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Year: 2008 Type: Article Language: English

This paper examines how concepts of women’s ‘agency’ have been appropriated and transformed by neo-liberal discourses. Within this framework, the exercise of agency is sought in women’s strategies for survival rather than struggles for transformation, and at the level of the individual rather than the collective. Post-modern preoccupations with the subject and the recognition of ‘difference’ have been incorporated alongside liberal definitions of the ‘rational individual exercising free will’ to pursue and legitimise neo-liberal economic policies involving intensified exploitation of poor women’s labour. Meanwhile the emphasis on women’s agency marginalizes analysis of oppressive structures, and shifts the focus away from patriarchal ideologies. This has left assumptions about women’s relative ‘efficiency’ unchallenged in much of the GAD literature. This paper draws on some experiences, approaches and perceptions of women involved in rural labour movements in Bihar in eastern India, and looks at their implications for questions of structure and agency. It further suggests that collective struggles by women are likely to be accompanied by a questioning of precisely those patriarchal gender relations which compel women to be more ‘efficient’.