Empowering women or institutionalizing women's agency: an ethnography of the Mahila Samakhaya education program for women in India
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The central argument of this dissertation is that programs of empowerment or those that seek to foster women’s agency infact pose problems for it in and through their institutionalization. It selects a government sponsored education program for women in India (Mahila Samakhaya) to produce a critical ethnography of its institutionalization and of its effects on women’s agency in Banda district of Uttar-Pradesh. Institutionalization of a program here refers to institutionalization of education in the rural context of Banda. The process involves two stages: recruiting local women as functionaries/ agents and creating frameworks/ institutions for education through the assistance of such functionaries. Experiences and articulations around empowerment are therefore relative to the levels of responsibilities vis-à-vis the program’s institutionalization at the grassroots. Infact institutionalization complicated women’s experience of empowerment. Even as the process fostered women’s individual agency in similar/ different ways, the rules of structuring/ structured interventions subverted the formation of a women’s collective. This weakened women’s bargaining power in matters regarding their agency. Dissent and self-reflection were penalized elsewhere in districts where the program continued to function after 2001. This ethnography then raises concerns around feminist theory and praxis. If institutionalization is inevitable under conditions of globalization, then it is imperative to rethink and reconstruct feminist spaces for critical reflection regarding governance, development, and women’s agency in the same context. The survival of the “ultra-poor” is contingent upon the responsiveness of policy to their changing lived realities/ needs within its actualized framework, than upon its theoretical sensibilities.