What Makes Life Good?
Excerpted from Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, by Martha C. Nussbaum, published in March 2011 by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2011 by Martha C. Nussbaum. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
All over the world people are struggling for lives that are worthy of their human dignity. Leaders of countries often focus on national economic growth alone, but their people, meanwhile, are striving for something different: meaningful lives for themselves. Increased GDP has not always made a difference in the quality of people’s lives, and reports of national prosperity are not likely to console those whose existence is marked by inequality and deprivation. As the late Mahbub ul Haq, the Pakistani economist who inaugurated the Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Programme, wrote in the first of those reports, in 1990: “The real wealth of a nation is its people. And the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth.” According to Haq, development economics needs a new theoretical approach if it is to respond to people’s most urgent problems.
Consider Vasanti, a small woman in her early 30s who lives in Ahmedabad, a large city in the state of Gujarat, in northwestern India. Vasanti’s husband was a gambler and an alcoholic. He used the household money to get drunk. When that money was gone, he got a vasectomy to take advantage of the cash incentive that Gujarat’s government offered to encourage sterilization. So Vasanti had no children, a huge liability given that a childless woman is more vulnerable to domestic violence. Eventually, as her husband became more abusive, she left him and returned to her own family.
Poor parents (or siblings, if the parents have died) are often unwilling to take back a child who has been married, especially a woman who took a dowry with her. Many women in Vasanti’s position end up on the street, with no alternative but sex work. But it was her good fortune that her family was willing to help her. Vasanti’s father, who used to make Singer sewing machine parts, had died, but her brothers were running an auto parts business in what was once his shop. Using one of his old machines, and living in the shop, Vasanti earned a small income making eyeholes for the hooks on sari tops. Meanwhile, her brothers gave her a loan to get another machine, one that rolls the edges of the sari. She took the money, but she didn’t like being dependent on her siblings.
Vasanti then discovered the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a pathbreaking organization in Ahmedabad that works with poor women. Founded by internationally acclaimed activist Ela Bhatt, SEWA had by that time helped more than 50,000 members, with programs including microcredit, education, healthcare and a labor union.
With the help of the group, Vasanti got a bank loan and paid back her brothers. (SEWA now operates a bank in an office building in downtown Ahmedabad. All the officers and employees of the bank are women, many of them former beneficiaries of SEWA’s programs.) By the time I met Vasanti, several years later, she had paid back almost all the SEWA loan. She was also eligible to enroll in SEWA’s educational programs, where she was planning to learn to read and write. With the help of her friend Kokila, she was actively involved in combating domestic violence in her community. This friendship would have been very unlikely but for SEWA; Vasanti, though poor, is from the high Brahmin caste, and Kokila is from one of the lower castes. Though still all too evident in society in general, divisions along lines of caste and religion are anathema in the Indian women’s movement.
* * *
What theoretical approach could direct attention to the most significant features of Vasanti’s situation, promote an adequate analysis of it and make pertinent recommendations for action? Suppose for a moment that we were interested not in economic or political theory but just in people: what would we notice and consider salient about Vasanti’s story?
First we would probably notice how small Vasanti is, and we could initially take this as evidence of poor nutrition in childhood. Poor families are often forced to feed all their children poorly, but we would want to ask about how her brothers fared. Evidence abounds that girls are less well nourished than boys and less often taken to the doctor in childhood when ill. So Vasanti’s nutritional deficiency is a result not just of poverty but also of gender discrimination.
Unequal laws of property and inheritance contribute to the predicament of India’s daughters, and anyone thinking about Vasanti’s life must consider the role they have played in her situation. The religion-based systems of personal law in India govern property and inheritance as well as family law. All the systems institutionalize large inequalities for women. Under the Hindu property code, women attained equal shares in agricultural land only in 2005, seven years after I met Vasanti. Hers is not a land-owning family, but an analysis of her predicament would naturally lead us to notice that closely related inequity.
Thinking about such issues, we would be led to a study of the striking gender imbalance in India’s population. Demographers estimate that where similar nutrition and healthcare are present, women live, on average, slightly longer than men—so we would expect a ratio of something like 102 women to 100 men. Instead, the 1991 Indian census shows ninety-two women to 100 men. It’s well-known that these imbalances increase wherever information about the sex of the fetus is available. Amniocentesis clinics are ubiquitous throughout the nation. Because sex-selective abortion is such a widespread problem in India, it is illegal to seek information about the sex of the fetus, but these laws are rarely enforced.
Vasanti, then, has had a bit of good luck in being alive at all. Her family didn’t nourish her very well, but they did better than many poor families. When I met her she seemed to be in reasonable health, and she is fortunate to have a strong constitution, since healthcare is not easily accessible to the poor in Gujarat. The Indian Constitution makes health a state issue rather than a federal one, so there is great variation state by state in the resources available to the poor. Some Indian states—for example, Kerala—have effective healthcare systems, but most do not.
Next, we are likely to notice that a woman as intelligent and determined as Vasanti has had few employment options because she never learned to read and write. We can put this down to a failure in the Gujarati education system, since education, like health, is a state matter and literacy rates vary greatly from state to state. In Kerala, adolescent literacy for both boys and girls is close to 100 percent, whereas, according to the 2001 census, nationally 75.3 percent of men are literate, compared with only 53.7 percent of women. The factors that produce this discrepancy are related to those that produce the sex gap in basic life expectancy and health: women are thought to have fewer options in employment and politics, so from the family’s perspective it makes more sense to assign domestic labor to girls while sending boys to school. The prophecy is self-fulfilling, since illiteracy bars women from most employment and many political opportunities. Moreover, because a girl will soon leave her birth family and join another family through marriage, her parents have a smaller stake in her future.
Because education is such a crucial avenue of opportunity, the Indian Constitution was amended in 2002 to give primary and secondary education the status of an enforceable fundamental right. Recognizing that poor parents often keep children out of school because they need their labor to survive, the Supreme Court has ordered all schools to offer children a nutritious midday meal, thus giving poor parents an economic incentive that often outweighs the lost wages from their child’s labor during school hours. Vasanti missed this change, which might have made her both literate and physically bigger.
Meanwhile, at the national level, the Constitution was amended in 1992 to assign women one-third of the seats in local panchayats, or village councils. This system, like the midday meal, provides incentives for parents to educate daughters as well as sons, since one day they may well represent the interests of the family in local government. Again, this change came too late for Vasanti.
Because Vasanti has had no formal education, she is cut off from a full understanding of her nation’s history and its political and economic structure. She is also unable to enjoy poetry, novels or the many works of the imagination that would make her life richer and more fun. She is not, however, cut off from music and dance, and SEWA makes valuable use of these media in educating women like Vasanti.