Women at Work

The (still) silent half

Women represent only 27% of the recognised workforce in India. In a country of 1.3 billion people, this means a huge economic and social loss. In fact, in the last decade the number has gone down from 42% in 2005. However, every single woman I have met in India works. The official figures are, obviously, far from the reality. While I often see many groups of men in the streets I don’t recall seeing a woman at leisure; they are always busy, quietly getting things done, without complaining, and without any recognition.

Anita is 30 years old. She is a widow, and has a 5 year old son who lives with her parents in one of the poorest regions of the state of Karnataka, in south west India.

Anita would have loved to be a teacher, but she did not go to school: only the boys in her family were allowed to have an education. She had to start working at the age of 7 in the tea plantations near her home village. Despite being denied an education, Anita can speak fluent English, along with other 5 languages that she learned talking with the tourists that visit the beaches of Goa every year , where she now works during the high season selling bracelets, clothes and sandals. This is only her summer job; during the rest of the year she goes back to the tea plantations where she started working as a child. She earns 250 rupees a day (about £3), barely enough to provide for herself and her son. She is happy that she had a boy instead of a girl: at least he will be able to go to school and get a better life.

Anita is one more in the silent, invisible legion of women working under the radar, in unrecognised and underpaid jobs. Millions of them don’t count in the official figures, but they work, and very hard: taking care of the households, the children, the elderly and sick; cooking, cleaning, farming…

Tradition, religion, superstition and the dominant patriarchal mentality deny many women their constitutional right to work.

The Equal Remuneration Act was passed in 1976, providing for equal working opportunities and the payment of equal remuneration to men and women workers for same or similar nature of work. But the truth is that in many regions of India, and especially in the rural areas, women have no options at all to work. Tradition, religion, superstition and the dominant pathriarcal mentality deny many women not only an education but also their constitutional right to work. And when they are allowed to, it is usually in the worst conditions, with no safety or guarantees, and sometimes without even a salary. Of course, this is not a problem that affects only India. All around the world, women are still usually relegated to the less skilled, lower paid, less recognized jobs, and this trend keeps growing, as a recent report by the International Labour Organization states. But in India, and still according to official data, during the years of economic boom more women have moved from recognized jobs to unpaid, undeclared work. This is a bit more surprising.

Some recent measures from the Governemnt have tried to address the issue: an increase of the maternity leave – from 12 to 26 weeks – has been approved, and it will now be extended to women working both in public and private sectors; also, more as a symbolic movement towards gender equality, the Indian President recently announced that women will now be allowed to take up combat roles in the military, and, for the first time, an all-women army contingent marched in the recent Republic Day Parade that took place in New Delhi in January.

Some private initiatives are also trying to make some advances in the reivindication of women empowerment: the platform Sheroes, launched by entrepeneur Sairee Chahal, offers career opportunities exclusively for women in different stages of their lives. AirIndia’s flight AI 173 became just yesterday the world’s longest all-women operated and supported flight, covering 17 hours of non-stop flying between New Delhi and San Francisco. And many charities and NGOs carry out important, more real and less symbolic initatives, like that one of the Spanish Mumbai Smiles, offer training programs to underprivileged women in Mumbai in order to provide them with the necessary skills to find a job and contribute to the family economy, or become financially independent.

But these are only cosmetic measures that don’t address the real, deep causes of the problem; only small, tiny steps in the huge, daunting task still ahead. And still even among the most privileged, educated women the traditional, pathriarcal mind-set is powerful: marriage, children and family life prevail over their career, intellectual and personal development.

A recent commercial for the cleaning detergent Ariel went viral: it showed a man in his 60s who apologizes to his daughter for years of allowing her and her mother to do all the work in the house. But this attitude shown in the video, although desirable, cannot be further from reality in India. Women are still second-class citizens, and until they get the full, unanimous support of the Government and the whole of the society to achieve real equal opportunities, any progress will be insufficient.

In one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, half of the population simply cannot be left aside. Either India will progress with its women, or it won’t progress at all.