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close this bookKerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (FF, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the document1. Introduction to the 1994 printing
View the document2. The land of coconuts
View the document3. Kerala's achievements
View the document4. Behind Kerala's success
View the document5. Food for all
View the document6. Health
View the document7. Education
View the document8. Land reform
View the document9. Helping workers
View the document10. Overcoming caste
View the document11. Women and the Kerala reforms
View the document12. Lessons from Kerala
View the documentNotes
View the documentNotes to the introduction
View the documentBibliography
View the documentInstitute publications
View the documentAbout the institute

11. Women and the Kerala reforms

Women make up 51 percent of Kerala's population. How have Kerala's reforms affected them? The answer is complex. We shall first outline briefly some major problems women face in development programs generally. Then we shall look at the available evidence from Kerala on women's progress.

Women and Development

The effects of a development strategy on women constitute an important measure of that strategy's achieving its goals of increased well-being for members of the society. An important and until recently neglected area is women's work and women's role in maintaining their households. More than men, women work both outside and within the household to produce wealth. Household work, however, is not paid, and its importance is only now coming to be recognized. Women's wages are more likely to go to the family than are men's, since women have fewer opportunities to spend money in tea shops, gambling, liquor consumption, and the like. Women's unpaid labor in gardening, caring for animals, fetching water and fuel, cooking, cleaning, tending to young children, and making or mending clothing is vital to other family members. Yet women's abilities to perform these crucial activities can be undermined, rather than aided, under certain development policies. What happens to women is affected by their class and caste position as well as their gender. Nonetheless, most third world rural women are very poor, and for this report we think it sufficient to consider them without regard to social class.135

How can development programs harm women? In most regions of India, as in many other third world countries, development programs have stressed increasing productivity through modern technology. In agriculture, most programs concentrate on production for cash, which is controlled by men, rather than on the subsistence economy, in which women play a greater role. In such programs new skills are required, but these are taught most often to men. Thus men come to play an even greater economic role in the household, to the detriment of women, who sometimes see even their traditional sources of income undermined. Women often start the development process with worse statistics on infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, and other measures. If development programs benefit men more than women, the disparities can increase.

Kerala's Achievements for Women

In many ways, Kerala is an exception to the trend just noted. This can be seen in part from the statistics presented in table 15.

We can see that Kerala women are ahead of their all-lndia counterparts in many areas. They have higher literacy rates and fewer children. They marry later and live longer. Female children survive more than do males, in direct contrast to the all-India situation.

In addition, Kerala is the only Indian state in which there are more females than males. This particular statistic indicates something that is not entirely Kerala-specific, however. Comparative research in India has shown that female babies are especially at risk of being killed or being allowed to die in north India compared to males. This phenomenon is sometimes called excess female mortality (EFM). It appears to be most severe where women's labor contribution to household income is lowest.136 Where women make a greater contribution, they get better food and more access to health care.

TABLE 15: Comparison of Some Indicators of Famale Status, 1981




Females per 1,000 males



Birth rate per 1,000 (1983)



Children 0-4 years per 1,000 women ages 15-49 years







Literacy (%)





Mean age of marriage





Life expectancy (in years)










SOURCES: GOK 1985:1-2. Kerala life expectancies are for 1979-1980. The infant mortality rates come from Morris and McAlpin 1982:66. We have not been able to locate more recent figures by gender. Some of these data also appear in table 2.

The ratio of females to males has actually declined in many Indian states since 1921, while in Kerala it has increased. Why should this be so? One researcher has argued that where there are already traditional biases against females, limited expansion of public health could actually cause a worsening of the life chances for females if a family has to choose whether boys or girls will get the relatively expensive care. This appears to be an especially strong tendency in the north Indian state of Punjab, which is often cited as a major development success story because of the high incomes and increases in the general standard of living.137 This has not happened in Kerala, as the sex ratio figures indicate. Thus while part of the explanation for differences in male and female survival may be related to the different general production systems of southern versus northem India, there remains something exceptional about Kerala even within this general context.

