During a research visit to Karainagar, an Island connected by a causeway to Jaffna, I listened to a single mother’s struggle to educate her three children. She had returned to her home in Karainagar having survived the war in the Vanni. Her family’s main income over the recent years was from cooking lunch packets for construction workers, which also ensured at least one full meal for her family. This livelihood provided her with roughly Rs.200 in disposable cash each day for other household expenses. That meagre income and the means of providing food for her family has now been disrupted by reduced construction work with the pandemic. Who can she turn to, who bears the risk, and who can help her shoulder the burden of this situation?
The pandemic-triggered economic depression that continues to devastate urban and rural livelihoods has put tremendous stress upon working women. In a context of rising prices, reducing opportunities and lingering uncertainty, women must seek cash incomes, feed their dependents and provide care from nurturing children to nursing elderly relatives with medical needs. This double, sometimes triple, burden borne by women is met with the insultingly meagre social welfare support where households of five or more receive a monthly Samurdhi payment of just Rs. 3,500.
In the North, where I live and work, single women with dependents have been through one form of devastation after another: protracted war with multiple bouts of displacement, coastal destruction with the Tsunami, post-war years of indebted dispossession and now the pandemic coupled with economic depression. What does the future hold for such young and middle-aged women, and how can they better renew and advance their everyday lives? Is it through their individual energies or through group efforts, particularly when the State has absolved itself of responsibility?
One might think women under such tremendous strain and stress would be encouraged to seek ways of sharing their burden, risks and costs of renewing their daily lives; including with collective support for their care work, food provisioning and income-generation. However, neoliberal economic policies targeting the informal sector push for self-employment, with the focus on the “self”. They claim that if working women work hard and persevere, they could become “entrepreneurs” with a bit of seed capital. This narrative is accompanied with a powerful social discourse claiming that any group efforts will fail with freeloaders undermining such initiatives. This follows what British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, the major neoliberal proponent, so famously said “there is no such thing as society.” In other words, you sink or swim as an individual.In this context, self-employment schemes have commonly been linked to microfinance loans, which while promoting “self” initiatives for livelihoods, called on women to form groups to access loans. Microfinance schemes forced women to guarantee each other’s loans with peer pressure, where thugs legitimised as collectors penalised and abused the group when one member failed to repay, resulting in fracturing relationships among neighbours, friends and family members. Indeed, the exploitative and extractive character of microfinance loan sharks with exorbitant interest rates, has been made starkly clear through protests by women. However, the irony here is the socialisation of risk, where capital provided for self-employment and its excessive interest earnings are guaranteed through forming groups, even as women are actively discouraged from working together to generate livelihoods.
Policy and practice of top-down self-employment schemes and the negative experience of dispossession from group-based microfinance have created a social discourse, internalised by many working women, about the unviability of collective efforts for livelihoods. But for many, their individuality is enmeshed with their household, which are sites of patriarchal exploitation and extraction. In interviews with microfinance borrowers, many women openly admit that loans taken were often for their husbands or male relatives, and that they had little say in the livelihood initiatives or the attendant incomes.
"The pandemic-triggered economic depression that continues to devastate urban and rural livelihoods has put tremendous stress upon working women"
Such concerns have been amply researched by progressive economists. Over three decades ago, in a seminal essay titled ‘Gender and Cooperative Conflicts’, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen called for “gender as a force of its own in development analysis.” He went onto argue:
“Members of the household face two different types of problems simultaneously, one involving cooperation (adding to total availabilities) and the other conflict (dividing the total availabilities among the members of the household). Social arrangements regarding who does what, who gets to consume what, and who takes what decisions can be seen as responses to this combined problem of cooperation and conflict. The sexual division of labour is one part of such a social arrangement, and it is important to see it in the context of the entire arrangement.”
Drawing from Sen, any move to think about cooperation also should
In the war-torn social and economic landscape of the North, the search for affordable and accessible credit to support sustainable livelihoods that generate incomes and savings have led many women to consider the possibilities of co-operative alternatives. Indeed, the long history of thrift and credit co-operative societies with their predominant membership of women and the proliferation of women’s self-help groups in recent decades, provide for a vast social infrastructure and experience that is the ideological basis for confronting the neoliberal attack on collectives.
In this ideological and economic landscape, many women work together for accessing credit, co-production of livelihoods and joint efforts at marketing to realise income streams. These micro-level initiatives are also determined by the macro-level economic context of prices, demand and markets. Nevertheless, at the heart of this issue is the possibility of women’s co-operation and solidarity towards their empowerment both in their communities and within their homes.
Recent studies by the feminist economist Bina Agarwal have pointed to the success of group farming by women in Kerala over the last two decades. In an important research article published last year, ‘Labouring for Livelihoods: Gender, Productivity and Collectivity’, she argues:
“Collectives can reduce the effect of state and market failures for the disadvantaged. They can help bridge, to a fair extent, both the gender resource gap and the gender productivity gap in agriculture, and enable women to operate with autonomy as farm managers. They give us insights into women’s capabilities, and their ability to cooperate and create livelihoods that simply focusing on their labour force participation cannot. … However, forming a collective cannot, in itself, help to bridge the gender gap in land ownership which continues to be a barrier.”
Our policymakers and donors obsessed about the low labour force participation of women should wake up to these insights about collective farming.
When women’s collectives are scaled up through unions and federations, they provide multiple possibilities. In addition to such federations spreading risk into a form of social insurance, they also provide greater bargaining power for accessing affordable credit to prices for inputs and end products. Furthermore, in scaling up from village quarters to district level forums, advocacy can be undertaken to address political concerns, including for redistribution of resources such as land. The economic and political solidarity in such scaled up co-operation can empower women in their communities and homes. But first, the ideological straightjacket of the neoliberal individual woman entrepreneur and the idea of their endless perseverance leading to prosperity should be shred to bits.