People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 05

February 3, 2013

On the Empowerment of Women


Prabhat Patnaik  


EMPOWERMENT is a complex and multi-dimensional issue. There have been attempts to capture empowerment by constructing indices. One common index, for instance, is the Gender Gap Index. Though this index is open to all the usual objections one can raise against any such measure, what is remarkable is that India ranks low among the various countries in terms of the Gender Gap Index. This low level of women’s empowerment is also confirmed if we take another obvious measure, namely the sex ratio. Table 1 presents time-series data on the ratio of females to males in India’s population according to the various censuses. (Both Tables 1 and 2 are taken from a paper by Vibhuti Patel).

Table-1 Sex Ratio in India, 1901 to 2011

Year   Number of Women 

  Per 1000 Men                      

1901  972                                                    

 1911   964

1921    955

1931    950 

1941    945

1951    946

1961    941

1971    930

1981   934

1991    927

2001    933

2011    940


Source: Census of India, 2011


These figures reveal an alarming picture of deterioration over time. The well-known statistician Ronald Fisher had argued in a paper in 1930 that the sex ratio would tend to be 1:1 among most species, including human beings. Some demographers have even argued that if equal care is bestowed on females and males in a human population, then the ratio of females to males should be 1.05:1. We therefore get a measure of “missing females”, to borrow Amartya Sen’s term, that amounts to anywhere between 6 to 11 per cent, which is an indicator of the extent of discrimination against women. A comparison of India’s sex ratio with those of other countries brings out the magnitude of the problem in India.


Table 2- Women per 100 men


Europe & North America   105

Latin America                                   100

Caribbean                              103

Sub Saharan Africa              102

South East Asia                    100

Central Asia                          102

South Asia                             95

China                                      92

India                                       94


Source: The World’s Women- Trends and Statistics, Dept of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, NY, 2010.


It is obvious from this table that discrimination against women, as reflected in the sex ratio, has little to do directly with poverty or underdevelopment or any such economic variable, since even sub-Saharan Africa which is among the poorest regions of the world, does better than either India or China, which are considered to be “emerging economic powers” and counted among the “high-fliers” in terms of GDP growth rates. The real reason has to do with a preference for male children which arises because of the deep-seated structures of patriarchy in these Asian societies, and which paradoxically has led to an increasing resort to the atrocious practice of female infanticide because of the technological innovation of pre-natal sex determination and because of voluntarily-accepted or State-enforced small-family norms.

          Here again we find that as against what some consider to be a natural tendency for a sex-ratio-at-birth of 1.05 males to 1 female, countries like China and India recorded far higher figures. In fact the top seven countries in the world in order of birth-sex ratio in 2011 were: China 1.133, Armenia 1.124, India 1.12, Albania 1.118, Vietnam 1.117, Azerbaijan 1.116, and Georgia 1.113. There can be little doubt that female foeticide, and lack of care for female infants, played a major role in effecting such high ratios. It is worth noting that in many of the Central Asian Republics which were a part of the Soviet Union, the birth sex ratio moved sharply in favour of males after the break-up of the Soviet Union, which underscores the importance of social factors in determining the birth-sex ratio.

It follows then that even though there have been many obvious and visible signs of empowerment of women in India since independence, in terms of their entry into a number of spheres of activity that were earlier either the exclusive preserves of males or dominated by males, even after sixty five years of independence we have not succeeded in breaking the hold of patriarchy over our societies.

No doubt, we are not alone in this. Even advanced capitalist countries continue to be in the grip of patriarchal attitudes. But there are certain fundamental differences between advanced capitalist countries and countries like India with respect to women’s empowerment. Because of these, we face certain additional problems of a serious nature, quite apart from the ones that they as well as we face in common. Let us turn to these.




The development of capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries was accompanied by and large by a destruction of their pre-capitalist structures. Whether it was France and England where capitalism developed on the basis of a revolution through which the bourgeoisie effectively captured State power, or whether it was Germany where the bourgeoisie entered into an alliance with the landlords to develop what is often called “semi-feudal capitalism”, effective blows were dealt against the pre-capitalist structures in the entire “old world”. One of the main ways this was done was through the emigration of vast masses of the population into the “new world”, of temperate regions of white settlement, like America, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. During the nineteenth century, especially its second half, nearly 50 million Europeans migrated to the temperate regions of white settlement where they drove the local population off the land they had occupied till then and set themselves up as farmers.

Figures for Britain illustrate the scale of this emigration: between 1815 and 1910, 16 million persons migrated from Britain to the “new world”, whereas the entire population of Britain in 1815 was around 12 million. Looking at it differently, the annual out-migration from Britain during this entire period was roughly half of the annual addition to the British population. Emigration on such a scale, which became possible through the pursuit of imperialist policies by the ascendant bourgeoisie in the Metropolitan European countries, completely undermined the old pre-capitalist structure, which had provided the base for patriarchy. Of course patriarchal attitudes remained, but essentially as a part of the superstructure; but the base upon which patriarchy had been sustained, the old feudal structure, disintegrated.

