Unpacking Widow Headship and Agency in Post-Conflict Nepal Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Smita Ramnarain

Literature on violent conflict and gender has typically focused on the political, legal, and humanitarian aspects of women’s lives in contexts of conflict. The material implications of violent conflict for civilian women’s daily lives have garnered less attention. Further, even as the rise of female- and widow-headed households in the aftermath of war is mentioned in post-conflict policy documents, few economic studies focus exclusively on widow headship, on gender norms impinging upon the entitlements and vulnerabilities of widow heads, or on their agency (or lack thereof). Given that women take on the responsibility of caring for families and communities in the event of the absence or death of adult men after complex emergencies, the ability of female- and widow-headed households to survive, adapt, and cope after conflict has crucial welfare implications for women and families. Through ethnographic research in Nepal, Smita Ramnarain seeks to address these research gaps.

Ramnarain uses ethnographic data – namely, thirty-two in-depth interviews, eight focus group discussions, and participant observation – collected through fieldwork in Nepal in 2008–9 and 2011. Her objective is to overcome data constraints – the poor quality and contested nature of secondary survey data – frequently faced by studies of household headship. She illustrates the necessity of disaggregating female headship further to unpack the specific experiences of widow heads of household in the aftermath of the decade long (1996–2006) Maoist conflict. Her approach is consistent with feminist economists’ calls to expand the economist’s toolkit beyond quantitative survey data in order to understand women’s situated experiences and gender relations, be it in war- or peacetime. The qualitative data provide insight into the coping strategies of widow-headed households and the cultural institutions and patriarchal norms they must mediate in their everyday struggles for survival.

Widow heads’ spaces of agency. First, Ramnarain finds that widow heads’ coping strategies range from sales of assets to taking up market work to recruiting children to help with household work. Second, and more crucially, the findings point to ways in which widow-headed households mediate gender norms and the complex terrain of kin networks, to carve out spaces of agency or access to resources. For instance, while widow heads faced constraints around access to resources such as land or property, they were frequently able to make a case for greater mobility or taking up employment outside the home. The narratives thus reveal that widow heads’ agency and the manner of its exercise depended upon social norms and context: specifically, the type of household and proximity to kin, the resources in question, how widows perceived the importance of particular social relations, and the degree to which they were able to appropriate socially prevalent gender tropes – being a “good mother,” having sons, or having been a “faithful wife” – to their advantage. As such, widow heads’ accounts also capture complexities of agency that simple quantitative measurement is unable to reveal and point to how social context – cultural and gender norms – configures the subtle processes that may constrain or facilitate agency.

Third, widow heads’ perspectives provide a glimpse into how intrahousehold structures and processes may be fluid, with processes of contestation and disruption occurring concurrently and with oppression and resistance played out simultaneously. Thus, it is revealed that even as agency emerges in the everyday experiences of widow heads, this agency is contextual, negotiated, and discontinuous.

Policy implications. This research has policy implications for development agencies and practitioners seeking to amplify widows’ fragmented agency into empowerment. Widow heads’ lived experiences reveal that efforts to support or augment their agency – through laws on inheritance or ownership of property or programs on credit access or employment provision – will remain cursory without an understanding of the social norms and networks in which these women are embedded since these delineate the parameters of choice. Thus, a policy agenda focused on examining gendered vulnerabilities, equity, and well-being in post-conflict societies should consider not only access to tangible resources, but also the “intangibles” – the matrices of social dependence, women’s subjectivities, and the power relations governing access and inclusion – that determine freedoms.

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