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  Women and work—the capabilities approach  

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  Noam Chomsky
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Raj Kamal Jha
  Martha Nussbaum

Krishna Sobti
  Ramakanta Rath
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Martha Nussbaum

I found myself beautiful as a free human mind

Mrinal, in Rabindranath Tagore’s
Letter from a Wife

It is obvious that the human eye gratifies itself in a way different from the crude, non-human eye; the human ear different from the crude ear, etc...The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract being as food; it could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Two women trying to flourish

Ahmedabad in Gujarat is the textile-mill city where Mahatma Gandhi organised labour in accordance with his principles of non-violent resistance. Tourists visit it for its textile museum and its Gandhi ashram. But today it attracts attention, too, as the home of another resistance movement: the Self-Employed Women’s Association, with more than 50,000 members, which for over twenty years has been helping female workers to improve their living conditions through credit, education, and a labour union. On one side of the polluted river that bisects the city is the shabby old building where SEWA was first established, now used as offices for staff. On the other side are the education offices and the SEWA bank, newly housed in a marble office building. All the customers and all the employees of this bank are women.

Vasanti sits on the floor in the meeting room of the old office building, where SEWA members meet to consult with staff. A tiny dark woman in her early thirties, she wears an attractive electric blue sari, and her long hair is wound neatly into a bun on the top of her head. Soft and round, she seems more comfortable sitting than walking. Her teeth are uneven and discoloured, but otherwise she looks in reasonable health. My colleague Martha Chen tells me later she is a Rajput, that is, of good caste; I still have never figured out how one would know that. She has come with her older (and lower-caste) friend Kokila, maker of clay pots and a janitor at the local conference hall, a tall fiery community organiser who helps the police identify cases of domestic violence. Vasanti speaks quietly, looking down often as she speaks, but there is animation in her eyes.

Vasanti’s husband, she tells us, was a gambler and an alcoholic. He used the household money to get drunk, and when he ran out of that money he got a vasectomy in order to take the cash incentive payment offered by government. So Vasanti has no children to help her. Eventually, as her husband became more abusive, she could live with him no longer and returned to her own family. Her father, who used to make Singer sewing machine parts, has died, but her brothers run an auto parts business in what used to be his shop. Using a machine that used to be her father’s, and living in the shop itself, she earned a small income making eyeholes for the hooks on sari tops. Her brothers got her a lawyer to take her husband to court for maintenance — quite an unusual step in her economic class — but the case has dragged on for years with no conclusion in sight. Meanwhile, her brothers also gave her a loan to get the machine that rolls the edges of the sari; but she didn’t like being dependent on them, since they are married and have children, and may not want to support her much longer. With the help of SEWA, therefore, she got a bank loan of her own to pay back the brothers, and by now she has paid back almost all of the SEWA loan. Usually, she says, women lack unity, and rich women take advantage of poor women. In SEWA, by contrast, she has found a sense of community. She clearly finds pleasure in the company of Kokila, a woman of very different social class and temperament.

By now, Vasanti is animated; she is looking us straight in the eye, and her voice is strong and clear. Women in India have a lot of pain, she says. And I, I have had quite a lot of sorrow in my life. But from the pain, our strength is born. Now that we are doing better ourselves, we want to do some good for other women, to feel that we are good human beings.

Jayamma stands outside her hut in the wilting heat of a late March day in Trivandrum, Kerala.1 The first thing you notice about her is the straightness of her back, and the muscular strength of her movements. Her teeth are falling out, her eyesight seems clouded, and her hair is thin — but she could be a captain of the regiment, ordering her troops into battle. It doesn’t surprise me that her history speaks of fierce quarrels with her children and her neighbours. Her jaw juts out as she chews tobacco. An Ezhava — a lower but not ‘scheduled’ caste — Jayamma loses out two ways, lacking good social standing but ineligible for the affirmative action programmes established by government for the lowest castes. She still lives in a squatterer’s colony on some government land on the outskirts of Trivandrum.

For approximately 45 years, until her recent retirement, Jayamma went every day to the brick kiln and spent eight hours a day carrying bricks on her head, 500 to 700 bricks per day. (She never earned more than five rupees a day, and employment depends upon weather.) Jayamma balanced a plank on her head, stacked 20 bricks at a time on the plank, and then walked rapidly, balancing the bricks by the strength of her neck, to the kiln, where she then had to unload the bricks without twisting her neck, handing them two by two to the man who loads the kiln. Men in the brick industry typically do this sort of heavy labour for a while, and then graduate to the skilled (but less arduous) tasks of brick moulding and kiln loading, which they can continue into middle and advanced ages. Those jobs pay up to twice as much, though they are less dangerous and lighter. Women are never considered for these promotions and are never permitted to learn the skills involved. Like most small businesses in India, the brick kiln is defined as a cottage industry and thus its workers are not protected by any union. All workers are badly paid, but women suffer special disabilities. Jayamma felt she had a bad deal, but she didn’t see any way of changing it.

