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agarwal lecture“Domestic Violence and the Security of Women’s Property”: Bina Agarwal Speaks to the Rice Community


The second lecture of the Center’s Gray/Wawro series featured renowned feminist economist Bina Agarwal (pictured left with CSWGS Advisory Board member Karen George and Dr. Diana Strassman), currently Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Economic Growth at The University of Delhi in India.  Agarwal presented her lecture, “Domestic Violence and the Security of Women’s Property,” on October 7th in the Baker Institute’s Kelly International Conference Facility.  CSWGS core faculty member Diana Strassmann introduced the speaker with a rich account of Agarwal’s faculty affiliations - at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, The University of Minnesota, and The University of Michigan - as well as her many accolades, including most recently the Leontief Prize from Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute for economists whose work “combines theoretical and empirical research that promotes a more comprehensive understanding of social and environmental processes.”[1]  Agarwal has published eight books, most recently Gender and Green Governance: The Political Economy of Women’s Presence Within and Beyond Community Forestry (Oxford University Press, 2010), and she currently serves on the UN’s Committee for Development Policy.


Agarwal’s lecture stemmed from an article she wrote with Pradeep Panda in 2005: “Marital Violence, Human Development and Women’s Property Status in India.”  The aim of this facet of Agarwal’s research is to identify factors that contribute to domestic violence against women and those that seem to mitigate or eliminate it.  Her findings focus on statistical data from the Indian state of Kerala.  She opened her lecture by detailing the ways in which domestic violence affects women’s capabilities – their freedom to choose what they value, their physical and mental security, economic freedom, social skills, political freedoms, and public participation.


Despite Kerala residents’ excellent access to education, the state still has a high rate of domestic violence.  Agarwal proposed many different factors that influence spousal violence, including household economic status, socio-demographic characteristics (a woman’s age, the duration of the marriage, spousal age difference, number of children), women’s and spouses’ education and a couple’s levels of education relative to each other, employment status within a marriage, and finally property ownership. She went on to stress the importance of women’s access to economic security as a preventive to domestic violence.


One would think that women’s employment would therefore mitigate the incidence of domestic violence, but Agarwal proposes that there is, in fact, a better, more stable and longer lasting remedy: women’s ownership of immoveable property.  There are many advantages to women’s property ownership verses women’s employment as far as the impact on marital violence is concerned.  For example, property resists changing labor markets that might adversely affect women’s occupations. Property ownership also visibly signals the strength of a woman’s bargaining power and provides a tangible exit option to women who are being abused.

Agarwal highlighted what she calls “the perverse effect” whereby the frequency of domestic violence can often increase when a wife is better educated and/or earns a higher salary than her husband.  In fact, she noted, a wife with better employment is actually twice as likely to face incidents of domestic violence in her marriage.           
agarwal podium

Women’s property ownership, however, is inversely related to the presence of abuse in a marriage.  Women in Kerala without property of their own face domestic violence rates of 24%, while that number decreases to 15% among those who own property.  In fact, women who own both a house and land are twenty times less likely to be abused by their husbands, Agarwal noted.  Furthermore, statistics show that propertied women are much less likely to return to an abusive relationship after leaving.  Here, then, is where Agarwal locates the difference between employment and property ownership in relation to domestic violence: the latter becomes not only a deterrent to abuse, but proves a viable and lasting exit strategy for abused women.


Given her findings, Agarwal proposed a series of practices that could decrease the frequency of domestic violence and support women who are escaping such violence.  Her suggestions ranged from macroeconomic policies for the development of women’s employment opportunities, to the creation of specific laws to protect the rights of women within marriage, to providing better shelters for battered women and increasing women’s access to housing and land.  She commented that more affordable one bedroom apartments, which are virtually absent in India, might be the saving grace of many victims of domestic abuse, offering a haven from violence at home and decreasing the likelihood that they would feel compelled by economic factors to return to their abusers.  Agarwal has lobbied for these types of urban developments and policies in India.   


Agarwal ended her lecture with a quote from R. Emerson Dobash and Russell P. Dobash’s Women, Violence, and Social Change, which poignantly addresses the urgency and magnitude of her argument for women’s property rights as a way of improving the health and safety of women in India: “There must be some place to live.  The refuge provides temporary accommodation… it does not, however, provide a permanent home, and this can be one of the most crucial struggles for freedom from violence faced by women.”[2]

[2] Dobash, R. Emerson and Russell P. Dobash.  Women, Violence, and Social Change.  New York: Routledge, 1992.  (p. 69)