Acceptance Speech – Bern 17.11.2017 (Video + Text)


Bina Agarwal

2017 Balzan Prize for Gender Studies

For challenging established premises in economics and the social sciences by using an innovative gender perspective; for enhancing the visibility and empowerment of rural women in the Global South; for opening new intellectual and political pathways in key areas of gender and development.

Balzan Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony
Bern,  Federal Palace, 17 November 2017

President of the Swiss Confederation, Ms. Doris Leuthard,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to receive the Balzan Prize for my research in the field of gender studies, and especially for my writings on women in agriculture. I warmly thank the Balzan Foundation for recognising these fields. I also thank the laudator for the generous citation, which commends my work for challenging established social science premises and for enhancing rural women’s empowerment in the Global South.
When I began my research career some forty years ago, rather little attention was paid to economic inequality in general, and gender inequality in particular. Today, overall economic inequality has moved to centre stage, but gender inequality remains largely on the margins of most research and policy. Yet it is perhaps the deepest form of persisting inequality we face today, especially as it intersects with the inequalities of class, caste, and race. And it adversely affects not just a country’s economy but also its social and political fabric. Indeed, gender inequality is embedded in all our major institutions – the family, the market, the community, and the state. Many aspects of it remain invisible, however, hidden within gendered social norms that are often incorrectly seen as nature-given, or justified in the name of tradition.
Nowhere is this more apparent than within the family, which conventional economic theory conceptualises in terms of a unitary household model. A popular version of this model assumes that household resources and incomes are pooled, family members share common interests and preferences, and an altruistic head allocates resources to maximise household utility, ensuring equitable resource distribution among members. We know, however, that this is not how real families behave. Interests and preferences usually diverge, self-interest coexists with altruism, and family interactions contain elements of both cooperation and conflict. Not surprisingly then, bargaining models of the household which recognise such dualities have provided a major challenge to standard household economics – a challenge to which I, among others, have contributed, especially by identifying gender-unequal bargaining power and sharing within families.
Hence, when the prize citation commends my work for challenging established assumptions in economics and the social sciences and opening new intellectual pathways, I would also like to acknowledge the contributions of my fellow academics who work on gender, and whom I consider to be co-sharers in this award.
Equally, and most importantly, this honour also belongs to the toiling women farmers of the Global South whom I have researched and interviewed and sought to make visible in policy since the 1980s. Across the globe, we are seeing a feminisation of agriculture, as more men than women migrate to non-farm jobs. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, some 40-50 per cent of the agricultural work force is female. And these proportions are growing. Our future farmers will increasingly be women, and on them will rest our ability to feed the world under the growing shadow of climate change. My work, amongst that of others, shows that women farmers can outperform male farmers, if they have the same access to land, water, inputs, technology, and markets. And they perform even better when they cooperate and work in groups, as my current research shows. Equally, I have found that including a critical mass of women in forest governance significantly enhances conservation and biodiversity outcomes.
In fact, all our indicators show improved human, economic, and ecological well-being with greater gender equality, thus challenging the theories that predict an inevitable trade-off between equity and growth.
Also, the field of gender studies is refreshingly interdisciplinary. Hence, although trained as an economist, I have drawn fruitfully from law, ecology, history, and anthropology. Crossing disciplinary boundaries has also helped me intervene more effectively in policy. For instance, by teaching myself South Asia’s inheritance laws I could contribute notably to the amendment of India’s Hindu inheritance law in 2005, to make it gender equal.
Let me end by evoking the preamble to India’s Constitution, which is founded on four principles: Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The latter three echo France’s national motto, to which India has added Justice. Gender justice, I believe, is essential for fulfilling all four of these principles.
Thank you again for this honour.

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