Thus in her middle sixties, unable to perform the physically taxing job of brick carrying, Jayamma has no employment to fall back on. She refuses to become a domestic servant, because in her community such work is considered shameful and degrading. Jayamma adds a political explanation: "As a servant, your alliance is with a class that is your enemy." A widow, she is unable to collect her pension from the government: the village office told her that she was ineligible because she has able-bodied sons, although in fact her sons live at a distance and refuse to support her. Despite all these reversals (and others), Jayamma is tough, defiant, and healthy. She doesn’t seem interested in talking, but she shows her visitors around, and makes sure that we are offered lime juice and water.

Jayamma and Vasanti have been raised in a nation in which women are formally the equals of men, with equal political rights and nominally equal social and employment opportunities. (Discrimination on the basis of sex is outlawed by the Indian Constitution itself.) Both, however, have suffered from deprivations that do arise from sex: problems of discrimination in education and employment, problems of male non-support — indolence in the case of Jayamma, domestic abuse and alcoholism in the case of Vasanti. The problems they face are particular to the social situation of women in particular caste and regional circumstances in India. One can’t understand Jayamma’s choices and constraints without understanding, at many different levels of specificity and generality, how she is socially placed: what it means to be an Ezhava rather than a Pulaya, what it means that she lives in Kerala rather than some other state, what it means that she is in the city rather than a rural area. One can’t understand Vasanti without understanding the double bind of being both upper caste — with lots of rules limiting what it’s proper to do — and very poor, with few opportunities to do nice proper things that bring in a living. One also can’t understand her story without knowing about family planning programmes in Gujarat, the progress of the SEWA movement, the background Gandhian tradition of self-sufficiency on which the Gujarati women’s movement draws. No doubt all this particularity shapes the inner life of each, in ways that it’s hard for an outsider to begin to understand.

On the other hand, their problems are not altogether and unrecognisably different from problems of many women (and many poor people generally) in many parts of the world. In the intense desire of both women for independence and economic self-sufficiency, the desire of both to have some money and property in their own name — these are efforts common to women in many parts of the world. The body that labours is in a sense the same body all over the world, and its needs for food and nutrition and health care are the same — so it’s not too surprising that the female manual labourer in Trivandrum is in some ways comparable to a female manual laborer in Beijing or even Chicago, that she doesn’t seem to have an utterly alien consciousness or an identity unrecognisably strange, strange though the circumstances are in which her consciousness takes root. Similarly the body that gets beaten is in a sense the same all over the world, concrete though the circumstances of domestic violence are in each society. Even what is most apparently strange in the circumstances of each woman is also, at another level, not so unfamiliar. We find it pretty odd that the brick kiln makes women do all the heavy jobs and then pays them less — but many forms of sex discrimination in employment exhibit similar forms of irrationality. Again, the fact that a woman as strong and resourceful as Vasanti doesn’t want to go to school seems odd — but of course it isn’t so surprising, given that she doesn’t see any signs of a better way of life that she could get by becoming educated. How to think well about what is similar and what different in these lives — that is the task that any normative theory of social justice in today’s interlocking world must undertake.

Sex and social justice

Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions. This idea has many origins in many traditions; by now it is at the core of modern democratic thought and practice all over the world. The idea of human dignity is usually taken to involve an idea of equal worth: rich and poor, rural and urban, female and male, all are equally deserving of respect, just by virtue of being human, and this respect should not be abridged on account of a characteristic that is distributed by the whims of fortune. Often, too, this idea of equal worth is connected to ideas of freedom and opportunity: to respect the equal worth of persons is, among other things, to promote their ability to fashion a life in accordance with their own view of what is deepest and most important.

But human dignity is frequently violated on grounds of sex. Like Vasanti and Jayamma, many women all over the world find themselves treated unequally with respect to employment, bodily safety and integrity, basic nutrition and health care, education, and political voice. In many cases these hardships are caused by their being women, and in many cases laws and institutions construct or perpetuate these inequalities. All over the world, women are resisting inequality and claiming the right to be treated with respect.

But how should we think about this struggle? What account shall we use of the goals to be sought and the evils to be avoided? We cannot avoid using some normative framework that crosses cultural boundaries, when we think of concepts such as women’s ‘quality of life’, their ‘living standard’, their ‘development’ and their ‘basic entitlements’. All of these are normative concepts, and require us to defend a particular normative position if we would use them in any fruitful way. In default of an alternative, development economics will supply some less than perfect accounts of norms and goals, such as increased GNP per capita, or preference satisfaction. (These approaches are criticised below.) In this article I shall first address the worries that arise when we attempt to use any cross-cultural framework in talking about improvements in women’s lives. Next I shall criticise dominant economic approaches. Finally I shall defend the ‘capabilities approach’, an approach to the priorities of development that focuses not on preference-satisfaction but on what people are actually able to do and to be. I shall argue that this approach is the most fruitful for such purposes, showing that it has good answers to the problems that plagued the other approaches.

