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1 August 2001 Book Reviews: Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas
Manjari Mehta
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Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas, edited by Jeannette D. Gurung, International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, 1999. 408 pp. US$20.00 (developed countries); US$15.00 (developing countries); US$10.00 (ICIMOD member countries). ISBN 92-9115-855-0.

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Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas

Coming on the eve of the International Year of the Mountain 2002, Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas (HKH) is an important reminder to the global development community that gender dynamics in mountain areas worldwide remain inadequately addressed and understood. This collection of 11 case studies, covering 7 countries of the HKH region (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China [including the Tibetan Autonomous Region], India, Myanmar, and Nepal), makes visible the “hidden perspectives” of women's lives, especially in terms of the opportunities and constraints they face. Drawing on empirically grounded research and policy and programmatic analysis, these articles bring into sharp focus regional variations in women's mobility, legal status, control of resources, and decision making. They underscore existing gaps between policy goals, rural realities, and women's perceived needs.

In laying out the interaction between mountain women's centrality and marginality, this anthology is essential reading for policy makers, development workers, researchers, and activists involved in issues of mountain development. Those concerned with working to develop action-oriented agendas sensitive to gender issues in mountain areas will find it particularly useful.

In a well-crafted introductory essay, Jeannette Gurung (an American professional who has lived and worked in Nepal for over 15 years) discusses the methodological orientation informing the work and the theoretical issues key to examining mountain women's status. She discusses the genesis of this volume: a fact finding mission on gender and development attempting to ascertain the depth of the data gap on mountain women. This was conducted under the aegis of ICIMOD in 1996 in the countries of the HKH region. The researchers, women from mountain areas with extensive familiarity with their regions, followed a multifaceted approach that drew upon both quantitative and qualitative methodologies:

  • Collecting available data on mountain women.

  • Locating governmental and nongovernmental organizations working on gender.

  • Identifying national/district-level development policies directed at women.

  • Spending a period of at least 3 weeks collecting community and household data on economic livelihoods, infrastructure, demographic and political institutions, etc.

  • Analyzing the data to understand how gender differentiates access to resources.

The results provide information on how women think development initiatives address their needs, assess the gaps between stated policies and programmatic goals, and consider their ability to offer assistance to rural women. This information was disseminated to institutions involved with gender and mountain development issues in the HKH region.

There is a wide geographical sweep in this work and a major differential in terms of political, legal, and regional issues of gender. Fortunately, a pull-out chart included in the introduction enables the reader to make rough comparisons on key issues. At an overarching level, each article indicts over a quarter of a century's efforts toward developing greater gender equity. Together, they demonstrate that, although women's lives in the HKH are shaped by wide variation in terms of their mobility, decision making, and valuation as workers, women's workloads are heavier than men's and, in many instances, are becoming more difficult. Moreover, women have less access to education, health facilities, and new technologies.

Agricultural development interventions based on cash cropping and involvement in the market economy typically target men; women are thus relegated to the undervalued subsistence sector. Income-generating projects directed at women tend to favor low-earning and slow-growing activities, which thereby broaden the gender gap in the market. Women's ability to raise collateral for loans to expand farm activities and to earn cash incomes is stifled by their lack of formal ownership and tenure rights to critical land-based resources. Moreover, their involvement in political activities is limited, and in all instances, their involvement is less than men's.

Policy and development personnel would do well to heed 3 messages that emerge here. First, there is a disparity between national- and district-level policies in terms of their ability to address practical and strategic needs of women. Even the best intentioned of programs fails to consider the pressing realities of women's lives that prevent them from taking advantage of services—or even knowing about them. Second is the emergence of a systematic erosion of women's value within households and communities. In all but 2 of the areas (in Bangladesh and Bhutan), women have internalized ideological presuppositions legitimizing their inferiority. They experience low self-esteem, lack confidence in their organizational and decision-making abilities, and suffer from an overall sense of insignificance. This development is profoundly disturbing because internalized powerlessness is transmitted transgenerationally, and it prevents women from finding the voices necessary to speak their truths to men, development planners, and government officials.

Of key salience in understanding this trend is Gurung's argument that local belief systems and the sociopolitical structures that govern people's lives are products of long historical engagement with the ideologies, values, and institutions of dominant nation-states. Likewise, religious and development paradigms disseminate explicit and implicit assumptions about women's “proper” place in society. These often contradict positive local gender ideologies that grant women high status, as reflected in certain Buddhist-influenced communities.

As is indicated in the preface, this anthology reflects “the professional disparities of the researchers, [and their] institutional difference[s] and political constraints.” For example, use of statistics varies, indicating regional differences in political cultures and the variety of official attitudes toward accessibility. The Afghan case study was affected by the political unrest leading to the Taliban takeover, while the lack of official permission to travel in Tibet was reflected in the focus of that study.

These larger backdrops against which field research is conducted inform my concern as a social anthropologist that any discussion of mountain women without a parallel look at global forces inspires a “missing the forest for the trees” critique. By the “forest” I mean the larger geopolitical, economic, and social landscapes that are rapidly redefining how mountain communities engage with the external world. The microscopic gaze, while providing richly textured data and demonstrating ways by which women's marginalization is, ironically, built into the very processes of development that seek to integrate them and their societies into wider national identities, overlooks vital dimensions. It does a disservice to current complexities of local–global articulations. Areas of particular importance to be tackled in the future should include the implications of national, ethnic, and interregional armed conflict on communities and women's health. The intersection of poverty and women's low status links with health issues in particularly dramatic ways, such as domestic violence, alcoholism, sex trafficking, and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Overall, however, this is a commendable study. In raising more questions than it answers, it is likely to inspire further in-depth regional- and national-level comparative work on gender. Comprehensive and collaborative research methodologies feed into action agendas, and next year's global focus on mountain areas will, it is hoped, offset years of neglect and at last help integrate gender analysis into mainstream perspectives of mountain development.

Manjari Mehta "Book Reviews: Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas," Mountain Research and Development 21(3), 301-302, (1 August 2001).[0301:B]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 August 2001
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