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A woman with her sleeping baby in an adult literacy class, part of a UNICEF-supported project in the slum area of El Tobgaye, Alexandria, Egypt.

Panel 8

Child Survival and the Agency of women by Amartya Sen

There is considerable evidence that women’s education and literacy tend to reduce the mortality rates of children. The influence works through many channels, but perhaps most immediately, it works through the importance that mothers typically attach to the welfare of the children, and the opportunity the mothers have, when their agency is respected and empowered, to influence family decisions in that direction. Similarly, women’s empowerment appears to have a strong influence in reducing the much observed gender bias in survival (particularly against young girls).

Women’s political, social and economic roles

Indeed, the empowerment of women is one of the central issues in the process of development for many countries in the world today. The factors involved include women’s education, their ownership pattern, their employment opportunities and the workings of the labour market. But going beyond these rather ‘classic’ variables, they include also the nature of the employment arrangements, attitudes of the family and of the society at large toward women’s economic activities, and the economic and social circumstances that encourage or resist change in these attitudes. As Naila Kabeer’s illuminating study of the work and economic involvement of Bangladeshi women in Dhaka and London brings out, the continuation of, or break from, past arrangements is strongly influenced by the exact economic and social relations that operate in the local environment.* The changing agency of women is one of the major mediators of economic and social change, and its determination as well as consequences closely relate to many of the central features of the development process.

Reprinted with permission from Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc., New York, 1999, pp. 195 and 202.

*Kabeer, Naila, ‘The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi women and labour market decisions in London and Dhaka’, mimeographed, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, 1998.

Amartya Sen is the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge (United Kingdom), and the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.


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