Employment As Empowerment
Visibilising Women At Work

A special series supported by FES

Access to sustainable paid employment is the key to women's empowerment and capacity to exercise control over their lives. The Beijing Platform for Action had underlined this 15 years ago. Yet, as experts have pointed, when it comes to work women continue to suffer from the "twin deficits of capabilities and opportunities". How are women from all sections of Indian society coping with these deficits? How has the current recession affected their chances of earning a livelihood? What are the factors that encourage women's employment? How secure are their working conditions? To mark 100 years of International Women's Day, we bring you a series of features that inquires into these issues from locations across India.

Women's Work: Vital But Still Not Visible
By Padmini Swaminathan

A remarkable 'achievement' of economic 'development' in post-independent India has been, not just the growth of the informal sector and of those being employed informally, but also the phenomenon of 'informalisation of the formal sector'. What is also truly remarkable is the consistent manner in which disproportionately larger numbers of women and their 'work' either become invisible in data systems or get captured in categories that fall outside the purview of protective legislation. An analysis, by a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, of how women as workers have been denied their due by economists, policy makers, administrators and the courts in India.

* "The manner in which women employed by state governments have been excluded from provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, has been several and varied."

WFS REF NO: INDK926F           1,210 words           Photographs Available

Women Cabbies Hit The Highway to Work
By Pamela Philipose

Livelihoood choices for young women with modest educational qualifications tend to be both limited and limiting, which is why the option of training them to be drivers appears intriguing. But there are innumerable structural hurdles for any young woman keen on adopting this route to economic independence – ranging from putting together identity papers and to finding the time for the training that could take up to a year, to addressing family disapproval. But once these “red lights” are negotiated, the world can open up in compelling ways. According to Meenu Vadhera, Secretary, Azad Foundation, which trains women from under-privileged backgrounds to step on the accelerator of change, the intention is to expand women’s career choices, defy sexual stereotypes and connect women with a mainstream and remunerative economic activity.

* ‘It was my mother, not my father, who helped me all along. But now he tells me to come by his work area so he can tell everyone, ‘Look, this is my daughter and she drives a car.’

WFS REF NO: INDK912F           1,250 words           Photographs Available

All Work And Poor Pay: Nursing Injustice
By Sreelekha Nair

On an average, in a hospital in India, one nurse is responsible for the care of 30 patients and this number jumps to an alarming one nurse per 50 patients in the general wards. Despite this dismal nurse-patient ratio, which translates into hours of "back-breaking" work for them, these compassionate, yet strong, professional women try to do their duties earnestly. What do they get in return? Essentially, exploitation marks their work-life experiences, which is exacerbated because it's the migrant nurses from South India, especially Kerala, that form the largest segment of the workforce. Vulnerable in an unfamiliar city, they usually take up the first job that comes their way, never mind the low pay, no overtime, poor lodgings and, at times, even the absence of on-duty rest rooms.

* 'Being an all-woman profession weighed down by low status, nurses have felt powerless to form unions, although there are important stories of struggles and exceptional displays of leadership among them.'

WFS REF NO: INDK830F           1,200 words           Photographs Available

House-bound To Work-Bound: Lucknow's Muslim Women Speak
By Anjali Singh

Today, a combination of economic necessity and changing mindsets are forcing some Muslim women, even from very conservative family backgrounds, to exercise the option of earning an independent income. In the process they had to discard the traditional shalwar-kameez for western wear, or keep long working hours in public spaces after having led protected, house-bound lives. But finding opportunities in the job market remains a challenge, especially given the abysmally low levels of education. Muslim women from various professional backgrounds in the city of Lucknow share their experiences of breaking stereotypes and creating opportunities for themselves.

* 'When I finally found a job as an usherer in an event management company I told my mother that it would fetch Rs 800 per day and she was supportive. But my brother - younger to me - refused to accept the fact that I would now have to wear western clothes and step out of the house.'

WFS REF NO: INDK816F           1,280 words           Photographs Available

Dream Weavers With Broken Dreams
By Surekha Kadapa-Bose

Their day begins like every working woman's in a big city: They are up at dawn, get their children ready for school, clean the house and make lunch. Then they are off to work. Of course, that's where all similarities end. For, every morning, the women weavers of Naggar, in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, make their way up steep 'kutcha' (unpaved) mountain roads to one of the many cooperatives in the region where they spend their day working bent over a loom. They work even if it becomes so cold that their fingers start aching while threading the shuttle in between the weaves; they work even if their eyes hurt while making intricate motifs; and despite slogging in the 'factory' the whole day some make sure to sit at the loom at home in the evenings. Why? Because they need to supplement the meagre earnings of their spouses in order to feed their families throughout the year. Essentially, weaving doesn't pay much, the working conditions are tough and there are no health benefits. But Kullu's women weavers continue at the loom because they are desperately in need of extra income.

