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Reviewed by:
  • Women and Property in Urban India
  • Vrinda Narain (bio)
Women and Property in Urban India By Bipasha Baruah (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

Women and Property in Urban India is an ambitious study of women's access to microfinance.1 Based on the author's doctoral research carried out in association with the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, the book explores the issue of gender and the ownership of property and land tenure in informal urban settlements. Bipasha Baruah's study of urban settlements is conducted specifically through her assessment of SEWA and its policies of microfinance and microcredit. The book makes a timely contribution in the context of the current financial and economic crisis. It underscores the importance of including an appropriate gender perspective in assessing the question of urban poverty and of emphasizing the link between gender empowerment and the equitable distribution of, and access to, financial services. This book will be of interest to specialists in the field of development economics as well as to scholars and students in South Asia area studies, women's studies, international development, and public policy. Baruah reviews the literature in the field with remarkable thoroughness and presents it in an interesting and engaging manner. The book is noteworthy for its painstaking compilation and analysis of data.

The central thesis of the book is well articulated and closely argued. The author argues that there is a critical need to address women's lack of access to financial resources as demonstrated by the centrality of land ownership to financial viability and sustainability. Clearly, women's control over economic and financial resources is critical to their empowerment. The author is interested in understanding how issues of socio-economic class, caste, and educational background mediate women's access to property ownership. She provides an informed, nuanced description of the formal and informal tenure arrangements prevalent in the urban settlements in the city of Ahmedabad and analyzes their implications for women. She proceeds to raise key issues that should be considered when developing a gender-equitable vision of urban land rights, tenure, and reform. These range from issues such as fragile inheritance rights of daughters, the obstacles married women face in securing joint property titles, to the challenges faced by urban slum dwellers with regard to converting the de facto right of residence to a de [End Page 496] jure ownership right. The author draws out policy recommendations for redressing the abysmal record of women's ownership of urban land and housing in India.

The author examines this issue over several chapters, providing a thorough examination of the complexities and nuances of the question of women's access to microfinance. Highlighting various aspects of the material reality of feminized urban poverty, she notes that women and children are disproportionately impacted by housing poverty. This lack of housing contributes to a persistent disadvantaging of women, underscoring the links between women's disempowerment and their lack of access to adequate health care, education, and sustainable employment. Baruah also makes a powerful case for linking precarious housing conditions with increased violence against women. She concludes that the state can play an important role in creating more equitable access to safe and adequate housing though positive legislative and policy interventions.

The first few chapters of the book take note of theoretical perspectives and open up the potential for a nuanced reconceptualization of microfinance and its impact on women's empowerment. Subsequent chapters are particularly interesting as the author sets out the building blocks of her argument that access to microfinance and microcredit highlight inequities and imbalances in power. In Chapter 1, "Minding the Gap: Gender and Property Ownership," she identifies the specific land and housing needs of low-income women. In Chapter 2, "Locating Gender and Property in Development Discourse," Baruah outlines the various approaches to women and development through a competent and broad literature review and calls for reintroducing the cultural context to the issue of women and property. Favouring the approach known as Women Culture and Development (WCD), she seeks to forward an understanding of gender empowerment and development issues that insists on culture as an important contextualizing framework within...