How can this be explained? Part of the answer lies in information we have already presented. Kerala's extensive nursery and school feeding programs, ration shops, and the generally greater access to health care combine with the overall lower birth rates to make it unnecessary for families to choose life for one child and death for another.

Women in Kerala have also succeeded in ways not indicated in table 15. Slightly over half the students enrolled in colleges in Kerala are women.138 In the political field, Kerala has stood out in a small way too. It was the first Indian state to have a woman cabinet minister. Kerala's land reform act was drafted by K. R. Gouri, a female lawyer and one of India's most talented legal minds.

In sports, Kerala women stand out among all the Indian states. They have set athletic records at intemational events.139 A recent example was the performance of Usha, a Kerala woman runner who excelled at the 1986 Asian Games. In 1986 Ken Bosen, then India's chief athletics coach left his position. In an interview in the English-language Indian newspaper Indian Express (30 September 1986), hc said that while India potentially has some of the best women athletes in Asia, only Kerala provided the means to adequately support their training and development.

Female Unemployment and Underemployment

Despite their impressive gains, Kerala's women suffer from many of the traditional problems of women in other Indian states and also from problems that may be associated with misdirected development. Probably the most serious is unemployment. Educated women have benefited from the expansion of the social service sector. They enter jobs such as teaching, nursing, social work, and related fields.140

However many of the state's poorest women must still look for income in the critical agricultural labor sector. Agricultural labor accounted for 44 percent of all women's paid labor in Kerala in 1981.141 The decline in this sector, as described in chapter 9, is thus especially serious for women. The work participation rate shown in table 11 is far lower for women than for men, and the rate for women has also declined faster relative to that of men. From table 12 we can also see that women have fewer average days of employment in agriculture than do men.

Even when women can work, the jobs available to them in irrigated rice farming are usually the lowest paid and have the worst conditions. Women often perform the most unhealthy farm work, stooping and bending in the rice fields, barefoot in water that may contain leeches and other parasites, exposed to the monsoon rains.142

Although unemployment for women is a serious and growing problem in agriculture, Kerala is not unique in India with regard to overall employment by gender. All-lndia figures show that between 1961 and 1971, the proportion of women in the labor force declined while that of men increased. This has been ex- plained as a result of women's being displaced from traditional jobs in all economic sectors.143

Women and Property: Kerala's Complex History

The transition from ancient to modern forms of society has many complex and sometimes unexpected consequences. In Kerala the relationship of women to property has been influenced by recent changes. These occurred primarily among three groups in which marriage laws have been drastically altered with important effects on inheritance and thereby on women's status and position within households. In the case of high-caste Nambudiri Brahmins, the changes have been in the direction of what Western observers would consider liberation. In the case of the far more numerous Nairs, the changes appear to have been negative, although it is not certain they could have been avoided. In the case of the Christian community, the results may have implications for all women in Kerala. We shall briefly examine each case.

Kerala's local Brahmins, the Nambudiris, were a feudal landed aristocracy. They controlled the land and ran the religious ceremonies through their domination of temples and their exclusive knowledge of the vedas, among the main sacred texts of Hinduism. The Nambudiris developed a peculiar traditional set of marriage and inheritance practices to preserve their control over the land. Within Nambudiri households, only the eldest son was allowed to marry. This ensured that the land would not be partitioned over time. But it also meant that many Nambudiri women would never marry. There were simply not enough first sons for all the women, and the caste system prevented them from marrying men of other groups. As a result, many Nambudiri women were kept inside the lavish house compounds of these feudal estates, never marrying and never being exposed to the possible company of men outside their families. Because men could have more than one wife, some Nambudiri girls were betrothed to elderly, alreadymarried men. When married to these aged men, however, their lives may not have been very different from those of their unmarried sisters.

The seclusion of these otherwise privileged women meant they could not work in the professions, travel to markets or to schools, or be seen outside their house compounds. How extreme their house-binding was is indicated by their very names, which some Nambudiri women use even today. After their given names, they call themselves antharianarn, or inside person, a reference to their being kept inside the large houses all their lives in the past.

For Nambudiri men life was easier. Although the younger brothers could not marry or inherit property, they lived lives of ease and were allowed out of the estates, which their fathers and older brothers controlled. Many Nambudiri men developed sexual liaisons' with women of the very high Nair caste and fathered children by them because of the convenient system of Nair inheritance through women called matriliny. This meant that the Nambudiri men might provide some financial support but had no formal obligations to these children, whose family membership was determined only by their mothers' kinship group. Nair men could also visit the Nair women and become temporary husbands, so that it could not always be determined if a child born of a Nair woman was a mixed Nair-Nambudiri or a Nair-Nair. Because the Nair caste held land and family membership through the collective female kinship group, it ultimately did not matter who was the biological father.

This arrangement of caste, land, inheritance, sex, marriage, and gender inequality sustained itself for centuries in Kerala, and it had many other aspects that we cannot attempt to discuss in this report. The important thing to see is that it existed in part on an extreme denial of the simple rights of the vast majority of Nambudiri women to any possibility of sexual or child-bearing fulfillment. And their seclusion within the Nambudiri estates, combined with the rigid caste restrictions on social interaction, meant that they had little contact with anyone outside their own immediate household throughout their lives.

In the Malabar region of northern Kerala, the Nambudiri marriage system was reformed by the 1933 Madras Nambudiri Act. This law allowed partition of the family property and provided for the specific right of junior sons to marry and receive inheritance. Women, as well, were entitled to an equal share in the family property.

This law, although enacted under British colonial rule, was in large part the result of sustained agitation by radical young Nambudiris who objected to the control over women as well as to the dominance of a single male in each generation over all the family property. It was part of the emerging radical movement against the caste system itself, and among the activists in central Kerala where the movement was strongest there were Nambudiris who later became leaders in the Kerala part of the Indian independence movement and the Kerala Communist party.144

Among women of the far more numerous Nair caste, however, recent marriage and inheritance reforms have had more mixed effects. While Nambudiris number less than 2 percent of Kerala's population, Nairs make up about 16 percent. Prior to the colonial era, Nairs lived in matrilineal joint households called taravads. These taravads owned all household property and had their identity through a common female ancestor. Adult males of the Nair caste could marry women within the taravads, but did not acquire permanent rights to property or to the women themselves. Thus Nair women were economically dependent not on their husbands but on the joint family unit.145 In addition, women could have more than one husband. Their freedom in forming sexual relationships with men brought them a certain fame among early travelers and later anthropologists. The British colonial rulers found both the sexual and property aspects of the Nair taravad unacceptable.146

Why Kerala's Nairs developed their particular system of marriage and inheritance is still debated. One reason may be that many Nair men were warriors and it was more sensible to situate children's rights with the mothers, who were not so likely to be killed or to be off at war for long periods. Another element may be the very Nambudiri system described just above in which the first-son-only marriage rule meant there were always many high-caste men looking for sexual partners. The Nair system might thus be an adaptation to the demands of the highest caste Brahmins.

From the point of view of Indian male social reformers as well as that of the British, the Nair system appeared old-fashioned and "incorrect." Men fathered children for whom they bore no financial responsibility. In fact, this may have been rather unimportant because the taravad had resources of its own. But many men joined in the British attack on Nair matrilineal joint households in the belief that husbands and fathers should take responsibility for their children. The relative sexual freedom of Nair women was destroyed in the process.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several Nair marriage and inheritance acts were promulgated. Nair women became more dependent on their husbands, while Nair men acquired the right to leave property to their children.147 Taravad joint property was divided up. Women without husbands became more vulnerable to economic distress.

Kerala's recent land reform has been criticized by some feminist observers for further encouraging the break up of taravad property, but it seems this was already far advanced by the 1950s.148 The full effects of changing marriage and inheritance laws in Kerala deserve detailed study, but it does seem that Nair women lost a great deal of independence compared to men with the breakup of their traditional family system. On the other hand, many very poor Nair women have benefited, alongside their husbands, from the land reform, workers' acts, and so forth.

One other community has had recent struggles over women's rights within the family. In 1986 the Kerala Supreme Court found that women have equal rights with men regarding the inheritance of family property.149 The case involved a Christian household, and it is not yet certain whether the ruling will be considered valid for other communities as well. In divorce, inheritance, and mar' riage cases generally, Indian women, including those in Kerala, have found the legal system only sometimes supportive and much agitation continues for more equal laws and enforcement.

Violence against Women: Kerala's Uncertain Record

In many societies women face special forms of violence, and a greater degree of violence, than do men. We have already noted the problem of excess female mortality-allowing female infants to die in north India. Kerala does not suffer from this form of antifemale violence.

Another type of violence is rape. Rape statistics in India are very incomplete, so we cannot offer any comparative data. Members of some Kerala women's organizations, however, informed us that rape does occur and is more of a problem for low-caste women, who are victims of higher-caste men. It is not clear whether Kerala's rape rate is better or worse than that of other parts of India. Wife-beating and murder of an allegedly unfaithful wife are occasionally reported in newspapers, but we are not aware of statistical data on their incidence.

Another form of violence is growing in India today: dowry deaths. Although officially illegal, dowries are demanded by many Indian families from the bride's parents. Land, gold, money, or consumer goods may be asked. If the groom's family is dissatisfied with the dowry, they may cancel the marriage. In more extreme cases, someone arranges an "accident" for the new bride, usually in the kitchen, where it is said she spilled cooking oil on herself and caught on fire. The eyewitnesses to this gruesome event are usually members of the groom's family, and police and the courts have shown themselves reluctant to press the investigation. The groom may go on to marry again and collect another dowry.

Most dowry deaths occur in north India. One feminist activist told us she believes such killings occur as frequently as twice daily in that part of the country. Official statistics indicate 1,786 registered cases in 1987.150 Kerala has until recently been relatively free of dowry killings, but there is evidence that they are becoming slightly more common. On November 4, 1988, four Kerala sisters apparently committed suicide by hanging, in a macabre variation of the dowry death phenomenon. Their note read: "Our parents are not yet to pay fully for the dowry of our sister who was married sometime ago. Having sold their gold and land, we are not sure that they will be able to provide anything for our marriages. Hence the decision to end our lives."151 Kerala's suicide rate appears to be higher than most Indian states, but it has India's second lowestrate of juvenile delinquency.152

The great influx of money from workers in the Gulf States has revived the dowry system. Kerala women's organizations are attempting to fight this development. They have organized street plays in which the dowry system is attacked. They also distribute literature opposing dowries and attempt to force police and courts to conduct proper investigations of suspicious deaths of females. Dowries are deeply rooted in Indian society, however, and they are unlikely to disappear until far-reaching changes occur in marriage practices and in attitudes towards material possessions.153

Finally, Kerala women, like their other Indian counterparts, are often subjected to sexual harassment, known as Eve-teasing. Women are not supposed to travel alone. And, much like women in the developed countries they may also suffer on-the-job sexual exploitation by male superiors.154 In Kerala, even bus seats are segregated sexually, and a woman does not feel free to take a seat next to a man for fear of the impact on her reputation.

Women and Political Power

In Kerala women have not been the major focus of the many popular reform struggles. As half the population, however, they have necessarily been drawn into the movements as workers, as untouchables, or in other ways. In areas where agricultural labor unions have been active for many years and where radical influence is the strongest, women have achieved greater wage equality with men than in areas where the unions are weaker.155 Women's organizations in Kerala have far greater male leadership than would be considered acceptable by Western feminists. Men are frequently the main speakers at women's organization events.

Much of Kerala's activity toward women centers on health care. The People's Science Movement, mentioned earlier, has set up health camps for women. In 1986 the All-India Democratic Women's Association, affiliated with the CPM, held its second annual convention in Kerala. Delegates from all over India joined about 35,000 women and girls in a spirited march through the streets of the capital city of Trivandrum. Men did not march, but shouted supportive slogans from the sidelines. Unlike some developed nations' women's events, which draw mostly from the middle class, the Kerala demonstration was filled with working class women and girls and barefooted peasants, members of local groups that are attempting to stop violence and build the movement to improve women's lives. Despite the many difficulties they face, Kerala's women have many structures and organizations in place that offer the potential for overcoming their problems.