Gender and the Commons in India

The following is an interview with Soma Kishore Parthasarathy from the website of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) on June 6. The interviewer was Ana Abelenda, and the piece is called “Reclaiming the Commons for Gender and Economic Justice:  Struggles and Movements in India.”  It is republished here with permission.

AWID spoke to Indian independent researcher and scholar Soma Kishore Parthasarathy[1], who has been studying and negotiating the concept of the ‘commons’ from a gender perspective and how women in rural India are contesting this reality by proposing a shared management of common resources.

AWID: How would you define the “commons"?

Soma Kishore Parthasarathy (SKP): There are varied conceptualizations about the commons. Conventionally, it is understood simply, as natural resources that lie outside the private domain and are intended for use by those who depend on its use. But, it is not just natural resources, it is also knowledge resources, heritage, culture, virtual spaces, and even climate plays a role. The concept of the commons pre-dates the individual property regime and provided the basis for organization of society. Definitions given by government entities today limit its scope to land and material resources. Attempts to release commons from the shared domain into the market, pose a serious threat to the commons as we know them, and to the way of life associated with the sharing principle embedded in their access and use.

It is about the cultural practice of sharing livelihood spaces and resources as nature’s gift, for the common good, and for the sustainability of the common.  But today commons are under increasing threat as nations and market forces are colonizing the commons.

AWID: Can you explain what you mean by colonization of the commons? How does it affect women in particular?

SKP:Colonizing the commons implies a predatory usurpation of the commons by parties in positions of authority and power, who impose their own set of rules and terms for the access, use, and regulation of the commons to serve their own needs, with little concern for rules and organizational principles that existed earlier and  with little respect for the needs and rights of those who have been dependent on the commons for centuries, ignoring the rights of traditional small users and gender and equity issues.

Take food for instance. Historically, women have had to provide food for their family and sustain livelihoods due to the traditional division of labour in most parts of the world.  Researchers as far back as the 1980's showed that nearly 60% of the food in semi-arid regions was sourced from common land.[2] But as economies have been driven into a neoliberal market-based regime, the State, as well as private actors, seek to claim the commons for their own benefit or to increase public revenue, allowing these actors to determine how the commons are used and applied and who benefits. As land is increasingly controlled by large industries and/or State-sponsored infrastructure projects for profit making activities such as mineral extraction or building dams, communities dependent on this land are pushed deeper into poverty. It becomes a vicious circle – as more people are driven into poverty, they grow more dependent on, but at the same time, have less access to the commons.

For the most marginalized, including poor rural women, the adivasi (indigenous) and Dalitpeople in India, alienation from the commons poses a serious challenge in their struggle to survive, to sustain livelihoods and to be self-reliant. In addition women’s abundant traditional knowledge and their status in society also suffers as a consequence and they are increasingly left out of decision-making processes.  The impact of displacement from the commons is poverty, hunger, malnutrition and loss of status and livelihoods. 

AWID: How can reclaiming the commons help to address historic or entrenched gender inequalities?

SKP:In India -as well as in many other countries in the world- private property continues to be a male prerogative with women owning very little. In fact, recent studies estimate that only between eight and 11% of land in India is in women’s hands, and the majority of women who have title are widows. The ‘commons’ is really where women, especially poor women, have some autonomy in how they are able to negotiate the needs of their families for survival and acquire some status. This is not to reinforce women’s roles as primary care givers or providers, but to acknowledge their labour, even as we seek to negotiate ways to address their work burden and to correct the skewed patterns of division of labour.

It is important to understand how gender relations shift when women are denied access and control of the commons. The effort should be towards restoring legitimate rights of communities to these resources, enabling them to sustain themselves; while evolving more egalitarian systems of governance and use of such resources, which acknowledge women’s roles and provide equal opportunities for decision making.

We need to aim for transformative change in recognising women as equal claimants to these resources. If we want to see a paradigm shift, we need to negotiate two things: 1) that communities have rights; and 2) that women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized peoples must be recognized as equal within those communities.

AWID: What challenges remain for community movements and women’s movements in particular?

SKP:There are interesting advances in legislation, but we find that gender equity issues still tend to be ignored when drafting policies relating to the commons. For example, recent legislative proposals on the commons tend to benefit people that own the more cattle over small ruminant holders. Ruminant holders tend to be more marginal are likely to be women, whereas large cattle holders are also likely to hold other assets to sustain their livelihoods and their dependency on the commons is less.

Another huge struggle relates to women’s disproportionate workload and to the feminization of agriculture more broadly. Increasing workload, and the associated skewed gender division of labour and its associated oppression is a deepening crisis that women are facing, along with increasing poverty for women. Through my research I have found that women are working much harder, but are achieving much less. When workload increases and the resources are limited there are conflicts within communities that make them more vulnerable, both inter-community as well as conflict with the State.

AWID: What is the role that women’s movement building can play in reclaiming the commons?

SKP:Power structures in India are not only upper cast-dominated but also male- dominated. Yet we have grassroots women, such as Dayamani Barla from Jharkhand and Keli and Sarmi Bai from Rajasthan[3], taking an active role in claiming the commons at the political level and leading movements. But there is a huge resistance in a very male dominated policy-making environment[4].

Organizing women within larger movements to be able to claim and protect their rights is essential, as is bringing women into leadership positions and bringing gender perspectives into decision forums. In terms of the conceptual tools and experiences, I think it is important to recognize that women have been redefining how they want to be involved in this discourse. Grassroots women are saying that it is not just deeds to land and resources that are at stake; it is about a way of life that is self-reliant and gives autonomy and dignity to each individual. For tribal movements, women came together to demand that they not only wanted to have joint title, but that access had to be recognized for all women, even unmarried daughters, because they too have the right to live with dignity.

It is not just the economics of being able to provide and sustain opportunities for material gain, it is about creating livelihoods in a shared economy.  At a global level, the neoliberal economy is dominating, but the struggles are moving on and gaining political ground.   It is important to create cross-movement solidarity in spaces like the World Social Forum, the engagement with the Buen Vivir -- Living Well movement, as it’s called in Latin America, creating livelihoods in a shared economy. I see a positive trend in women strengthening solidarity across regions and continents, and in playing more significant roles as decision makers in movements to reclaim the commons. We are documenting our practices here in South Asia and learning from Latin America to ensure we see these strategies have a feminist lens.

Sharing the commons ultimately informs about how social relations are constructed. It is less about claiming individual rights and more about communities and practices that have strengthened them in community-led livelihood systems.


[1]  Soma is a geographer and feminist at heart, and has been working on gender issues for the past thirty years. She developed a deep interest in the intersections between gender and regional development planning, and in particular, how women’s struggles to protect the commons can advance gender, economic and ecological justice.

[2] Land that communities depend upon for their livelihoods.

[3] These are women leaders of grassroots peoples movements against corporate land grab and mining lobbies and from forest dweller communities respectively.

[4] A forthcoming paper by Soma Kishore Parthasarathy entitled “Interrogating State and Policy: Gender, Land and Natural Resource Regimes in Southern Rajasthan,” will be released soon by the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS) Conference, Guwahati, 2014