The need for cross-cultural objectives

Before we can advance further defending a particular account of the objectives of development, we must face a challenge that has recently arisen, both in feminist circles and in discussions of international development policy. The question that must be confronted is whether we should be looking for a set of cross-cultural objectives in the first place, where women’s opportunities are concerned. Obviously enough, women are already doing that, in many areas, labour among them. Women in the informal sector, for example, are increasingly organising on an international level to set goals and priorities.2 But this process is controversial, both intellectually and politically. Where do these normative categories come from, it will be asked? And how can they be justified as appropriate ones for cultures that have traditionally used different normative categories? Now of course no critical social theory confines itself to the categories of each culture’s daily life. If it did, it probably could not perform its special task as theory, which involves the systematisation and critical scrutiny of intuitions that in daily life are often unexamined. Theory gives people a set of terms with which to criticise abuses that otherwise might lurk nameless in the background. Terms such as ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘hostile work environment’ give us some obvious examples of this point.

First, one hears what I shall call the argument from culture. Traditional cultures, the argument goes, contain their own norms of what women’s lives should be: frequently norms of female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice. Feminists should not assume without argument that those are bad norms, incapable of constructing good and flourishing lives for women. By contrast, the norms proposed by feminists seem to this opponent suspiciously ‘Western’, because they involve an emphasis on choice and opportunity.

My full answer to this argument will emerge from the proposal I shall make, which certainly does not preclude any woman’s choice to lead a traditional life, so long as she does so with certain economic and political opportunities firmly in place. But we should begin by emphasising that the notion of tradition used in the argument is far too simple. Cultures are scenes of debate and contestation. They contain dominant voices, and they also contain the voices of women, which have not always been heard. It would be implausible to suggest that the many groups working to improve the employment conditions of women in the informal sector, for example, are brainwashing women into striving for economic opportunities: clearly, they provide means to ends women already want, and a context of female solidarity within which to pursue those ends. Where such groups do alter existing preferences, they typically do so by giving women a richer sense of both their possibilities and their equal worth, in a way that contributes to the women’s self-realisation (as Tagore’s heroine vividly states). Indeed, what may possibly be ‘Western’ is the arrogant supposition that choice and economic agency are solely Western values!

In short, because cultures are scenes of debate, appealing to culture give us questions rather than answers. It certainly doesn’t show that cross-cultural norms are a bad answer to those questions.

Let us now consider the argument that I shall call the argument from the good of diversity. This argument reminds us that our world is rich in part because we don’t all agree on a single set of practices and norms. We think the world’s different languages have worth and beauty, and that it’s a bad thing, diminishing the expressive resources of human life generally, if any language should cease to exist. So too, cultural norms have their own distinctive beauty; the world risks becoming impoverished as it becomes more homogeneous.

Here we should distinguish two claims the objector might be making. She might be claiming that diversity is good as such; or she might simply be saying that there are problems with the values of economic efficiency and consumerism that are increasingly dominating our interlocking world. This second claim, of course, doesn’t yet say anything against cross-cultural norms, it just suggests that their content should be critical of some dominant economic norms. So the real challenge to our enterprise lies in the first claim. To meet it we must ask how far cultural diversity really is like linguistic diversity. The trouble with the analogy is that languages don’t harm people, and cultural practices frequently do. We could think that threatened languages such as Cornish and Breton should be preserved, without thinking the same about Vasanti’s husband’s highly traditional practice of domestic violence: it is not worth preserving simply because it is there and very old. In the end, then, the objection doesn’t undermine the search for cross-cultural norms, it requires it: for what it invites us to ask is, whether the cultural values in question are among the ones worth preserving, and this entails at least a very general cross-cultural framework of assessment, one that will tell us when we are better off letting a practice die out.

Finally, we have the argument from paternalism. This argument says that when we use a set of cross-cultural norms as benchmarks for the world’s varied societies, we show too little respect for people’s freedom as agents (and, in a related way, their role as democratic citizens). People are the best judges of what is good for them, and if we say that their own choices are not good for them we treat them like children. This is an important point, and one that any viable cross-cultural proposal should bear firmly in mind. But it hardly seems incompatible with the endorsement of cross-cultural norms. Indeed, it appears to endorse explicitly at least some cross-cultural norms, such as the political liberties and other opportunities for choice. Thinking about paternalism gives us a strong reason to respect the variety of ways citizens actually choose to lead their lives in a pluralistic society, and therefore to seek a set of cross-cultural norms that protect freedom and choice of the most significant sorts. But this means that we will naturally value religious toleration, associative freedom, and the other major liberties. These liberties are themselves cross-cultural norms, and they are not compatible with views that many real people and societies hold.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago