High Status Of Women In Kerala

Updated: Jun 2 2003, 05:30am hrs
Research is re-appraising the so-called Kerala model of development which indicated the possibilities of higher social development at low levels of per capita income. The fact that economic backwardness was the flip-side of social development constituted the initial critiques. Later, the question of whether Keralas high levels of female literacy affected fertility and mortality outcomes also came under the scanner.

Mridul Eapen and Praveena Kodoth in a fascinating paper* examine whether high levels of female literacy, together with non-domestic employment, translate into high status and a central role in social development. How does one reconcile this with the growing gender-based violence, mental illness and the rapid incidence of dowry and related crimes Or this occupational segregation or a gendered work structure

Initial work on these themes tended to emphasise conjunctural factors such as the1970s Gulf boom, in which lakhs of young adult male workers headed to West Asian countries often leaving behind their families back in Kerala. The spread of material prosperity brought in its train tremendous strains on the family fabric: Divorces, a rising gender-based violence and mental illness were regarded as the dark side of the Gulf boom.

Eapen and Kodoths work is different as it focuses on socio-cultural institutions such as the family to explain whether womens status in Keralas society is all that high and reconcile their insights with the disturbing gender-biased phenomena discussed above. The family is the key as it mediates micro-level decisions regarding education, health or employment. What emerges from their work is a critique of the so-called Kerala model.

According to them, changes in the structure and practices of families in the past century have had wide-ranging implications for gender relations... alterations in marriage, inheritance and succession practices have... weakened womens access to and control of inherited resources... the persistence of a gendered work structure have limited womens claims to self-acquired or independent sources of wealth.

While the so-called Kerala model focuses on the high aggregate levels of female literacy in the state, the authors observe that gender disparity is low upto the 10th standard but a considerable difference exists at the college levels. Interestingly, they find that even in the field of higher education... it is the courses which would lead to suitable professions for women, from the point of view of their familial roles/ responsibilities that have a larger intake of girls.

For example, in teaching, girls far outnumbered the percentage of boys in the graduates and above category; there is preponderance of girls in stenography, dress-making, secretarial practice and data preparation according to data on the trade-wise intake into government ITIs and private ITCs. The girls intake into the 2-year technical course is negligible.

Family structures are responsible for these trends as they channel female education to specific areas, facilitating occupational segregation in less productive areas. The gendering of work actually reflects wom-ens weaker position rather than high status. The gradual informalisation of womens work and withdrawal of educated women from the labour market further weakens their access to self-acqu-ired income. With their weaker position, can dom-estic violence, declining property rights and mental illnesses be far behind Higher levels of female literacy havent played the transformative role assum-ed by the so-called Kerala model.

*Family structure, womens education and work: Reexamining the high status of women in Kerala Working paper no 341, November 2002, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram