Practicing Women's Agency: Women's Participation in Local Spaces in South Africa and Kerala

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 4:30 PM
Room: 418
Oral Presentation
Michelle WILLIAMS , University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Berit AASEN , Norwegian Inst Urban & Regional Res, Norway
Guro AANDAHL , Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, Oslo, Norway
In this paper we look at the conditions for and effects of increased participation of women in political spaces in Kerala, India and South Africa.  In both places, women enjoy supportive policy environments, yet patriarchal gender norms continue to limit women’s agency.  Drawing on interviews of two communities in Kerala and two communities in South Africa, we show that despite the conducive policy context, women face various challenges in practicing their agency and citizenship. 

Based on empirical research in four localities inhabited by economically and politically marginal populations (a Johannesburg township and rural Eastern Cape in South Africa and a Trivandrum slum and a fishing village in Kerala), we show that women’s participation is influenced by electoral dynamics and party politics; the relations and networks that women are part of both collectively and individually; the intersectionality of gender with other social structures based on caste, class, and race; and relations in the wider political economy including changing market relations as a consequence of globalisation. Kerala (as well as India at large) has targeted women directly in policies aimed at increasing the participation of women in public, economic and political life, through electoral quotas in local governments, the establishment of Self-Help Groups for poor women, and the involvement of these groups directly in local planning processes. While South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions for gender equality, it has not established such “invited” spaces for women’s political participation at the local level, directly targeting poor women. In South Africa, we find quite a few very interesting “invented” spaces of women’s political participation, from the bottom-up, through cooperatives, various forms of voluntary work, and political engagement. The comparison of the opportunity structures and political agency of women in these two different contexts therefore allows for interesting theoretical reflections.