Patriarchal risk among extreme poor women | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 16, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 16, 2012

Patriarchal risk among extreme poor women

According to a 2011 global Lancet study, female body mass index was lowest in Bangladesh, but not male. This suggests that the under-nutrition problem is related to a distribution of power at the household level.
Cain et al (1979) coined the term “patriarchal risk” over 30 years ago in the context of Bangladesh. According to the authors, “Patriarchy is grounded in control of material resources and supported by elements of the kinship, political, and religious systems. Important consequences of the patriarchal system are that women are placed at risk of abrupt declines in economic status; under the pressure of increasing poverty the proportion of women who must fend for themselves is increasing; and women face a labour market that is highly restricted both spatially and functionally, resulting in relatively low wages and high rates of unemployment.”
Extremely poor women are particularly disempowered at three stages of their life: adolescence, early marriage and widowhood.
In adolescence, girls are not given an opportunity to learn any skills or go to school. They are raised to believe they are second-class citizens who carry out only household chores until the day they are married off. The overwhelming pressure of upcoming dowries place girls in a weak position at home. They are made to feel this burden so they try to limit their intake of scarce household resources, including food. Too often, young girls commit suicide to relieve their parents of the pressure of coming up with a suitable dowry for them.
Dowries are not the same across the board. The younger a girl is, the lower the necessary dowry. The older or more disabled the man is, the lower the dowry. Hence, many extremely poor families marry off their daughters at very young ages to men who are old and ill, as this adds up to a more affordable dowry. The daughter is then sentenced to a lifetime as the silent breadwinner of her new family, though she has never learnt how to earn a living. The situation becomes all the more desperate when she has children.
Young brides are vulnerable to a new set of patriarchal risks in their marital homes. They are under “probation” when they marry, so they tend to modify their behaviours to please their husbands. For example, they are likely to eat less. In a survey in the north, conducted by an NGO which is a partnership between the governments of UK and Bangladesh, 4 out of 10 young brides said they eat whatever's leftover after their husbands eat. 3 said they eat with their husbands, and if they are pregnant their husbands might offer them part of their meal. All of them said they always return the offered food because they want to be “good brides.” What disciplines their consumption is the need to be the model wife so they are not abandoned or kicked out, because their parents can't afford to pay a second dowry. Until their sons grow up, they don't have any secure right of place.
Once the dowry is handed over, it is “owned” by the groom and the girl has no right to access it. Hence, the dowry is not like an allowance from father to daughter, but rather, it is a payment that commodifies the worthlessness of the girl.
New grooms want to use the dowries they receive to create income opportunities or pay back debts, but often the amount, even if paid in full, is not enough. They then begin a tyranny of domestic violence and blackmail in an effort to extort more money from the brides' fathers. Mothers often collaborate with their sons. Young brides experience violence (in order to “discipline” them), which then becomes violence for more money. If this demand for extra dowry is unmet, the new bride is sent back homeor murdered.
By the time the girl is kicked out of her new home, she is likely to be pregnant or has young children to look after. She is thrown out of her new home, without any rights to the dowry asset, without any entitlements to child maintenance from the father and without any skills. If she can return to her natal home, her parents, and/ or brothers who are also under extreme economic pressure, are never too happy to receive her. She will probably be treated as a second-class citizen by her sisters-in-law. Her children will also be treated as unwelcome guests. Again, she doesn't want to appear a burden, so she eats less. She may very well be pregnant, but she will continue to eat less.
This woman now has to find a way to earn a living. She may turn first to begging (not knowing what else to do), then domestic labour, then field labour (in which she is paid half of what men are paid). Often, domestic labour is paid for in kindas a meal or ricewhich she must then take home and divide among the kids. According to the NGO's household data, women are hungrier, more prone to lasting infections due to a weak and undernourished immune system, more anaemic than men, and so they are unable to go for higher paying jobs.
A minority of women may manage to remarry, but since this is a marriage under stress, they are likely to marry mentally or physically disabled elderly men. They are likely to continue to be the main breadwinner or may become widowed very early on.
While there are laws to protect women's entitlement to inheritance, they are hotly contested. Generally, families feel that since they are paying dowries for their daughters, the sons should inherit any land/ assets that they own. What they assume is that if the woman suffers patriarchal risks, if her husband leaves or dies, that she can return to her natal home, but that often isn't the case. Women are also loathe to accept the inheritance they are entitled to, because that will make their brothers even more resistant to taking them in, in the case of a divorce.
The one chance of escape from this mounting patriarchal risk is to bear a son. Women with sons tend to use all their energy and food towards their sons' wellbeing. However, by the time the woman is a frail (perhaps still youngish) widow who is nearing the age where she can no longer do field work, she may very well find her that grown sons do not want to look after her. When these sons get married, they are under pressure from their new wives to abandon their mother and younger siblings. They may love their mother, but the financial burden is just too overwhelming.
All NGOs and donor funded projects that seek to help the extreme poor should channel their assets and efforts through womenincluding those within married households. This ensures some degree of security for them. When programmes don't give assets and training to women, we find situations where their husbands or sons sell the asset and leave them, or we find women do all the work on the land or other asset while their husbands market the produce and keep the income. The women are cut out of all decisions related to investment and new assets and they have no rights to those assets if they are thrown out of the home or if they are widowed. When programmes give assets to male household heads, they reinforce the gender imbalance and exacerbate the inequality and women's disempowerment. According to Naila Kabeer and colleagues: “The norm of the male breadwinner remains strong, certainly in public discourse, as does women's secondary earner status.” A gender-transformative approach such as Grameen Bank's and Brac's has demonstrated the potential social change that can be brought about by economically empowering women directly.
Dowries are banned, but the law is not enforced. Parents should be firm about not accepting dowries for their sons. They should ensure that their daughters have a means to earn a living and refuse to give dowries for their marriages.
Development data and household statistics need to be disaggregated by gender and by extreme poverty in order to monitor and act on gender issues.
As Naila Kabeer says: “In order to bring about sustainable and transformative change in women's lives, a combination of factors is needed: changes in women's consciousness and understanding, in their material security and well-being, and in their capacity to renegotiate existing and to participate in new relationships.”

The writer is head of advocacy at shiree.
E-mail: shazia@shiree.org.

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