Women’s History Roundtable Series: “Daughter Discrimination in India: A Research Retrospective” by Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, March 2019

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Dr. Sharada Srinivasan is an Associate Professor, & Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development at the University of Guelph. She obtained her PhD in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Prior to joining the University of Guelph, she taught at York University, Toronto, Canada.

 

Dr. Srinivasan began by explaining that this presentation was a ‘research retrospective’ because it has been twenty years since she completed her research for the PhD. Her research, completed in 1999, focussed on female infanticide. Rather than examining daughter discrimination in those states where it is examined more often (e.g. Bihar, Haryana), she chose to study how daughter discrimination emerged in a context where the gender disparity is relatively less. Dr. Srinivasan noted that it was important to study places or events that do not conform to national ‘trends’, making Tamil Nadu – with lower gender disparity indices – an important site in which to examine daughter discrimination.

During her research process, Dr. Srinivasan found that dowry was an important way to measure daughter discrimination in Tamil Nadu. In particular, she pointed out several ways in which patterns of dowry had changed over the past few decades. Though popular perceptions of dowry portray it as being prevalent among poor, illiterate people; Dr. Srinivasan found that it was those in more privileged positions who practiced dowry. Thus, she found that as a family’s status moved up, so did the daughter discrimination in the form of dowry. This insight allowed Dr. Srinivasan to examine the links between dowry and gender violence in Tamil Nadu. As Dr. Srinivasan found, wealth had little impact on dowry and domestic violence. Instead, it was women’s income that was the influencing factor. Women who earned/had access to their own income were less likely to be the targets of domestic violence.

 

Dr. Srinivasan also found a conflicting narrative – it is well known that men take pride in the size of the dowry they ‘attract’, which is a marker of their status in society. Wives having their own income is seen as undermining their husbands’ status, ego and power.

In the course of her fieldwork, Dr. Srinivasan found certain ‘red zones’ in Tamil Nadu where this contradictory narrative led to increased daughter discrimination. She noted that this was particularly prevalent in the landowning castes (especially the konguvellalar gounders, the focus of her research), where son preference is high given the desire to keep the land within the family. In this scenario, having many daughters creates more claimants to the land in question. To avoid this problem, parents often arrange early marriages for their daughters.

This practice was emulated by lower caste groups, reflecting a pattern prevalent in Indian society wherein economic growth is perceived as going hand in hand with the imitation of upper caste/class behavioural patterns.

 

Dr. Srinivasan saw the famous Cradle Baby Scheme, along with the Girl Child Protection Scheme and ensuing police action pioneered by the TN government as important points of change in this narrative. Within a decade after these landmark initiatives, the census showed an improvement in FMR (female mortality rate) for the state.

 

Twenty years after her initial foray into this field, Dr. Srinivasan continues to study daughter discrimination in India. Her current research examines adult daughters and sons and their relationship with the care of elderly parents in India. She is currently conducting fieldwork on this topic in Punjab and Kerala. The study will analyse how elderly parents are supported in daughter-only families and identify existing patterns among sons and daughters in providing care to elderly parents.

 

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This report is based on notes taken by Nafeesa Usman

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