A Limited Women's Empowerment: Politics, the State, and Development in Northwest India

By Madhok, Sumi | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A Limited Women's Empowerment: Politics, the State, and Development in Northwest India


Madhok, Sumi, Women's Studies Quarterly


Feminist development theorists and practitioners face a growing challenge from an increased appropriation of their conceptual language and categories by international and state-level organizations or what I shall term here "institutional feminism." This institutionalized feminism employs the language but not the feminist explanatory frameworks in identifying and providing solutions to women's subordination. Above all, institutional feminisms lead to the depoliticisation of the feminist development agenda and the consequent blurring of the distinction between a feminist emancipatory politics and the gender policy frameworks of many institutions. For instance, the World Bank, several United Nations agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and policies of nation states share the "empowerment platform" with feminist theorists and activists. While empowerment has become a "motherhood term" (Parpart, Rai, and Staudt 2002, 3) and a common ideological meeting point for disparate actors, its widespread deployment by no means masks the different conceptual, procedural, and substantive concerns that underlie the commitment of different institutions to women's empowerment. For feminist development theorists and practitioners, empowerment not only signifies an "expansion of freedom of choice and action" (World Bank 2002, 11) through increasing the efficiency and responsiveness of institutions but also involves a radical restructuring of gendered social and political structures of power (Batliwala 1994; Agarwal 1994; Young 1993) through political engagements and activism (Batliwala 1994; Kabeer 1994; Staudt 2002) in order to "redistribute power and resources" (Stein 1997, 1). In light of this distinct deployment of the empowerment language, can there be any prospects for a collaborative politics between feminists and other institutional development actors? Is a feminist grassroots politics compatible with policies for women's development sponsored by states? In this article, I shall analyse the nature and limits of collaborative politics between feminists and state-led develop ment agencies by focusing on the experience of the Women's Development Programme (WDP) sponsored by the state government of Rajasthan, in Northwestern India. This programme, I argue, serves well as a test case for analysing the interface between feminist ideas of development and those upheld by the institutions of the state.

The WDP is an effective test case for an analysis of the relationship between state initiatives and feminist politics for the following reasons. The programme drew on a variegated set of development ideas. It incorporated ideas espoused by the internationalist women's development frameworks, feminist conceptual frames, and the development goals set by the Indian state in its sixth five-year plan. The development programme conceived its principal role and activities in consultative exercises with women's development experts, activists, researchers, and NGOs, an exercise that resulted in the adoption of a development ethos markedly different from the top-down, skill-disbursement nature of common development programmes of the time. This departure from other development programmes was reflected in the WDP's focus. It shifted its emphasis away from the mechanisms delivering benefits to the recipients of development policies, to the subjects of development, that is, to women. The development mantra embodied in the WDP was one of women's "self-development" and "self-empowerment." Women were addressed as subjects of development policy rather than as incidental beneficiaries of development policies aimed at households and children. A novel alliance was forged between the state and nongovernment actors, which in turn led to the creation of new administrative structures within the WDP to accommodate and articulate the concerns of the feminist researchers, activists, and NGOs. This partnership fostered in its wake a new and direct relationship between development policies and women and established a linkage between rural and urban women, with the latter taking on responsibility of training the primary workers of the programme, the sathins (literally, female companions).

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