Sunday, September 15, 2013

Where prices rise and the value of women declines

Published here, DNA, September 6, 2013

Scores of women marching through the streets of 1970s Bombay, brandishing belans and beating steel plates with them, in protest against rising prices—the image of this novel and effective protest is what I recall as I start writing this. How do rising prices affect women in all the different ways in which they are economic actors?

Entering alien territory—economics—to understand this, much of what I found addresses women primarily in their role as caregivers and then, as consumers of essential items. The rising price of food strains household budgets and consumption. A SEWA study in 2009 found as a result of food inflation, the number of meals a household consumed had come down. Moreover, the consumption of nutritious ingredients like dal and dairy products had come down. This applies to vegetables as well; after all, the prices of onions and potatoes have come to symbolise the everyday consequences of inflation.

As wages rarely increase commensurate with prices, the challenge of providing enough to eat, means that a household has to trade off other costs. Often, families trade off the way they access health care. The SEWA study found that most families opt for government health care where they might have paid to go to a private doctor. A small but significant percentage in this survey were not accessing any formal healthcare because they could no longer afford it.

For women, given the traditional hierarchy in patriarchal India, the health consequences are particularly troubling. First, always at the tail end of the food consumption trail, they now get to eat even fewer nutritious foods, the best of each meal being apportioned to men and children, in that sequence. Second, their health concerns are most easily negotiated away. They are more likely to self-medicate or use home remedies more than men or children in the household. Finally, if cost-cutting measures necessitate the firing of household help and the need to augment household income results in their taking up paid work, then a decline in health and health care comes at a time when their responsibilities and workload are growing. Women are more than mothers, but poor nutrition and health in pregnant women and new mothers has lifelong consequences for the health of a child—this should also be noted.

On every cost-cutting measure within the household, including the ones related to transport and schooling, chances are that girls and women come last. If more hands are needed in the household because the mother has to go out to work, it is likely the daughter stays home. Patriarchy finds expression everywhere.

In general, inflation pushes households further into debt and poverty. Single women and female-headed households are often the first to suffer. Their savings decline and the lack of a safety net places them on the brink of survival.

But women are more than homemakers and caregivers—more than wielders of belans and fillers of thalis and mothers of children. Women are factory and agricultural workers, entrepreneurs, service providers and bankers, as well as economists.

Rising prices also reduce earnings for entrepreneurs. One way in which they stay competitive is by keeping their prices constant as far as possible. If you consider the kinds of businesses that women run, however, not many of them work with a large profit margin anyway. For many small and medium enterprise owners, smaller profits do not mean the delayed purchase of a yacht but trouble paying rent, loan instalments and wages. And the first jobs to go in a firm are the support jobs that women are more likely to hold.

Most women in India work in the informal sector, making up one-third of all informal sector workers. Of these, most women work in the informal agricultural sector. Outside agriculture, most women do home-based work. A small percentage of women also work as street vendors; but this small percentage actually masks hundreds of thousands of women. None of these women enjoy benefits (dearness allowances, health care, unemployment benefits) that could cushion the impact of inflation on their lives and households. When inflation strikes, their earnings are simply likely to decline. Think of the woman selling vegetables around the corner from you—as your purchasing power shrinks, you bargain harder over the tomatoes, and at some point, in order to not throw her stock unsold, she has to cave. Her daily earnings shrivel.

The link between inflation and gender-based violence is forged by the way we view daughters in India—as a non-remunerative investment (paraya dhan) whose lesser being must be compensated by the provision of a dowry consisting of gold, immovable property and/or consumer durables, ownership over all of which are transferred in a lavish, more or less public ceremony. Economic opportunities for the bridegroom’s family, weddings ease the bride’s family’s descent into financial ruin--more expensive gold, more expensive goods, more expensive wedding halls, more expensive priests (who have to run their households in this inflationary environment) and more expensive food, transport and housing for guests. Violence does not occur only with dowry harassment and bride-burning; it begins much earlier with the devaluation of the daughter. But when the price of everything rises, the value of the daughter in the wedding transaction is greatly diminished. Her security depends on her ability to deliver goods and services, and she is vulnerable to dowry harassment, to other forms of cruelty and domestic violence, including economic and emotional abuse.

When everything becomes more expensive, the value of the government’s spending on social welfare declines. Charities and individual donors have less to spare and shrink their giving. Some casualties include services to women and girls in the area of health care and education. Also imperilled are support services to victims of violence such as helplines for assault victims or safe houses for domestic violence survivors.

Every changing circumstance brings with it both challenges and opportunities. As a political scientist and a feminist, I think about women’s agency in the face of rising prices. Anti-price rise protests are certainly an example, but are there others and how does their influence endure?
Coming from the study of conflicts and other emergency situations, we know that the new roles that are thrust upon women in these times increase their decision-making power in many ways. As female heads of households, women in refugee camps make decisions for their families that they never could before. The story of the thousands of women who worked in factories in the US during the Second World War and as auxiliaries in the armed forces, is well-known.

Does sustained price rise have this unintended effect? Do more women find ways to add to their household income by starting small home-based firms or looking for jobs? As more women enter the workforce, are jobs created for household support-providers? And the experience of emergencies and conflicts also leads us to ask: What happens when prices come down or become ‘normal’? Do women return to the home and to marginal roles therein? Does the double-burden of household and income-generating work remain that for women, while men enjoy the additional household income without the additional work?  The feminist economists (and there are many in India) that would have insights into some of these questions are rarely seen or heard in the mainstream media.

Inflation and economic hardship reinforce and intensify the structural disadvantages that women face, well beyond the challenges of caregiving in straitened circumstances. Women’s access to nutrition and health care is further diminished. Their workload increases. Social welfare and support services decline. Diminished means and status add up to greater vulnerability to violence. As the purchase price of goods and services goes up, it would appear that we value women and girls less. All of us are responsible for helping women find agency and autonomy in these circumstances.

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