Gender Employment and Empowerment:
Women On The Move In India

A special series supported by FES

The 2011 census shows that for the first time ever India added more people to cities than rural areas. Cities and towns added 91 million people to 90.4 million by villages in the 2001-11 period. What does all this signify for Indian women as workers? This series will explore inter-related themes linked to gender and migration. Among them will be the phenomenon of women migration and work failing to figure in government data, with women workers remaining invisible. The urban to urban migration of categories like nurses, who often have to leave their family behind. How the domestic work sector is one of the major sources of women's employment, but continues to be under-regulated with the women themselves deprived of their rights. The series will look at ways in which interventions aimed at building skills of migrant women do not always translate into higher incomes and how women in high paying corporate jobs often leverage their professional standing to address domestic responsibilities in terms of demands for flexi-time and the like. It will also look at the psychological problems that migration brings in its wake, not just for those who migrate but for their children as well

Goodbye, Hello: Migrant India’s Brave New Daughters
By Preet Rustagi

Women have always migrated. But the change to note is that whereas earlier this movement was largely related to marriage or as part of the family, more women today are also migrating alone. The negative aspects of such migration are well documented. Women’s labour is often exploited; there are low economic benefits in the jobs they do; the terms and conditions of such employment are not clearly laid down. But there is a more positive aspect that may not be very significant as far as numbers go but which is nevertheless important to highlight. The movement from a rural to urban setting – no matter what the job at the other end is – unleashes many significant developments in a woman’s life. It loosens the hold of social conventions and compulsions. In rural India, the hierarchies of caste, religion, traditions and norms dictates everything from inter-personal relations to the broader social milieu. The urban landscape in contrast, with all its problems, does entail a kind of freedom for the woman migrant.

* "In a study undertaken in NOIDA, a large number of women workers who migrated from rural regions of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar actually said that they are now able to articulate many things they could not have done earlier – even with regard to tabooed subjects like their own sexuality."

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Red Bricks And Border Crossings: Tamil Women In Kerala Kilns
By Shwetha E. George

The brick manufacturing season in Kerala normally normally stretches between November and April and those who work in the kilns follow a circular migratory pattern. Middlemen or ‘brokers’, located in Tamil Nadu and hailing from places like Salem, Theni, Kambham and Usilempetty, simply round up around 20 to 25 families from their respective villages and get them to migrate to the leased paddy fields on the Kerala side of the border, on which the brick kilns are located, and once the monsoon descends they go back home, only to return after the rains. It is the hardworking women in the workforce, who really keep this system running, sometimes at great cost to their lives and welfare. The average age of the woman worker in these kilns is 20. They are also likely to have only basic literacy, since they are generally married by the age of 16 and have become mothers before they turned 20. Early motherhood and hard physical labour have clearly taken a toll on their health.

* “I strongly believe that it is the presence of the woman that keeps the Tamilian male worker well-behaved in our brick kilns. Money gets saved, discipline is maintained and children stay well within the boundaries of their living space.”

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Village Women Call In At This Call Centre
By Suchismita Pai

Wai is a quaint town, about 160 kilometres from Mumbai, well-known for its ghats and temples. It's on the tourist map due to its proximity to popular hill stations and, of late, it has become a favourite outdoor location for Bollywood productions. But for all its advantages, this wasn't a place where careers were built or where youngsters settled down willingly. For young girls who wanted to fulfill their professional ambitions, migration to neighbouring cities was the only viable option, while those who came here post-marriage could only hope to work on family farms at best. Then, five years ago, a call centre set up shop, changing the lives of women like Komal Jagtap, Sarika Sukale, Nilam Khare, and others. What started off as an experimental move for a call centre to re-locate from the big city to an agrarian town has now grown into an enterprise that is empowering 75 women.

* 'If more of these opportunities are accessible in the rural areas, fewer people will move to crowded cities. The usual trend of migration can also be reversed. Living with my family here I can look after their needs and yet have a white collar job.'

