Boserups thesis and status of women

Boserup’s – thesis and status of women

The publication of Ester Boserup’s book in 1970, coincided with the growing wave of feminist consciousness in Europe and USA and youth radicalization all over the world. Boserup argues that a change in the density of population results in the change of techniques in farming, which requires a higher labour input resulting in a change in the division of labour between men and women. She distinguished between two systems of subsistence agriculture. One is characterized by shifting cultivation, done mainly by female farmers, as in Africa. The other, characterized by plough cultivation, done mainly by male farmers as in South Asia. Boserup criticized the “dubious generalization” according to which males were considered to be the providers of food. With her comparative analysis, she pointed out the differences in women’s work, emphasizing the important role women
played in African agriculture as compared to the lesser role women played in Asian and Latin American countries.

The reasons for such a difference– in Africa were a low density of population, absence of agrarian technologies and shortage of domestic animals for agrarian task. Land was easily accessible and there was less class differentiation. Thus the men were mainly occupied with clearing the land, while the women cultivated subsistence crops.

In her analysis, Boserup points to the existence of a strong correlation between economic conditions and polygamy. In areas of plough cultivation, where there is a small minority of polygamous marriages, the women are totally dependent on their husbands for economic support and they are valued only as mothers.

Boserup went on to analyze and point out the adverse effects that European colonialism and the capitalist penetration of subsistence economies often had on women. The European colonial rulers were largely responsible for the neglect of the female farming systems of Africa and the resulting loss of status of the African women. They were unsympathetic to the female farming systems that they found in many of their colonies and believed in the superiority of the male farming system.

Hence, when they introduced modern technology, cash crops, and so forth, Boserup argues that they trained only the males to the neglect of the female farmers. This benefited the men, enhancing their prestige and lowering that of women. The discriminatory policies followed in education and training created a technical, cultural and productivity gap between men and women. Women were increasingly relegated to the subsistence sector of food production using the traditional methods of cultivation. The “land reforms introduced by the European administrators”, also resulted in the loss of land rights for the women. From being cultivators themselves, women were increasingly marginalized from agriculture and reduced to being “unpaid helpers in the production of crops belonging to their husbands”.

Thus, women lost income and status in comparison to men.

Boserup also analyzed the status of women and the sexual divisions of labour that WID- WAD-GAD Part-I existed in non-agricultural activities particularly in the urban areas. She divides towns into predominantly female or male towns. Her thesis challenged the commonly held notion that women’s status and their rights automatically improve  with modernization. Despite Boserup’s path breaking contribution to the field of women in development, her work has also led to a great deal of debate and controversy.

Critique of Boserup

One of the earliest critics of Boserup’s thesis, Suellen Huntington, argued that the division of farming systems into male and female, ignored important aspects of male domination which could not be explained only by developments in agricultural technology. Besides this, Huntington pointed out that in female farming systems, women may have had an important role in agricultural production. However, it did not mean that they enjoyed equal status or greater power in relation to men.

Claims for women’s equality should be argued for on their own merits and not depend on historical evidence that is refutable. Lourdes Beneria and Gita Sen, argued that Boserup’s thesis was “essentially empirical and descriptive” and that it “lacked a clearly defined theoretical framework”. They criticized her for accepting the capitalist model of development as given. Women’s economic marginalization was due to their incorporation into the worldwide capitalist system which exploited their labour and not because they were excluded from productive labour. Further, they argued that Boserup concentrates on women’s role outside the household and thus ignores women’s role in reproduction and domestic production. Hence, it is argued that, Boserup’s analysis lacks a feminist perspective on women’s subordination (For a detailed critique of Boserup’s thesis, see L. Beneria and G. Sen, 1981). Boserup’s thesis, however, justified the efforts to influence government policy and development on the basis of both justice and efficiency. The debate on Boserup’s thesis can be located in a larger debate which can be largely labeled as the “Decolonization of the Mind” or in other words the issue of development and the politics of knowledge.

For the modernization theorists, decolonization had come to mean westernization and the very idea of decolonization assumed a model similar to the child development model. While Carol Gilligan pointed out to the implicit male bias in the model, Nandy had pointed out the implicit imperialistic bias in these models of decolonization. Debates on the western model as environmentally destructive and spiritually lacking were in focus. Tariq Banuri has summarized this in his work “Modernization and its Discontents – A Cultural Perspective on the Theories of Development”. Tariq Banuri points out, that in order to understand the problems of development and progress one needs to look at the cultural context within which they arose. He argues that the theories of modernization are placed
in a unique kind of culture, where “the impersonal is superior to the personal”.

The modernization theories argue that due to this existence of personal relations in traditional societies, development is impeded. The neo-classical economic theory too, Banuri argues, looks upon the individual as separate from the environment.