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Devaki Jain: A pioneer in the field of women studies

A pioneer in the field of women's studies in India, Ms Jain combines vision with practical wisdom.

india Updated: Mar 17, 2006 11:08 IST

Devaki Jain (born 1933) is a pioneer in the field of women's studies in India, and an institution-builder who combines vision with practical wisdom. Devaki graduated in 1953 in Mathematics and Economics from Mysore University, Karnataka, with three gold medals for Mathematics, English and overall performance.

After her post-graduation in Economics, Devaki soon found herself studying the role of women in development, which became the bedrock of her career. The concept of women studies appeared as a serious discipline in India around the 1970s. While the subject took off with the University Grants Commission (UGC) developing a funding pattern for women's studies centres at Indian universities, women's organisations pursued it outside the UGC.                         

Devaki Jain's first visit to TLA Ahmedabad - leading to monograph ICCSR on SEWA leading to broadening SEWA's visibility and value

When Devaki was teaching Economics in Miranda House, a women's college in Delhi, she was invited by the Indian government to bring out a perceptive and comprehensive book on Indian women for the first UN conference on women in 1975.

The choice fell on her because she had just published an article in the journal Seminar challenging stereotypes of women from Hindu mythology known for their unqualified devotion to men, and offering, from the same historical archives, examples of other women who had deviated from being role models. In the course of her work on the book, Devaki's understanding of Indian women deepened.

She displayed a remarkable capacity to network between diverse groups of people. At a time when other scholars in her field were busy plowing their lonely furrows, she recognised the value of interaction, both for the sharing of knowledge and experience and to mount collective action.

This talent bore fruit when, in 1980, Devaki founded the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) to initiate and coordinate research and analyses on women's issues. Devaki helped the ISST engage in research for advocacy, choosing as its entry point a theme that was to command serious attention and the engagement of development institutions and scholars the world over.

A six-village time allocation study of men and women in rural households was conducted from 1975-77. The study revealed that amongst the poor, the work participation rate of women was greater than that of men; that children, especially girls between the age of eight and 12, were engaged in significant economic activity. The study not only put the spotlight on the invisibility of women workers, it also made inroads into how to change the methodology of surveys to make the invisibility visible.

The ISST went on to develop the thesis that it was remunerated work that was the first need of impoverished women. Under Devaki's leadership, it began to investigate how this goal could be reached.

Under Devaki's guidance, the organisation  identified clusters of women who were already engaged in particular occupations and aimed to expand that space.

This led to the birth of mahila haat, a market-facilitating window for women producers. The idea was to start with the traditional haats (markets) as viable places where trade turnover was greater than the modern markets, and where women often sold out what they produced, since the idea of what was to be produced came from the marketplace itself.

Along the way, Devaki also enabled the birth of many other new organisations. She provided support to a proposal for setting up a women's publishing house - Kali - as well as the development of many organisations of self-employed women. Her most daring idea, however, was to mobilise women to challenge the then sacred development paradigm. She helped found Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) - a network of Third World women engaged in development concerns. Devaki has also been a family counsellor.

Recently, she has been focusing her energies on training rural women to cultivate and market medicinal plants. In the past few years, she has devoted herself to building up the Singamma Sreenivasan Foundation in Karnataka, where she lives. The Foundation began by exploring alternative agricultural strategies that benefit women, but now works on a wider canvas of women-related issues. Devaki's interests continue to take her all over India and abroad.

The UN recognised her contribution in 1995 by awarding her the Bradford Morse Memorial Award at the World Conference at Beijing "for outstanding achievements through professional and voluntary activities in promoting advancement of women and gender equality for 20 years". Devaki's expertise has also been drawn upon by other international agencies.

In 2002, she was invited to preside over the launch of the Report of Human Development in South Asia 2002 called Agriculture and Rural Development by the Islamabad-based Mahbub-ul-Haq Human Development Centre.

The same year, the World Bank invited her to its workshop on Poverty Monitoring and Evaluation in India. As a result of her work, public awareness has been enhanced, and policymakers as well as implementing agencies have been sensitised to gender issues. Moreover, an entire generation of women's rights workers and activists has been inspired and influenced by Devaki's work.

Like many working women, Devaki has had to overcome male prejudices and patronising attitudes. But she has had the support of her father and brother.