When Devaki Jain first encountered some shocking truths on the status of women in India, she made a life-changing decision. Thus began her work in poverty zones, where numerous surveys and action-oriented research have paved the way for women's development.

“Power Women, as a concept does not appeal to me,” says Devaki Jain. “The word goes against the very idea that women are working for, a shared space where the hierarchies are muted… At this point in my life, the last thing I would call myself is a power woman even in the conventional sense, as I don't hold any powerful political or publicly significant posts.”

Over the last 35 years during which she has been engaged in various roles within the women's movements, Devaki Jain has authored several books and papers on gender rights, development and feminist reflections, built organisations, initiated networks apart from engaging in advocacy in the public domain. The journey, she says, has been exhilarating as well as painful.

“I landed in economics and feminism by accident,” she says. “Like all school girls did, I too wanted to be a neurosurgeon! But the inhibition against co-education (all post-graduate and medical was in co-ed departments in the 1950s in Bangalore) prevented me from going into medicine, so I had to join a women's college where they had degree courses only in the arts. Thus my entry into economics.”

I owe my engagement with what I call the women's question for brevity, to two persons. One, Romila Thapar who persuaded me and helped me to write an essay on the contrariness of affirming women's status, for an issue of the Seminar in 1968. This caught the attention of Sheila Dhar who was director in the Publications Division of the Government, who invited me to write a book on the status of Indian women for the 1975 UN conference on women.”

Jain believes that it was while working on this book that her journey into feminism really began. While going through the essays, Jain made many shocking discoveries related to the status of the women of India. Apart from gross inequalities between men and women, sustained and promoted through multiple ways, from child rearing practices to stereotyping roles, there was incorrect representation in the statistical profiles, and also in recognition of the role of class, the economic family, especially among the poor.

The Trust

This led her to develop the ISST (Institute of Social Studies Trust), which engaged in policy and action-oriented research in the realm of women embedded in poverty zones. Numerous surveys were undertaken bringing visibility to more than 20 occupational groups of women workers in less visible places in the production cycles. Preparing tables giving the tasks that women performed before an article or a product entered the market, she was able to argue for attention to women in these invisible roles, for wage, skill development and prevention of occupational hazards. For example, the women cocoon rearers of Karnataka, or tussar cocoon gatherers of Madhya Pradesh. Also the hardships faced by the prawn peelers of Kerala going as migrants to Gujarat, the contractors who cheated the bidi rollers of Mangalore, the patriarchal hold over the tea pickers of the Nilgiris, exploitation of chikan workers of Lucknow and so on.

Devaki Jain thinks that this choice of specialisation that focusses on women as workers is possibly a result of having lived with working class men and women during her year at Ruskin College in Oxford from 1955-56. It was there that Jain also met Tom Mboya, who later became the Prime Minister of Kenya. Jain credits Mboya with educating her on politics, the ethos of fighting for rights and the importance of solidarity between former colonies.

It was on her return from Ruskin that Jain began working for the Indian Cooperative Union. She joined Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan movement, and went on the padayatra with him.She was highly influenced and convinced by the Gandhian philosophy and way of life.

An important aspect of her life, one which she says continues to grip her, is building the perspective on women and development from the context of the economies of the Southern continents. She thinks that programmes and policies especially those from the United Nations system, which often determine the governments approach to women, are misleading.

Responding to this anxiety, having attended the two U.N. conferences on women, one in Mexico and the other in Copenhagen, she shared her concerns with other south-based women from all the five continents, Caribbean to Pacific as well as committees of the donors, and convened a small brainstorming session in her parents' house in Bengaluru in 1984. The discussions at this meeting led to the founding of a third world network of women which the group called DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), and enabled this network to present the alternative through a publication as well as panels at the U.N. Nairobi conference held in 1985.

Book of ideas

This passion of hers was given a big push, she says when she was invited by former President of Tanzania, Dr. Julius Nyerere, to be a member of the South Commission, which was composed of more than 24 of the most eminent economists of the South. Dr. Manmohan Singh was the secretary general of this commission. The South Commission published a book, and Devaki Jain thinks that this book has in it many ideas that would still be valuable for the intercontinental groupings of the new emerging economies.

“One of the most valuable experiences of my life has been my marriage,” Devaki reminisces. Lakshmi Jain and she share a passion for India and its reconstruction. “Our lifestyles had no clash, nor did our dreams.” Lakshmi Chand Jain was a Gandhian economist. “I find more and more that Gandhi's approach to economic development can have a healing touch,” she says.

Jain believes that over the last two decades, many networks of the less privileged have emerged in India, that are genuinely committed to women centric issues, not only looking to change the existing legal system but also making it possible for women to articulate their views. ‘One of the most inspiring national demonstrations I witnessed recently was that of women waste pickers who have renamed themselves Green Collar Workers, arguing that they are the greatest guardians of the environment. What an idea!