Sharada Srinivasan: Getting to the root of understanding and changing gender norms

Posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Written by Dilshan Fernando

Many countries today make gender issues a priority. That's a testament to the impactful gains made by gender advocates the world over.

But deep-rooted issues remain – among them, the wage gaps between men and women, inequalities in land ownership and access to other resources, stagnant and declining women's labor force participation, and violence against women.

Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, CIRCLE's Director and Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, studies everyday discrimination against women. Her ethnographic research digs deep into the processes that create abusive behaviors.

Ultimately, she wants to influence their outcomes.

Dr. Sharada Srinivasan at the University of Guelph.

Srinivasan, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development, began her research in India over 20 years ago, in the state of Tamil Nadu. There, she was grappling with an extreme form of violence against women: daughter elimination. Since then, her research has organically evolved to focus on consequences of daughter deficit and adult daughters' contributions to elderly parents' wellbeing, and has expanded to include the states of Kerala, Punjab, and Haryana.

Some of the insights she gained in India helped shed light on gender norms in the Indian diasporic community in Canada, as well. For example, Srinivasan found that Canadian Punjabis – a rarely studied visible minority in Canada – exhibit similar patterns of son preference and daughter discrimination. The older generation of immigrants show a preference for sons, believing they would care for them in the twilight of their lives. In the name of family honour, daughters are often restricted and discriminated against.

However, second-generation Canadian Punjabis – those who find themselves in the nexus of two cultures – seem to be rid of the prejudices of their earlier generation. Srinivasan thinks that many young, new immigrants appear to be leaving these discriminatory practices behind them.

In effect, she says, the gender norms are changing. What looked like something endemic before has been replaced by more liberating norms.

Increasingly, Srinivasan finds herself addressing broader gender norms and inequality. Without mending them, a lasting solution is impossible for practices such as daughter elimination.

"Women are succeeding in a number of previously male dominant fields," she says. "But we have not seen much progress in egalitarian gender division of labour. Gender-based violence seems to be on the rise." Her research is moving towards an agenda that she describes as the "deconstruction of toxic masculinities and the reconstruction of healthier ones," to ensure change is meaningful.

Agenda-setting is apt this year. Srinivasan is not only hopeful about a better status for women, but also for a better India, which embarks upon the 75th year of its independence. She calls Indian democracy "75 years young," a work in progress.

The rest of the world has a stake in India, given the strength of its democracy, economic prowess, and complex demographics. The country has the world’s largest youth population, but also a disproportionate share of the world’s poor and food insecure.

"For every issue, there's just no easy way of addressing it," she says. "This creates many opportunities for research, innovation and learning, whether it's food insecurity or water pollution, gender inequality or poverty." She says India has a rich pool of researchers and institutions, and a vibrant civil society geared to tackle grassroot issues.

That points to the many opportunities for students, says Srinivasan. Whether for courses abroad or field research, or even to communicate ideas with other students, "India is ready", she says.

CIRCLE is eager to foster such learning engagements, with institutional support and local partnerships in India. The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on activities, but CIRCLE plans to pick up the pace this fall with several exciting Canada-India student events.

Dilshan Fernando is a student writer for CIRCLE. He is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Guelph.

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