "When there is a scarcity, custom frequently decides who get to eat the little there is, and who gets taken to the doctor . . . Customs, in short, are important causes of women's misery and death."

The book is the outcome of the now famous debate that took place at the United Nations University World Institute of Development Economics Research in Helsinki in the late 1980s between the cultural relativists and the essentialists. This anthology presents the viewpoints of the essentialists. The thinking around the concept of justice are elaborations on Sen's "capabilities approach" that has been the foundation of the indicators of social well-being, in the Human Development Reports, now published by the United Nations annually. The approach focusses on capabilities for functioning, and not merely on opulence as reflected in per capita gross national product, for measuring the quality of life. It thus evaluates the distribution of opportunities and resources. The approach takes a universalist stand, whereby the functions of human beings are worth care and attention in public planning. It is also clear on gender equality, pointing to the unequal functioning of the world's women as a bad state of affairs and one which needs altering.

By espousing the cause of universalist values, the contributors refute the pleas made by the relativist school for suspension of judgement on customs in non-European societies. In a previous anthology, Dominant Knowledge, edited by Frederique Apffel Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin in 1990 and also commissioned by UNU/WIDER, a major protagonist of cultural relativism bemoans the disappearance of the cult of Sitala Devi (the goddess to whom one used to pray in order to avoid smallpox) in India with the introduction of smallpox vaccination by the British. Another scholar likewise urges us to be tolerant and less Eurocentric: "[traditional] practices must be understood in context, as a part of cultural whole . . . female circumcision should not be a pretext for labelling African culture as backward, or suttee a pretext for proclaiming the inferiority of traditional Hindu culture."

Coming from a traditional background in semi-urban India, and as one who had to run away from home to avoid an arranged marriage, I must admit, I am allergic to such unquestioning acceptance of customs and traditional values and I felt deeply reassured by the cogent arguments of third-world women, who share my apprehension, in this multidimensional Nussbaum-Glover anthology.

The combination of philosophical discourse, feminist insights and thorough economic analysis makes the book highly unusual. In spite of the demanding nature of the philosophical arguments Q combining Nussbaum's liberal/Aristotelian approach, Glover's modified utilitarianism, Onora O'Neill's liberal Kantianism, Ruth Anna Putnam's pragmatism, Jurgen Benhabib's dialogical approach derived from Habermas Q the book is refreshingly readable with writing that is witty and displays deep empathy with human values.

The contributors warn us against the dangers of moral relativity that may arise even from a claim for a women's vision of equity and justice. As Putnam in the anthology argues: "The demands for feminist themes of justice or for limiting the range of the liberal conception of justice to the so-called West . . . are not to the advantage of the least advantaged. Let us not open, in the name of toleration, the doors to intolerance, but let us, in the name of universalism, be prepared to learn from the cries of the oppressed, whoever and wherever they are."

Sparr's anthology provides a similar confluence of academic argument and political commitment. The programme for liberalisation and export-oriented industrialisation Q the case of the structural adjustment programmes Q has caused upheavals in the economic structure of many poor countries. In this transitional phase from a closed to an open economy, the effects on women have been traumatic. In almost all countries, beset with the problems of structural adjustment, women's increased unpaid work has been the main means of families' survival.

In a series of carefully chosen case studies of countries as diverse as Jamaica, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the anthology highlights the way structural adjustment alters the work, the allocation of resources and household dynamics.

Joan French's essay on Jamaica shows why women often have to resort to migration, prostitution or higglering (petty vending) to survive.

Sparr's introduction provides an excellent description and definition of structural adjustment and of the basic tenets of neoclassical economics. It will be a useful text for those who are not only interested in feminist issues but also in understanding the functioning of international mega-institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The book draws our attention to the role that nongovernment organisations and women workers' organisations play in the emergent civil society. The material on which the essays draw is slightly dated, as most of the figures do not go beyond 1988, but the strategies of empowerment for women that the book advocates still remain valid. "On the one hand, we need a targeted approach that organises women and provides specific campaigns for them to improve their economic status. On the other hand, we also need a diffused or integrative approach: transforming existing political institutions, governments, businesses, unions and other private sector economic institutions from within."

The anthology eloquently ends with a plea for monitoring, so as to ensure that transformation language itself does not become coopted by the very institutions that advocate structural adjustment policies.

Swasti Mitter is deputy director, United Nations University Institute for New Technologies, Maastricht.

Women, Culture and Development: A Study of Human Capabilities

Editor - Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover
ISBN - 0 19 828917 0 and 828964 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £50.00 and £14.95
Pages - 481

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