* "My husband tills our modest farm land, growing vegetables and some other crops. But we are not able make enough for our six-member family. So I have to come to this 'weaving factory'."

WFS REF NO: INDK801F           1,280 words           Photographs Available

What It Takes To Be A Woman Engineer
By Sreelekha Nair

'Engineering to my father and me was personified in the form of the civil engineer who had come to build the bridge across the river in our village. We did not know that all engineers are not specialists in building bridges.' That was the 1960s and Annapurna (name changed), 68, who retired as the Chief Engineer of the Kerala State Electricity Board, was not the only young girl of her generation, who thought that only those who 'built bridges' were engineers. That was also the time when the masculine notions of 'physicality' and 'strength' were firmly stuck to the profession. So, have things changed? Yes. And no. While the introduction of newer disciplines - like Information Technology and Computer Engineering - has precipitated the entry of women into the field, these specialisations are limited in their growth. Of course, defining a separate labour market for women has been the escape route globally.

* Like in the rest of the world, women chemical engineers tend to spend more of their lives as chemists and in pharmaceutical industries.

WFS REF NO: INDK721F           1,100 words           Photographs Available

Baby Break: How Women Lose Out
By Surekha Kadapa-Bose

Actor Aishwarya Rai's pregnancy and the impact it has had on the filming of Madhur Bandarkar's 'Heroine', has snowballed into a huge controversy that has gone beyond the immediate case, with heated debates on a woman's right to work and her maternity benefits. Does a woman not have the right to become pregnant when she is ready for it? The Indian Constitution ensures freedom of choice to the woman. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 ensures that she is not discriminated against. But today there are ugly undercurrents that every pregnant woman faces in her workplace because the Act's provisions unfortunately have remained largely only on paper.

* The Act states that an employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because of her 'condition' as long as she is able to perform the major functions of her job. It further states that an employer cannot fire or force an employee to leave because she is pregnant.

WFS REF NO: INDK707F           1,200 words           Photographs Available

News Media Women Find TV Lights Irresistible
By Manisha Jain

The new tribe of women media professionals prefers to chase news with a camera rather than a pen. While the glamour factor may have played its part in encouraging this trend, most of the young women TV journalists interviewed say they are also drawn by the excitement of the news chase and the sheer power and presence of television and they are willing to invest their energies, time and personal lives to excel in the field. But of course there are challenges ... and the inevitable glass ceiling.

* "You know you have to be very careful about how you handle the people you are interviewing, especially men. You can easily get misunderstood and this is a hazard one has to guard against."

WFS REF NO: INDK620F           1,190 words           Photographs Available

Home Alone: India's Unorganised Women Workers
By Pamela Philipose

She lives in a cramped dwelling tucked away in the warren of bylanes that mark the neighbourhood of Asia's largest mosque, Delhi's Jama Masjid. Every day, once the household chores are done, Naseem Bano sits on the floor of her tenement with her bowl of bone beads that she threads into necklaces. But no matter how hard Naseem works, and for how long, she is unlikely to earn more than an eighth of the daily minimum wage for workers in Delhi. She is just one among many women who make up India's home-based work force. According to the 2007 report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, women constitute 32.3 per cent of workers in this sector, and more than half of them - nearly eight crore - have home-based occupations. Yet, despite their high numbers, they remain forgotten, with no protective laws or social welfare measures.

* "Most of our women are ignorant about their rights. They are just grateful that they get a little money without having to leave their homes. We are struggling to make them more aware."

WFS REF NO: INDK606F           1,280 words           Photographs Available

Why Do Women Become Sex Workers? The First All-India Survey Has Some Answers
By Geeta Seshu

A path-breaking survey of sex workers indicates that a majority (over 70 per cent) of the 3,000 females surveyed in 14 states across India chose to enter sex work by themselves, and the higher incomes they could access weighed significantly in that decision. Low pay, harassment and harsh working conditions in the unorganised sector, no profit in business, no regular work, and insufficient money to run the home, were some of the factors that made them consider sex work as a more economically rewarding option.

* "There is a lot of misinformation on this issue because of our obsession with trafficking. Very few women are forced into sex work but the public narrative is overwhelmingly that of force."

WFS REF NO: INDK516F           1,060 words           Photographs Available

Ghost Existences: Real Life @ The Call Centre
By Manisha Jain

Today, about a quarter of the total workforce in the Indian BPO sector comprises women and they tend to be confined to the lower echelons of this $40 billion industry, either having to respond telephonically to customer queries or to key in data entries. Apart from anxieties about personal safety, women in this sector suffer from a raft of physical ailments, ranging from insomnia and gastric problems to eye disorders and chronic backaches. Unfortunately, once employees start succumbing to poor health, managements wash their hands off them. There is a growing presence of women in the sector and yet, surprisingly, employers are generally insensitive to the well-being of their female workforce.

