Kerala: women and quality of life

Kerala’s women have contributed decisively to something similar to what we call “welfare society” or “quality of life” in that state.

Although India has seen a significant improvement in quality of life levels in recent decades, its deficits remain immense.

India has a shortage of water and electricity. This forces the government to seek short-term solutions that are very aggressive with the environment or with the most vulnerable populations (such as tribal populations displaced by dam construction). The pollution levels of the atmosphere are chilling (New Delhi is already at the top of the global pollution ranking), and the levels of water pollution are huge. Hundreds of millions of Indians still do not have access to safe drinking water or have private or public toilets in good condition. Industrial pollution (and the impunity of the companies that generate it) is legendary. Remember the Bhopal disaster, the most serious industrial catastrophe of all time (3,000 dead and 25,000 cripples for the rest of their lives). Mini-bhopales continue to be given in many corners of India. Slums or urban shantytowns continue to be horrific. And they don’t shrink. Although there is no food shortage, in India there is still a very high percentage of the population with severe malnutrition problems or starvation. In short, the quality of life of millions of Indians, as far as housing, food or health is concerned, is extremely precarious. Nearly 40% of the population is below the poverty line, which for Indian parameters means they are on the brink of innany!

Certainly, regional differences in quality of life can be very large. It is not the same to be born in Bihar, the poorest state in the country, as in Kerala, which without being one of the richest, is the one with the highest qual

ity of life. The case of Kerala is doubly interesting because it has a low per capita income, has a high unemployment rate and does not receive foreign aid. So what is the key to explaining Kerala’s appreciable quality of life levels? Obviously, there is a concatenation of factors, but there is one that is worth highlighting: the role and empowerment of their women. As co-operators and children have known for a long time, women around the world invest their earnings (or the microcredits they may receive) in food, clothing, health and education. Helping women is benefiting the community. There’s some data.

In 1981, only 1.5% of Kerala’s children had severe malnutrition, when the figure for the rest of India was 6.1%. Life expectancy in Kerala is today even higher than that of African-Americans in the United States. The literacy level is higher than that of any province in China. Kerala owns (despite its poor economy), the highest poverty reduction rate in India. And a very good birth reduction rate.

It is very significant that Kerala is at the forefront of India in the ratio between women and males. In fact, it is the only state in the Union where there are more women than men (in a ratio of 1084 to 1000; when India’s average was – because of selective abortion of girls – a scrawny 940 at the 2011 census). She is also at the forefront of female life expectancy, in greater female participation in the world of work, in female literacy (with 92%; when in India she was 65% in 2011) and, in particular, that of Dalits women (untouchable). It also is ahead of the lowest death of girls, in a smaller percentage of women with anemia; and

a lot of it. Still far from being equal to men, the average situation of women in Kerala is significantly better than in the rest of India. And Kerala’s women have contributed decisively to the giving something resembling what we call “welfare society” or “quality of life” in that state.

Something will have to do with Kerala’s traditional matrilineal and matrifocal system (whereby daughters and not sons inherited the lands and possessions; and by which they did not transit to the husband’s home, but remained on the family property of their mothers) , typical of the most important castes in the region. As well as the “investment” in education made by the maharajahs of Kerala throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Or progressive reform movements, such as those of Narayana Guru, certain Christian associations or the Communist Party of Kerala. All of these factors have given Keralate women a strength and power that other Indian women lack.

The good news is that – following in part the recommendations of economic slayer Amartya Sen – the state of Kerala now serves as a model for other states in India. It has been understood that investing in education, especially that of young women, is to give them an agency and a power that will be immensely positive for society.