The empowerment of women in the advanced capitalist countries therefore had two distinct aspects: overcoming the patriarchal attitudes that were a legacy of the old structure which itself had disintegrated; and overcoming the new forms of discrimination against women that capitalism unleashed. The latter for instance consisted in the denial of “equal pay for equal work”, and in the fact that periods of crisis, marked by increased unemployment, entailed a withdrawal of women from the work-force (the so-called “discouraged worker effect”), ie, the fact that women were disproportionately represented in the reserve army of labour. Women have struggled against all these forms of discrimination in the advanced capitalist countries, and have achieved major advances.

These problems also afflict our society; but there is something additional about the problem of women’s empowerment in our society that we have to bear in mind. And that consists in the fact that in societies like ours, while capitalist development does not itself create enough employment opportunities, the scope for emigration on the scale that European countries experienced simply does not exist. Just to put the issue in perspective, if India had to experience the scale of emigration that Britain managed over the period 1815-1910, then 40 crores of  Indians should have emigrated between independence and now. This is simply not possible any longer; and it is not desirable either. Not surprisingly therefore, despite talk of India emerging as an “economic superpower”, despite the so-called high growth, nearly 50 per cent of India’s work-force is still engaged in agriculture which has languished precisely in this period of high growth.

The “old community” associated with our pre-capitalist structure, which was far from being idyllic and which was characterised by caste and patriarchy, thus continues to remain with us. The base for patriarchal attitudes therefore is not getting destroyed despite capitalist development, and cannot get destroyed in societies like ours through capitalist development, as it was in the advanced capitalist countries. In our case therefore it is not just a matter of struggling against “patriarchal attitudes”, a phenomenon of the superstructure alone; these attitudes are getting continuously reinforced by the actual existence of the base that underlies patriarchy.

This is the first difference between the advanced capitalist countries and societies like India. The second difference is closed linked to this, namely that the population migrating to the cities from the villages as a consequence of the agrarian crisis and the crisis of petty production unleashed in the countryside by the process of capitalist development, instead of getting absorbed into the capitalist sector as proletarians, can at best function as “informal sector workers”, doing casual work, or part-time work. This has a very important implication for the nature of capitalism that is developing in India.




Historically, capitalist development, while destroying the old “community” that existed under the feudal order, had also unwittingly created the basis for the formation of a new “community”. The workers whom it massed in factories came together in “combinations”, whose original aim was to struggle over wages and the conditions of work, but which, over time, became so precious per se to the workers that the maintenance of such “combinations” became their primary goal. Karl Marx had seen in these “combinations”, of which trade unions were the quintessential expression, the genesis of a new world of socialism. He had believed that workers would develop from mere trade union consciousness to class consciousness and overthrow the capitalist system to end all exploitation. But even though the advanced capitalist countries did not see the establishment of socialism, there can be little doubt that the working class, including the white collar workers, which constituted the bulk of the working population, developed a new “community” which infused a new way of collective life, a new moral sense, to the numerous individuals uprooted from their old community and thrown together. Classical capitalism, though unwittingly, had created a new “community”, which, even when it did not develop to the extent anticipated by Marx, constituted nonetheless a new secular and social universe with strong moral underpinnings.

But in societies like ours where workers are predominantly casual, where organising them in trade unions is extremely difficult, where, in other words, capitalist development is of a sort that does not allow scope for “combinations”, the possibility of the formation of such a “new community” is thwarted. In our case in other words neither is the “old community destroyed”, nor is a “new community” created. Instead of a new “community” we have a massive group of uprooted and alienated individuals, who have lost their moral moorings by migrating out of the old “community” but who do not acquire any new moral moorings through enrollment into any organisation of the working class. We have in other words a huge group of lumpen- proletariat, whose relative size far exceeds that of the proletariat. The capitalism that produces this vast lumpen-proletariat is what I would call “lumpen capitalism”. What we are seeing today in India, behind the façade of high growth, is the rapid development of a “lumpen capitalism”, which is what the era of neo-liberalism that reflects the hegemony of finance capital engenders.

There are at least three ways in which neo-liberal policies produce “lumpen capitalism”: the first is through the relative decline of the public sector, the second is through the relative decline of material commodity producing sectors, and the third is through a rampant process of what Marx had called “primitive accumulation of capital” (of which what we call “corruption” is an off-shoot). Let me examine each of these ways.

The public sector is usually looked upon only in terms of its economic rationale. But it has a fundamental social role, which arises from the fact that public sector workers, for reasons we need not go into here, are usually far more unionised than those employed by the capitalists; and their unionisation in turn keeps alive the tradition of unionism in the society at large. Even today in the United States, only 7 per cent of private sector workers are unionised compared to around 33 per cent in the public sector (including teachers and other white collar workers). And one reason why France continues to have strong trade unions to this day, despite the decline of trade unions elsewhere in the advanced capitalist world, is because of the weight of the public sector in the French economy. The decline of the public sector under the neo-liberal regime has therefore the effect of weakening the trade union movement in the economy as a whole and hence preventing the emergence of an alternative new “community” with an alternative moral universe based on non-religious, ie, secular, principles.