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Northeastern Migrants Battle The Blowback
By Nunglun Hanghal

These are bizarre times for the people of the Northeast. While clashes between the Bodos and the Bangla-speaking Muslims have affected normal life in Assam, pushing thousands of women and children into relief camps, its ripple effects were felt hundreds of miles away, in cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune. But there are some who resisted the pressure to flee, even though they do not feel completely secure. Others from within the community are using the on-going crisis to highlight the harassment, discrimination and neglect that migrants from the Northeast, particularly young women, face on a regular basis, even in less disturbed times.

* "If in the course of our increased inter-community interactions we can help sort out certain issues and misconceptions, it will greatly help in the future."

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The Bricked In Lives Of Brick Kiln Workers
By Sarada Lahangir

Nilabati Bangula’s family is among the thousands who migrate seasonally to work in brick kilns on the outskirts of cities like Cuttack and Bhubaneswar in Odisha. Originally from the village of Belpada in Bolangir district, it was poverty and landlessness that forced the family into this unregulated sector in conditions that can only be described as tragic. The makeshift hut in which they lives adjoining the Rana brick kiln factory, near Barang in Cuttack, is a little bigger than a chicken coop. Erected out of broken bricks and mud, it has a very low roof – about three metres from the ground – fashioned out of crude material. What is worse, the workers end up almost like bonded labour, hardly getting a fair compensation for the hard work they put it. But, as Nilabati says, “We have no other way of earning a living, otherwise why would we leave our homes to slave here?”

* “In Odisha, it is commonly said that after four or five years on the brick kilns, young workers start looking like old people.”

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Kottayam To Qatar: Tight Rope Walk Of Migrant Women Workers
By Shwetha E. George

Women who migrate from Kerala to the Gulf talk about the often inhuman treatment they have experienced at the hands of their employers – whether Arab or Malayali. But financial compulsions at home force them to persist with such arrangements. There are even women like Rosie. She ran away from her first employer, an Arab, after three years of unspeakable abuse and has since been surviving with the ‘help’ of a Malayali agent who gets her employment in Malayali households in the Gulf every three months. One of Rosie’s friends reveals that she does not step out in daylight because her first employer had reported on her and she is on police records. The uncertain conditions of women migrant workers need urgent redressal. Will the governments at home and the country of employment respond to their plight?

* “I’d advise any young woman willing to emigrate to ensure two things – one, she must know who her employer is and, two, she must have a relative/contact she can trust in that country.”

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Street Fighting Years: How Northeast Women Cope With The Big City
By Ninglun Hanghal

‘Girl from Manipur molested, allegedly by Gurgaon neighbour’; ‘Manipur girl raped in Delhi: North East community angry’; ‘North East girls molested by Air India staff’ ; ‘Dana Sangma suicide: Amity denies discrimination’... Of late, the media have been full of news reports on the insecure lives of thousands of young women who come to India’s capital city from the Northeast to study or seek employment. How do girls like Shang, Margaret and Jolly, who have been living in Delhi for over two years, cope with the ubiquitous sexual harassment they face, whether it is the stares or gratuitous comments of bystanders, cabbies who misbehave or men who stalk them on the streets?

* “Since my cab cannot come up to my doorstep, it’s my male colleagues – also from the Northeast – who drop me home.”

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For Sualkuchi’s Migrant Workers, Life Hangs On A Silk Thread
By Ratna Bharali Talukdar

Pronita Brahma, 25, is one of over 25,000 women, mostly from the Bodo tribe, who migrate seasonally to Sualkuchi, the largest silk village in lower Assam's Kamrup district, with a century old tradition of silk weaving, to work as a contractual weaver. An expert in her craft, Pronita first migrated to this silk cloth producing pocket from the Mohoripara region of the district about 10 years ago. Like most of her counterparts, she is unmarried and lives in cramped rented dormitories in conditions that are far from congenial or healthy, in order to support her family of five back home. The poor wages on offer have made the lives of these migrant weavers extremely difficult, but a recent innovation in loom technology may help turn things around for them.

