This paper seeks to address some of the tensions identified in the political literature between group rights, which allows historically marginalized communities some measure of self-governance in determining its own rules and norms, and the rights of marginalized sub-groups, such as women, within these communities. As the literature notes, community norms frequently uphold patriarchal structures which define women as inferior to men, assign them a subordinate status within the community and cut them off from the individual rights enjoyed by women in other sections of society.
There is a tendency within this literature to assume that if women within these communities fail to exercise ‘voice’ by protesting gender injustice within their community or choose ‘exit’ by giving up their membership of the community, they can be deemed to have consented to their subordinate status within the community. Yet, as feminists have pointed out, the capacity for neither voice nor exit can be taken for granted. Indeed, community norms may be organized in ways that explicitly deny women any voice in its decision-making forums as well as the resources they would need to survive outside the community.
This paper draws on quantitative and qualitative research among the Gond, an Adivasi or indigenous community in the Chattisgarh state in India to explore this debate in greater detail. The Gond community, like other Adivasi groups in India, have long been among the poorest and most socially marginalized sections of the Indian population. In recognition of their historical disadvantage, the Indian constitution allows these communities a degree of self-governance within the territories in which they are concentrated. As our research shows, this has allowed these communities to uphold norms that systematically discriminate against women, exercising greater controls over their marital, sexual and reproductive behaviour than men, denying them equal access to community resources and excluding them from community decision making forums.
Given the strength of the forces within the community militating against their capacity for either voice or exit, the question motivating the research was whether external organizations could make a difference to one or other or both. Our research set out to answer this question by exploring the impacts of two external development organizations, BIHAN and PRADAN, that sought to work with women within these communities, organizing them into self-help groups in order to promote access to new financial resources and livelihood skills as well as their political capabilities within the community and government decision-making domains. We ask whether these organizations were effective in their objectives, whether they had any impact on women’s voice and exit options and whether the kind of organization they were made a difference to the impacts that we found.