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Understanding Gender, the Power and the Social Relations of Female-headed Households

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2544 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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We often refer our native country/place as the ‘Motherland’ and especially, India is believed to be the original home of the Mother Goddess. India is also well-known for its women rulers, scholars and so, who were honoured and respected. Even the folklore and mythological stories provide the proof of the same. But the interesting fact behind all these stories is the struggle of each woman’s victory. Their overcome of customs, restrictions, subordination and so. From then to till this date the history is been repeating, we are hearing the winning stories of women. Now, what about the stories that have been trying to reach out and make their own mark in the history and what about the unheard stories that are being suppressed?

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Kalyani Menon (2001) mentions that the Indian Constitution, which is one of the most progressive constitutions of the world, also guarantees the equal rights for men and women. It makes a point that women are equal members of society and free. But, actually “how free are they?” Thus, this research paper tries to study and understand the Gender, Space, Social and Power relations focusing on the female-headed households, which also helps in their well-being as this study recommends a gender-specific design, rather not being a generic one.

‘Gender’ is often understood as a western concept and a far-fetched concept in India and more often, the term gender is misunderstood by the term sex. A person’s gender is a man-made concept based on socio-cultural aspects, varying from different times, cultures, communities and families and whereas sex is defined as the biological anatomy of an individual’s reproductive system. Sumi Krishna (2014) says, gender is a dynamic and socially constructed process. For example, a person born female may acquire characteristics of behaviour, roles and functions that society associates more with masculinity than femininity and vice-versa. Thus, gender is not something that is given, but something that is performed. Kamla Bhasin (2000) also relates the concepts to patriarchy, caste, race and class and how it has shaped the meaning of gender. It was believed that the attributes assigned to women were determined by sex, which is natural, and hence cannot be changed and need not be questioned. This led to the subordination of women in the society.

“The construction of ‘home’ as a woman’s place has, moreover, carried through into those views of place itself as a source of stability, reliability and authenticity. Such views of place, which reverberate with nostalgia for something lost, are coded female.” (Massey, 1994)

As explained by Doreen Massey in ‘Space, Place and Gender’ (1994), usually the place ‘home’ is referred to a woman’s place and conversely, a woman’s place is imagined to be inside the house. The women’s ability to conceive a child and nurturing them cannot be a factor to differentiate the roles and responsibilities assigned to men and women. In fact, men can as well do the caring and look after the children. But the way society has been constructed, gendering starts right after birth where sons are being celebrated and daughters, bemoaned. But since these are man-made, they can be questioned, challenged and changed. Females were considered as “mothers” in matristic societies due to the active principle in the production of life, whereas in capitalist societies – they are defined as “housewives”, devoid of active, creative and productive qualities since motherhood has become part and parcel of their lives.


Right through the birth, the concept of socialization (assigning qualities to the sexes) takes place. Such as, shaping self-perception of girls and boys based on physical experiences since early childhood; directing boys to play with cars, guns and girls to play with dolls and vessels; sending boys to schools and making girls to stay back home for household work and also commenting boys as ‘big and strong, and girls as ‘pretty and soft’. Most importantly, girls are asked to help their mothers with household chores and boys are asked to accompany their fathers outside. (Kamla Bhasin, 2000). Language, religion and culture are also a part of the patriarchal domain and reflect gender inequalities, biases and discrimination. They have shaped gender to a larger extent. Different cultures assign different roles, responsibilities and attribute to boys and girls as they grow up, which gradually passes on from one generation to the other. This is also known as “gendering”. For example, nurse, secretaries are assumed to refer to women whereas boss, manager, politician etc., refer to men. Eventually, men and women gained different behavior patterns, roles and responsibilities, rights and expectations which are historically and culturally determined.

GR refers to the relation of power between women and men which can be seen in a range of practices, ideas, representations, including the division of labor, roles etc., It also helps to form and is formed by other structures of social hierarchy such as class, caste and race. Hierarchy almost means men dominate and women are dominated. (Kamla Bhasin, 2000).

GR consist of conflicts, resistance and negotiating a bargain between the more and the less powerful. Such negotiations for power also form a part of politics. Unlike the government and state politics, gender-power relations are more difficult to recognize. Sumi Krishna (2014) also explains that gender relations are not just a matter between two individuals but are a way by which social groups exercise political control over the organization of society and people’s roles in it. The relations don’t operate in isolation, helps to form and is formed by other structures of social hierarchy such as class, caste and race. Indeed, all hierarchies reflect relations of power. For example, even among the upper caste groups, women’s subordination is characterized by loss of control over resources, right to property and freedom of movement. “Indeed, the subordination of women is itself a means of reinforcing material and social power between groups”. (Sumi Krishna, 2014)

The limitation of women’s mobility, in terms both of identity and space, has been in some cultural contexts a crucial means of subordination. The attempt to confine women to the domestic sphere was both a specifically spatial control and, through that, a social control on identity. (Massey, 1994)

For the better understanding of Gender- Space relations, we as a group have studied the SPA Hostel Campus, Maharanibagh, New Delhi. The hostel being the live example, we have understood the concepts of Gender- Space- Power relations on first hand basis.