Likewise, modern manufacturing brings large numbers of workers together, enables them to “combine” to defend their rights and engenders a new culture through such “combinations”. True, manufacturing in today’s world often means breaking up the production process and entrusting a segment of it to domestic workers; but even so, the phenomenon of manufacturing being carried out in large-scale units where workers are massed together has not lost relevance. In India during the recent period of high growth, while agricultural growth has been sluggish, even manufacturing has grown no faster than in the pre-liberalisation period, especially compared to the currently much- reviled “Nehruvian” years of the fifties and early sixties. The real acceleration in growth has occurred in the services sector, where a vast chunk of the “informal sector” workers are concentrated who are intrinsically difficult to unionise, and also where, even within the organised segment, the domination of MNCs and the need to cater to the export market, acts as a coercive force against unionisation. Besides, the service sector boom is also fed to a significant extent by speculation, where fly-by-night operators thrive and act as a source of corruption of the political system.

To be sure, it is not only speculative activities where the breed of fly-by-night operators thrives. Other service sector activities too are marked by their pervasive presence; an obvious example is transport where privatisation has brought into the business a whole lot of people with shady and criminal backgrounds whose real “asset” is their proximity to local politicians through the development of a relationship of mutual assistance.

The most potent of source of “corruption” of course is the process of primitive accumulation of capital, ie, the acquisition of either publicly-owned, or community-owned, or petty-proprietor-owned, property by private individuals gratis, or at best “for a song”. What we call “corruption” is nothing else but a share of this appropriation that is extracted by the ruling class politicians and bureaucrats for making this possible. “Corruption” in short is a levy imposed by the ruling class politicians and bureaucrats for enabling the bourgeoisie to amass property through primitive accumulation of capital. And it plays a significant role in reconciling traditional ruling class politicians to the neo-liberal regime where the levers of decision-making are increasingly not controlled by them but are left in the hands of a new breed of bureaucrats and technocrats who are acceptable to globalised finance capital (who have been, usually, employees of the World Bank or the IMF or some multinational banks).

The upshot of this entire phenomenon that I have been discussing is that the development of capitalism in our society, instead of creating conditions for the coming into being of a new “community” through the process of “combination” of workers, engenders a substantial lumpen-proletariat, incapable of “combining” together for united actions, and hence incapable of developing an alternative morality in the place of that which characterised the old “community” which it has left behind. This capitalism which I have called “lumpen capitalism” is the product of the period of hegemony of globalised finance capital in late-capitalist societies. To be sure, this hegemony produces similar results even in advanced capitalist countries, where too there is a clear setback to trade unionism and working class influence in the economy and the polity, but because of the legacy of the past history of working class politics and trade unionism, the damage to the social fabric is less than in late-capitalist societies like ours.

Let me sum up this part of my argument. Unlike the classical case of capitalist development, capitalist development in India neither breaks the old “community” which provides the base for patriarchy and the caste system, nor creates, anywhere to the same degree, the basis for the formation of a  new “community”. We have therefore a combination of khap panchayats on the one hand and a substantial lumpen-proletariat on the other.




What, it may be asked, is the relevance of all this for women’s empowerment? Women’s empowerment which had been a part of the anti-colonial struggle, receives a setback because of both these phenomena, viz. the continuation of the old “community” that underlies patriarchy, and the development of a vast lumpen-proletariat that breeds criminal behaviour generally in society and especially towards women. There is, as in other spheres, a counter-revolution in the sphere of women’s empowerment too, against the emancipatory process unleashed by the anti-colonial struggle that was carried forward in the immediate aftermath of independence.

What is more, there is a dialectical relationship between these two phenomena, of the lack of destruction of the old “community” and the weakness in the formation of the new “community”. The assault in the urban spaces by elements of this lumpen-proletariat on the rights and dignity of those women who have broken out of the straitjacket of patriarchy and chosen independent careers of their own, is used to decry their breaking out of the patriarchal mould, to force them back into patriarchy, to curb their freedom and choices. This is what we observed recently in the wake of the horrendous incident of the rape and murder of a young girl in Delhi. Indeed many among the protesters demanding capital punishment for the perpetrators of the crime were implicitly subscribing to the patriarchal argument that a “violated woman” is like a “living corpse”, a point explicitly expressed by a senior woman politician as well.

This dialectic has to be fought if the project of women’s empowerment is to be carried forward. The point of my underscoring the political economy roots of the counter-revolutionary tendency against women’s empowerment is not to spread any fatalistic despondency about the success of the project; it is merely to suggest that the cause of women’s empowerment in our country is linked to the broader cause of people’s emancipation. It may be fought on its own terrain, but this link should not be lost sight of. In fact, the struggle for women’s emancipation will gain greatly in momentum if it gets linked to other struggles as well.

Historian Suvira Jaiswal of my university has argued that the struggle against caste oppression can succeed only if it is accompanied by women’s emancipation; I believe that the opposite can also be said: the struggle for women’s emancipation can succeed only if it is accompanied by a struggle against caste oppression. Besides, the very process of struggle, and that too on a wide front, as an existential fact, is what would break the vicious dialectic let loose by neo-liberal capitalism in societies like ours, because of which the process of empowerment of women receives a setback.