* "They would keep telling me to stretch my shift and keep increasing the workload. I went through extreme stress and soon realised that my body was crashing, and could no longer take the daily pressure. I fell into a severe depression..."

WFS REF NO: INDK502F           1,270 words           Photographs Available

Goa's Women Professionals Want More, And They Want It Now
By Sapna Shahani

Goa, a state that is known more for its beautiful beaches than its high development indices, is today in danger of losing its educated professionals to other states. Many of its young working women have already left in search of better educational and employment opportunities, and the state government is doing precious little to keep them back. Today, Goa has the highest unemployment rate in India and only one-fourth of those employed in the state are women. This stifling reality has many women up in arms. They don't hesitate to state boldly that they want the government to do far more in terms of expanding their vocational horizons.

* "I'm sure that Goa offers a better quality of life than many other states, but that's if you're economically well-placed. If you're young and need opportunities for growth, Goa does not work."

WFS REF NO: INDK418F           1,280 words           Photographs Available

Mumbai's Women Ragpickers Pick Up The Pieces Of A Dream
By Geeta Seshu

Can a city survive without its garbage collectors, especially the barely visible workforce of women ragpickers? Perhaps this will help you decide: Estimates of the amount of garbage generated in a metropolis like Mumbai is of the order of 7,000-10,000 tonnes a day. And who are the ones who labour from dawn every day collecting garbage from the streets, housing colonies and business districts, sifting through it and sorting out every useful bit for its eventual sale to big traders and recycling companies? It's the women ragpickers. Ever paused to wonder what they earn for this back-breaking work, what their life is like or whether they have any dreams for their future? Read on.

* "I have a dream that one day women ragpickers can come together and form an association for a 'plastics bank'... If women gain the knowledge of this business they can become owners instead of only being the gatherers of all this garbage."

WFS REF NO: INDK404F           1,290 words           Photographs Available

Fab Four Break Tribal Taboos To Teach
By Sarada Lahangir

Change is in the air. Even in areas forgotten by the rest of India. Nothing perhaps underlines this more than the fact that young tribal women in rural Orissa are going against tradition and stepping out as teachers. In the process, they are transforming the social landscape and exercising greater control over their lives. This is a story from Sanbahali and Junapani, two nondescript villages situated on the 3,000 square foot plateau in the Sunabeda sanctuary area of Nuapada district. The local community comprises 519 families of the Chakutia Bhunjia tribe, officially classified as "primitive" and mainly dependent on minor forest produce to eke out a living. It is in this unlikely scenario that four young women Chakutia Bhungia girls - Triveni Chatria, Chandini Chatria, Jayashree Jhankar and Laila Majhi - are daring to dream.

* "To achieve what we have achieved so far has caused a lot of trouble for us and our families. Because by working as teachers we have gone against tradition."

WFS REF NO: INDK321F           1,260 words           Photographs Available

Carrying 40 kg On Her Head For A Better Life: Raipur's Women Porters
By Aditi Bhaduri

Never in her whole life would Maanbai have thought that one day she would inspire another woman to seek a better future. But she has - by being the first woman to work as a porter at the Raipur railway station in Chhattisgarh. Today, Maanbai is the reason that Parasai Sahu, 36, decided to leave her work as a sweeper in the same station and apply for the job of a porter. As the only women porters at the Raipur station, both women earn a daily wage of Rs 100 each, which translates into a modest monthly sum of Rs 3000 to Rs 4000. They have no free days, have to carry at least 40 kilos of luggage at a time on their heads, and have to face harassment from male porters. They also have to endure gratuitous remarks and pitiful glances from passers-by. But Maanbai and Parasai are only too happy to work hard if it means their children can lead a better life.

* "Being village women we are strong and used to hard labour. I do not find the work tiring. Rather, women in my village have been asking me if they can also apply for such a job."

WFS REF NO: INDK301F           1,240 words           Photographs Available

Housekeepers Without Maternity Rights: Soundbites From Real Life
By Anusha Agarwal

These are women who spend their best years on an unrelenting double shift - working furiously to clean up other people's homes, cook other people's food, and look after other people's children, even as they struggle to feed their own families, clean their own homes and keep their own children in schools. And their numbers are growing by the day. Yet, do they figure in government policies or benefit from welfare initiatives, especially where access to healthcare is concerned? A recent research - carried out among domestic workers living in urban clusters and shanty towns across Delhi - has revealed the clear lack of a well-defined and workable system of maternal and neo-natal health for domestic women workers, and the critical need for such support.

* "My husband says that taking care of these matters is a woman's job. He asks me, do you want to make me look unmanly by using a condom?"

WFS REF NO: INDK222F           1,030 words           Photographs Available


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