Amartya Sen also tries to understand the concept of gender-discrimination within the household, in terms of negotiation. People who work outside of home/produce income for a household typically hold a higher position of negotiating power because they command higher respect and have (appear to have) less dependence on another party. In this case, it is the woman, who has intermittent or no labor-market experience as she is made to stay at home and look after kids, who is economically dependent on her husband and hence, has lower negotiating power (Hicks, 2002). The households headed by divorced, deserted or widowed women are known to be the poorest of the poor because of their low human capital, low bargaining power and restricted social and economic mobility. FHH are poorer because of the absence of adult male earning member and the responsibility of running the household is placed solely on them. They are more vulnerable, living in uncertainty and powerless to control their destinies. In South Asia, various factors have led to a high rate of desertion and out-migration of males, forcing the women to take up the responsibility of maintaining the household as well as earning cash incomes to sustain the family. (Samanta and Lahiri Dutt, 2007).

For the better understanding of the vulnerability of FHH, we as a group have studied the lifestyles of single women who are residents of villages of Sirohi district, Rajasthan, India. In particular, we have looked upon the women from two villages named, Bhakyorji and Nichalagarh.

Male residents of these villages migrate to the neighboring localities/ states like, Abu Road, Udaipur, Ahmedabad and also to some places in Madhya Pradesh for marble cutting/ carving work and also for construction work at times. Since the non-availability of work in their own locality and surrounding villages, they have no better option than migration. Thus women are ‘left-behind’ with the households as a consequence of this ‘distress migration’. Neither men nor the women are happy with this consequence, as the migrant men are away from the families for at least 3-4 months and the mothers, wives and daughters have to look after the households in their absence. In case of emergency; to pay the bills, school fees, for any immediate medication or treatment, these women have borrow/ take a loan for the same. Often, they are supported morally and economically at times by the family members or the neighborhood people. To self-sustain their families, these women at times work in each other’s field, work as Aanganwadi teachers and also go for MGNREGA.

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The wives feel alone and scared to go out for any work or for household work itself. They feel that any security she may have had from her husband is no longer available to her and thus the consequence leads them to feel lonely. Even the children feel the impact of emotional security that a father normally provides. At times, children refuse to go to school even after their mothers making them understand / yelling at them to go to the school. But the scenario will not be the same, when the male/ fathers are present. They just agree to their words and go to school. The decision making power differs from household to household, but in the presence of in-laws, the decision making is done by them only. The wives also feel hostile, surrounded by the in-laws.

Mencher (1993) tries to distinguish the terms “female-headed” and “female-supported” and tells us why the latter term is needed. Most of the cases, a woman might be the main support of a household, but the infirm husband might still retain the decision-making power, and dominate the household through various ways. In current situations, women often have to juggle a wide variety of income sources in order to survive and reproduce. Even in households with two earners, both husband and wife, females tend to spend most of their salary for household purposes except when the need the funds to pay for food to enable them to work, whereas males withhold more for their own personal uses.


As the Constitution of India guarantees to all Indian women-

  1. Equality before the law. Article 14
  2. No discrimination by the State on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of these. Article 15(1)
  3. Special provisions to be made by the State in favor of women and children. Article 15(3)
  4. Equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State. Article 16
  5. State policy to be directed to securing for men and women equally, the right to an adequate means of livelihood. Article 39(a)
  6. Equal pay for equal work for both men and women. Article 39(d)
  7. Provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief. Article 42
  8. To promote harmony and to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women. Article 51(A) (e)

(Source: https://www.india.gov.in/sites/upload_files/npi/files/coi_part_full.pdf)

According to Sri Latha B (1994), women are empowered; when they are a part of ownership and decision making, when they can represent and voice out their opinions, when they have the access control over resources, when they are free to be mobile and specially body integrity by choice. Thus,

  • Women have to be empowered, especially in villages; women should be more accessible to knowledge, sources of education.
  • They should be given equal rights as men to represent and voice up their opinions.
  • Women should be told and aware of their rights.
  • Government should held Mahila Mandalis which enlighten the rural woman about their own rights and should educate them.
  • More schools and PHC should be opened in the villages, where women can also join and work and simultaneously get educated.


  • Batliwala, Srilatha. (1994). The Meaning of women’s empowerment;: New concepts from Action in Population Policies Reconsidered Health, Empowerment, and Rights, March (Harvard series on Population and international Health)
  • Bhasin, K. (2001). Understanding Gender.
  • Hicks, D. A. (2002). Gender, Discrimination, and Capability: Insights from Amartya Sen. The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 30, No. 1, 30, 137-154. Retrieved 09 27, 2009, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017929
  • Kalyani Menon (2001). Women in India- How Free? How Equal? Report commissioned by the Office of the Resident Coordinator in India. In http://aeea.org.in/upload/news/undp%20women%20in%20india_1362705554.pdf
  • Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place and Gender. Published by University of Minnesota Press, USA.
  • Mencher, J. P. (1993). Female-Headed, Female-Supported Households in India: Who Are They and What Are Their Survival Strategies? In J. P. Mencher, & A. Okungwu, Female Headed/Female Supported Households: A Cross Cultural Comparison (pp. 203-30). Boulder, Colorado, United States ofAmerica: Westview Press.
  • Samanta, G., & Lahiri-Dutt, K. (2007). Marginal Lives in Marginal Lands: Livelihood Strategies of Women-Headed, Immigrant Households in the Charlands of the Damodar, West Bengal. In S. Krishna, Women’s Livelihood Rights: Recasting Citizenship for Development (pp. 99-117). New Delhi, Delhi, India: Sage-India Publications.
  • Sumi Krishna (2014). Genderscapes- Revisinoing Natural Resource Management.


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