Wives and Widows at Work : Women’s Labour in Agrarian Bengal, Then and Now- Deepita Chakravarty & Ishita Chakravarty


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History seems to stand still in Bengal, a province which once played a pioneering role in the nineteenth-century social reform movement. For over a century now, in spite of the drastic politico-economic changes and social upheavals that Bengal has witnessed, important indicators of women’s well-being continue to display alarming trends in the region. Colonial censuses as well as recent data indicate low work participation rates of women, along with very high incidences of underage marriage and widowhood in agrarian Bengal—higher than most other parts of India.

The study of marriage practices in India has hitherto been relegated to the realm of culture, whereas work is viewed as an economic issue and rarely studied in relation to marriage. Adopting a new approach, Wives and Widows at Work links these diverging critical concerns and explores the possible relationship between women’s productive labour in a rice-cultivating small-peasant economy like rural Bengal on the one hand, and women’s wifedom/widowhood on the other.

Both historical and contemporary developments in the related issues of women’s work, marriage and widowhood are traced using an inter-regional comparative framework, which includes other major rice-cultivating states of India as well, such as Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and former Andhra Pradesh, among others. The authors seek answers to key questions: Are cultural explanations sufficient to interpret the under-reporting of women’s work in general and in West Bengal in particular? Or are specific structural factors, such as the very nature of the agrarian economy, responsible for the varying patterns in household economics and women’s labour use in different regions of India?

Scholars of development studies, gender studies and history, and government/non-governmental organisations working in the field of development and gender will find this volume enlightening.


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