* “The survival of a tradition of weaving that goes back a century depends on these migrant women weavers. This means we need to keep working at developing weaver friendly upgradation techniques.”

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In Saudi Arabia, The Helpless Lives Of Migrant Help
By Deepti Lal

Thirty-six-year-old Bindu (name changed), left her home, husband and four children back in a rural district of Nepal, to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. She did this to support her family since the 'agent' had promised good money. Bindu found employment in a home where she had to take care of three children, apart from handling all the household chores including cooking. All she got to eat at the end of the day was some bread and potatoes. But even this she could have endured, if the family had at least given her wages on time. After six months, they handed her only three months' salary. What proved to be the last straw, however, was when she found her male employer in her room one night. Bindu's is not an isolated case. There are thousands like her, working in an unfamiliar country that has no laws to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers, and who face conditions of abuse that range from the mental and physical to the sexual.

* "There were 15 of us, who had jobs as housemaids, and we came via India as the Nepal government had at that point banned the movement of domestic maids to Saudi Arabia, following incidents of violence and ill treatment."

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From Farmer To Domestic Worker: Is Susheela Better Off?
By Tarannum

Meet Susheela, Rukmini, Sarla and Ganga. They are friends, they share a common past and perhaps even their futures are going to be alike. These women are presently domestic workers in Uttar Pradesh's state capital of Lucknow, although none of them had ever thought that there would come a time when they'd have no option but to leave their native villages and small farms in neighbouring Chhattisgarh to build a new life in the city. Of course, migration out of the predominantly tribal, insurgency-hit state in eastern India is not a new phenomenon - seasonal out-migration of labour is a characteristic of the region involving nearly a million people. But what started off as a temporary move has turned out to be a permanent one for Susheela and friends, who have overcome challenges like learning Lucknawi Hindi, negotiating unfamiliar city routes, living in one-room tenements in slums and surviving on minimal wages.

* 'I came with my husband's parents to work as a labourer on a flyover being constructed in Lucknow. We had had a poor crop that year and there was a huge loan to be repaid. Three dozen families came here and worked on that flyover.'

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Gulf Journeys: Securing the Lives Of South Asia's Women Migrants
By Pamela Philipose

Migration is one of the cardinal realities of our times. Every year hundreds of thousands of people the world over leave their homes in search of a better life. The pace of such movement is steadily on the rise, with the rate of increase in migration flows over the last two decades higher than that of the previous three decades taken together. Today, interestingly, women migrants account for almost half the number of people on the move, but they continue to remain invisible in terms of policy making with their contributions to national and family incomes going largely unrecognised. A new study undertaken by the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, Delhi and supported by UN Women attempts to capture the realities of female migration from South Asia to the Gulf countries, and recommends greater gender sensitivity in policy making.

* ”When you look at a woman migrant, it is important to perceive her, not from the angle of migration per se, but against the matrix of vulnerability she is already associated with.„

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Teenage Girls And The Big City Move
By Hema Vijay

These are girls who have left their small, nondescript villages, escaped working as cheap labour in one of the numerous firecracker, salt or chemical factories that dot the districts of Tamil Nadu and taken their first step towards a life free from poverty, illiteracy and ill-health. Leaving all that was familiar, they have made the busy, fast-paced city of Chennai their new home in a bid to chase their dream of building a stable career. But for girls like Vijayalakshmi, Mohanapriya, Vijaya and others, most of whom are still in their late teens, this move amongst strangers has also meant dealing with city slickers, overcoming loneliness and, yes, decoding the ”Madras Tamil”. But then, the silver lining to being born to a tough life has to be the tenacity it creates.

