Writing a historical perspective on how Indian women and their work has fared since the country gained its Independence nearly 73 years ago is hard. In the clamour of how COVID-19 has impacted women adversely, be it through the precipitous decline in women’s employment more so than men after the lockdown, or the dangerous vocabulary of the ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence (one which we believe existed for long, and cannot be qualified as “shadow”)—it is easy to forget the turns that Indian women and their movements have navigated in nearly three-quarters of a century.
In 1947, accounts of women being raped and tortured even as the Indian sub-continent recovered from a visceral partition writ large. Female writers such as Nayantara Sehgal, Romila Thapar, and Urvashi Butalia would go on to recount the horrors that women in the sub-continent faced even as their countless contributions in bringing up their children and to their families seemed immeasurable. But there have been gains over time. In 1951, a girl in India married at the age of 15. Today, the average age of marriage for girls is 22. In 1951, when my mother was three years old, a woman in her reproductive age was likely to bear about 6 children. Today, my three-year-old daughter is likely to bear only 2 children or less.
Battles for delaying marriage and reducing fertility rates have long been fought in India and the results have been slow in coming. Despite all the deliberate efforts to raise the age of marriage, until the 1960s, women were still likely to be married when they turned 16. The gains came only after the 1970s, when movements to restrict child marriage started bearing fruit, more so in the later decades through active NGO involvement. Fertility rates too showed a similar trajectory, with couples slowly realising that female children too could provide ‘caring, sensitive support’ in older ages, and with that investing more in educating their girls.
Those supporting the Indian female work participation movements have also seen slow but steady victories. After independence, the work done by Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay who was a pioneer in letting refugees become owners of small enterprises by establishing industrial townships like Faridabad showed that women could also be part of this self-work narrative. She founded the All India Women’s Conference, the Lady Irwin College for Home Sciences (the first of its kind college for women in India), and set up a series of crafts museums including the Central Cottage Industries Emporium so small craftsmen (including women) from the unorganised sector could take their wares to organised markets.
But women continued to work in the so-called ‘informal’ economy, which comprised about 90 percent of their work. It was real work that went unrecognised, that was without formal protection of minimum wage thresholds; yet was governed by informal harsh rules framed by middlemen. Organisations such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) changed that. They provided for the first time a federated structure to the scores of women working in India’s informal economy.
Today, SEWA encompasses a membership base of over 1.6 million women, across multiple trades and states in India, where women who work as construction laborers, as street vendors, as domestic workers and from within the confines of their 6x6 feet homes rolling papads or beedis—are all recognized as ‘workers’. The Indian state too has responded over time, with programs such as Velugu in Andhra Pradesh providing the early foundation for the rural self-help group movement, now federated into the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) architecture.
There were multiple others who provided a fillip to recognising women’s work in India. To name a few, Bina Agarwal wrote about how women’s well-being, bargaining power within the household, and overall empowerment is enhanced through the ownership and control of the land. This later spurred an amendment in the Hindu Succession Act, with Hindu women claiming equal inheritance rights with men in ownership of property, particularly agricultural land.
Devaki Jain brought into the feminist parlance the concept of ‘feminisation of poverty’ indicating how poverty was more severe for women than for men, while simultaneously arguing that the term feminisation itself devalued the increasing prevalence of women in work. Dr. Jain and others also argued on how women’s work was underreported, including the often derogatory ‘free collection of goods’ which actually served an economic need of satisfying hunger for many families. Organisations like Jagori worked on feminist consciousness particularly in rural areas, so even women who were not well educated could recognise what violence was, and what they could do to report it. Their work mirrored the work of other feminist economists of the time, including Naila Kabeer, Nata Duvvury, Nancy Folbre and Ester Boserup, all of whom were writing about similar issues.
Where does all of this leave us with the present crises of fewer women showing up as part of the labour force, and an unprecedented challenge of global scale that has impacted women’s work around the world? The task of creating ‘suitable’ jobs for a female workforce—one that looks very different now than what it did 75 years earlier, with more educated women who do not marry as early, do not have as many children and have high aspirations—is daunting. But the voice of feminist reporting in India shows a strong responsive tradition. As an organisation working on women’s economic empowerment in India, we at IWWAGE look forward to documenting what the future holds.
—Soumya Kapoor Mehta is Head, IWWAGE. The views expressed are personal
First Published: IST