August 20, 2019

Ignoring Women Makes You Only Half Knowledgeable

In an insightful and fascinating lecture on women’s representation, Prof. Bina Agarwal brings the role of women to the fore as better protectors of forests and climate.

An article by Manzar Imam (@manzarnaama)

Art-pic-1New Delhi, December 22, 2015: There are a whole range of factors which suggest that participation of women in governance brings betters outcomes, asserted Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester while delivering the last lecture in the Prism Lecture Series organized by LILA Foundation for Trans local Initiatives here at India Habitat Centre on 22 December, 2015.

Entitled “Presence and Representation: Gender, Government and Green Governance,” the lecture outlined the role of women in different public spheres, especially in forest protection and preservation, which according to the award-winning author, leads to better environmental conditions.

Prof. Agarwal delineated two extreme positions as far as participation of women in governance is concerned because “effective democratic governance will require active participation from all citizens” which also includes “participation of women”. But what does participation mean, and how can it be achieved? Should each person be present directly or, should one person stand for another? Agarwal asked these questions adding that both propositions were clearly untenable. Then what does participation mean, and how to ensure it?

To answer this, she posed even more questions like, “Why is women’s presence important in institutions? Do women represent women’s interest? Why can’t men represent women? As participation of one caste group does not necessarily represent [all in] that caste and also, as women have multiple identities, so the question again, ‘Which of these identities do you prioritize?’ Also, as representation is not important only in government institutions but also in semi-government or non-governmental institutions, so, ‘To what extent do these representatives represent women in these institutions?’”

After what the pioneering analyst of gender inequality termed as the “conceptual complexities”, she said if you take the fist position like what is in Gram Sabhas where each person can’t be part of a decision, so it cannot be tenable. The second position is also not tenable because there can’t be congruity of political ideas and interests.

The most obvious answer to why women’s presence is required is “equality”. There is also the “question of justice”. But there are other aspects, like diversity which in itself is an intrinsic value: Then, people argue that if you bring in women it will improve governance, it will improve the decisions that are taken and it will improve the outcomes.

For some, women are perceived to be more cooperative, less competitive, and less corrupt. Some believe that women’s presence brought more caring, sharing and moral values to public domain leading even to less aggressive behavior.

She said that women’s presence has “impact on group dynamics” as was noticed in Scandinavian countries where it was observed that things began to change after women participated. The change was also seen in the culture of interaction in Parliament. The timing for crucial meetings began to change; the kinds of Bills introduced also began to change.

Secondly, women’s presence would impact “policy priorities”. “The moment you begin to bring in policy you move out of the domain of simple ethics into the domain of also economics.” She gave empirical evidence of women Pradhan in India who would prioritize issues like health, water, food products as was also observed in some Western countries.

Thirdly, she presented her own research and findings which reveal that women’s presence made significant difference in forest conservation. It was because “Women and men had different sort and varying degree of knowledge”. When women were 25 to 33 percent in the executive committees of these (forests) groups if you compare them with mainly male groups, the outcomes were different. It made a huge difference because “there was 51 percent of greater likelihood of improvement in forest canopy”.

Why this the case? Firstly, there is better protection. Because they depend so much on forest, if they are not part of rule-making they are much more likely to part of rule breaking. And, “When they are brought into the rule-making process, they become protectors.” In addition, they were able to stop other women from intrusions. They also brought different ecological groups. Also, their knowledge of the forest was more than men’s in a different way for instance, since women draw their knowledge from fiber and fodder and herbs and non-timber products from the forest, they know more about these and, since men deal with timber, they know more about it. So they have different types of knowledge. “If you pool that knowledge your knowledge base in going to expand and if you ignore that knowledge you are going to have only half of that knowledge.”

About what she referred as “strategic dilemma” while cross-questioning her own argument whether women in government represented women’s interests, Agarwal pointed that women rarely spoke in Parliament or introduced Bills. Fundamental questions are not necessarily raised by women.

She also discussed the historical background of quotas and reservations for women and the related movements and said that after the first elections post-reservation of one third seats for women members, we got over a million village women in which we saw 86000 chairpersons and vice chairs. But this was in the government.

After raising the above questions, counter-questions, and assumptions, she posed the most important question as to how to ensure women’ representation and ensure it was effective. She answered that it has to be “critical mass” of presence that would make women’s presence effective. And, that critical mass is somewhere between 25 to 33 percent but therein again the question of heterogeneity exists.Art-pic-2

About women representing women’s interests, she said that women themselves may not like women’s interest as found in some surveys that they were mainly interested in raising general issues because they wanted to secure their own positions. She said that in the 1640s women groups raised three important questions: women’s education, women’s right to property, and women’s right to vote. But now, even that is not the case. So what’s the point of electing women in power? Is that the lesson we take? We should not take that lesson.

We find examples in three countries, United States of America, Australia and South Africa. What is different in these countries is that the women MPs in all these countries had very close links with women’s movements: They had quite systematic links with lot of bargaining power; and they set up institutional mechanism of trying to find out what they wanted. They showed that their presence was not like “gender in itself” but “gender for itself”.

She termed the “women representing women’s interests” as “the most complicated and important” as it brings women to the point of how they think. These ideas could be about gender, social justice, environmental conservation, green governance, cleanliness houses for the homeless and so on but those ideas that transcend your particular interest and beyond which are actually universal values. She suggested that women’s participation must shift from nominal to “empowered” to influence the nature of decision-making.

Moderating the post-lecture discussion, Prof. Zoya Hasan said that the lecture displayed women’s multiple identities which complicate the concept of women’s issue. She said whether women’s interests were more attached to the respective parties or not, their presence was important in itself. She said that the issue of women’s representation is global, national and local and asked to emphasize on access to power structures, participation in decision-making procedure and achieving a gender balance in institutions.

Should we not focus on women representation per se rather than “burden women alone within a system that they must represent women’s interest”? Zoya asked. “Representation in itself is important regardless of its impact on policy outcomes, which certainly is a bonus.”

Rizio Yohannan Raj, Executive Director of LILA, introduced the next year’s theme of the lectures stating that the idea is not some ornamental discussion but a meaningful dialogue which can help develop some wealth of knowledge.

About the author:

Manzar ImamManzar Imam is pursuing his Ph.D from the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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