* ”The girls migrating from rural areas struggle at first. But they eventually manage to find their space. They need counselling and guidance in the first three to six months.„

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Old script, New Roles For A Working Woman On The Move
By Amrita Nandy

Days after the wedding, as her husband shifted to London and her in-laws to their home in Bangalore, Vidhu followed neither. Instead, she moved to her parents' house in Gurgaon where an exciting job awaited her. To many it would seem inconceivable that a wife may choose not to follow the husband - even the Bombay High Court recently observed during the hearing during a divorce petition filed by a man on grounds that his wife was unwilling to relocate to his new place of work, that married women should take a cue from Goddess Sita who followed her husband Lord Ram even into exile. But there are a few women who are defying these norms and redefining what it means to be a woman on the move...

* 'Just because I live away from my husband ever since we married nearly eight months back, I was asked by a male colleague if my marriage was okay!'

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Chasing Stardust, Switching Worlds
By Surekha Kadapa-Bose

It's not for nothing that Mumbai has been idolised for decades as the quintessential city of dreams and dream-makers. Besides being India's financial capital, it is also the home of Bollywood and innumerable entertainment channels. Every day, hundreds of newbie actors, writers, technicians from the cities across India come to tinsel town in the hope of becoming the next Deepika Padukone or Zoya Akhtar. But as the popular 1950s song goes: 'Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan, zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan' (Oh my heart, it is tough living here, this, after all, is Bombay). From living in one-room tenements to learning to travel crazy distances for work, to fitting into a cosmopolitan culture - these are just some of the life changes that working women like TV actor Garima Shrivastav, who shifted base from Allahabad seven years ago, have had to make in order to find their groove in Maximum City.

* 'The first hurdle was getting used to living in a one-room tenement and sharing it with five others! It was a real shocker and required a lot of adjustment, sacrifice and understanding the needs of those with whom we shared a roof.'

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Livelihood Or Motherhood? The Kerala Nurse's Dilemma
By Shwetha E. George

Bijimol, 31, left her son with her mother when he was just 45 days old because she was a nurse with the Ministry of Saudi Arabia and couldn't resign for two more years. But when she came home on leave for the first time, the one-year-old refused to let her pick him up and that "devastated" her. In the trade off between a decent livelihood and motherhood, she was forced to sacrifice her relationship with her child. There is a Bijimol in every second home in Kerala, touted as the "largest sending state within India". This exodus of workforce has been so much a part of life here that migration is more of a household topic than a social issue. But spawning a generation weaned away from their mothers, reared by secondary caregivers, subjected to all kinds of abuse and neglect should set the alarm bells ringing.

* In homes where the woman has to give up the role of the primary caretaker and, instead, become the provider, "it is a loss of her maternal rights, her personal time, her space within the family and a continuous struggle against patriarchy."

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Akhtari Begum's Daily Train Ride for Survival
By Ajitha Menon

HERE'S A DAY IN THE LIFE of Akhtari Begum, 45. Up at 3 am, it's still dark when she leaves her shanty in the rural Kalipara Samsan area of Budge Budge in West Bengal's North 24 Parganas district. Carrying a load of 30-40 coconuts, she reaches Budge Budge station to catch the first local train to Sealdah, Kolkata, at 4.45 am. Travelling in the ladies compartment in the early hours is a nightmare. She and her friends are harassed by drunken men every day but the RPF personnel turn a deaf ear to their pleas of help. At Sealdah's Kole market Akhtari gets into a confrontation with the local goons to secure a vending spot. By the time she sells her produce and gets back home, it is noon. No time to waste, she plunges headlong into housework. Akhtari Begum is your typical woman vendor in Bengal, who travels from the suburbs and districts to Kolkata daily to sell her wares, from fruits and vegetables to flowers, fish and rice. Sadly, harassment at the hands of goons, abuse by railway authorities and back-breaking hard work mark this commute for survival.

* 'We are very poor. Earlier, at times we travelled without ticket and the railway staff and police used to beat us and throw us out of the trains. Now we have managed to acquire the 'Izzat' cards that are issued for BPL passengers.'

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