Engendering communities

By Archana Prasad
Published: Thursday 15 April 2004

-- livelihood and gender: equity in community resource management Sumi Krishna eds Sage Publications New Delhi 2004 Rs 680

Gender concerns in livelihood studies have become commonplace with most scholars questioning the existence of an egalitarian community. Feminist scholars argue that traditional codes do not take care of gender concerns in natural resource management. They accept that autonomous control of the community over natural resources is the best mechanism for decentralised sustainable resource use, even as they critique the idea of the community. The main issue however, is how women can be made more powerful within the community. Sumi Krishna's book Livelihood and Gender toes this line of scholarship but differs from other such works in the methodology of analysis.

According to Krishna, the book is an attempt at presenting a "genderscape" of community rights focusing largely on: traditional resource use practices, their impact on gender relations and their links with the larger changing patterns of resource use and control.

The book, which is largely a revised reprint of the articles in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies (vol 8, no 2, 2001-02) special issue on 'gender and community rights', has four sections. The first section is on field interventions and includes caste studies alongside a theoretical overview of participatory development in watershed management in India. The second is on gender needs and natural resource use patterns. A serious omission in this section is the issue of globalisation and its gendered impact. It is especially glaring since most of the field studies included were conducted during the period of economic liberalisation.

The third section is a critique of customary gender ideologies. Sumi Krishna's article on the matrilineal society of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram is undeniably the highpoint of this section and provides a much-needed critique of the matrilineal society. However, even here some fundamental questions remain unanswered. For instance, can reforming of community and customary systems lead to empowerment of women? If not, what are the other possible organisational forms that can lead to a truly egalitarian system of resource control and management?

The last section reflects on questions of agency and empowerment and includes case studies from Himachal Pradesh and Bihar. The afterword comprises Sumi Krishna's interview with feminist scholar Vina Mazumdar.

Overall, the book is impressive in scope and scale, and provides an interesting medley of case studies. But the theoretical framework fails to provide fresh insights as to how the women's movement can respond to the agrarian crisis. Moreover, the view that community institutions are more gender-friendly seems over-determined. This leads to a deliberate omission of the central question of what types of organisational innovations are needed to create conditions for a gender-friendly social, cultural and economic environment.

Archana Prasad is a fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

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