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Winter brought with it shorter days and the bleak realisation that her brief career was over. Her village was a couple of kilometres away from the bus stop at Saanpla in Haryana’s Jhajjar district. In the summer when the days were long, it seemed safe enough to walk back home from the bus stop alone. But by November it was already dark by the time she got off the bus and walking back home alone no longer seemed like such a great idea.
So despite the fact that she had undergone four months of training at the Jindal steel factory, despite the fact that she had accepted the job offer, despite the fact that she was amongst the first batch of women to ever work on the factory floor, Usha (who uses only one name) put in her papers, defeated by the weather or, perhaps more accurately, her state’s crime statistics.
It’s not just Haryana. All over India, women have been falling off the employment map at an alarming rate, as the first part of this series explained. Female labour force participation of 34.8% in 1990 fell to 27% in 2013. Within South Asia in 2013, India had the lowest rate of women in employment after Pakistan, according to an April 2017 World bank report. Globally, only parts of the Arab world had worse rates.
Within India’s already sparse landscape, Haryana stands out as a bleak outpost.
When we think of Haryana, we tend to think of its abysmal sex ratio of 836 girls for every 1,000 boys at birth among children born in the last five years, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 2015-16 — well below the national average of 919 and amongst the worst in the country.
In popular imagination, we tend also to associate Haryana with a particularly high rate of crimes against women. This isn’t always unjustified. In 2015, for instance, Haryana reported the country’s highest number of gang-rapes — 1.6 for every one lakh women — according to National Crime Records Bureau data. It had the second-highest rate of dowry deaths at 1.9 per lakh population and the third-highest rate in stalking women at 2.7 cases per lakh population.
On other parameters, the state does well; better than the national average. Female literacy, for instance, at 75.4% is above the national average of 68.4%. And 45.8% of girls in the state have completed more than 10 years of schooling – also above the national average of 35.7%, finds NFHS 2015-16.
But, when it comes to employment, the figures falter. Just 17.6% of women in Haryana reported being paid cash for work in the preceding 12 months, below the Indian average of 24.6%, states NFHS 2015-16.
Why isn’t rising education leading to more women in the workplace? Why are Indian women falling off the employment map at such a steady and alarming pace? Over the next few months IndiaSpend will track declining female labor force participation through on-the-ground reports that seek to understand the various constraints that inhibit their employment and participation in the workforce.
“Haryana is a land of paradoxes. On one hand, women are not encouraged to get into formal employment, particularly in the formal sector, but on the other hand, they are encouraged to play rough contact sport like wrestling, boxing and judo,” said Kanta Singh, UNDP’s state project head, looking after skilling programmes in Haryana and the National Capital Region. “For many girls and their parents, playing sport is a ticket to government jobs, money and fame.”
Education is a priority for girls and this is reflected in the states’s education indices. This doesn’t translate into jobs because, said Singh, everybody wants a government job and there are simply not enough to go around. “After completing an MA or a BA, they are still either not getting jobs or getting offers at very low salaries,” she said. Private sector jobs are generally looked down upon as low status jobs — or regarded as temporary jobs.
Moreover, jobs in such sectors as Information Technology, textiles and auto spare parts tend to be found in places like Gurugram or in the industrial belt of Panipat. “How is a woman from a far away village supposed to commute? If she gets a job in Gurugram, where is she supposed to stay? The lack of cheap urban transportation and infrastructure is an issue,” said Singh.
Where a woman’s veil takes pride of place
Sparks are flying at the Jindal steel factory at village Rohad, district Jhajjar. Here women have taken positions on the factory floor ever since the first batch of trainees set off on a four-month training course in May 2016. After going through the grind of safety and health, learning how to operate machines and rules of etiquette on the factory floor, 27 young women emerged, burnished and ready to work.
Just over a year later, 72 women have completed training as part of a public-private partnership initiative led by JSL Lifestyle, India Development Foundation and UNDP. Of these, 62 are currently employed at the plant earning the legally mandated minimum wage of Rs 8,340 a month. Amongst those who didn’t sign, “some got married and others went in higher studies,” said Rakesh Kaushik, deputy manager HR at JSL Lifestyle Ltd. Two went on to better jobs at higher salaries, added Singh.
The factory, set up in 2003, had never seen women on its floor. None of the women had ever seen the inside of a factory. “They had no exposure to the outside world,” said Kaushik. But now that they are there, the work environment has changed for the better. “The other men cannot use abusive language in front of them. They are our mothers and sisters. So we have definitely benefited as employers.”
“The biggest change is in the women’s nature and confidence level,” said Pooja Sharma, welfare officer at the factory. One of four sisters from Rajasthan, Pooja is, unusually for the state, living as a paying guest at Bahadurgarh. “I want to be recognized for my work,” she said.
Ever since the women started working here, the factory has added facilities like a toilet for them. Lunch is eaten at the employees’ canteen, but the men and women eat at separate times. “The women are not comfortable sitting with the men and eating with them. Plus different lunch hour timings ensures that the production line remains uninterrupted,” Kaushik said.
Haryana is a state where patriarchy is almost institutionalized. Its infamous khap panchayats – or caste councils — routinely make the news for issuing diktats on what girls may or may not wear and who they may or may not marry. A recent issue of a state-run magazine called Krishi Samvad featured a photograph of a veiled woman carrying cattle feed on her head. It’s caption read: Ghoonghat ki aan-baan, mahra Haryana ki pehchaan (the veil is the pride and identity of Haryana..
The challenge is not convincing women to study. The challenge is allowing them to work and voice their aspiration in a state steeped in patriarchy. “There’s a huge social investment to be made in convincing girls and women why they need to work, become financially independent and challenge patriarchy,” said Singh.
At the steel factory where the women have evidently broken a glass ceiling, there is a clear divide between married and unmarried women. Nearly all the unmarried women said they were doing this job ‘for now’ and future career prospects would depend on their husbands after they got married.
“This is for my pocket money,” said Priti Khanna. “Whether I continue to work or not will be decided by my husband after my marriage.”
Jyoti Kadian who has a diploma in mechanical engineering from a polytechnic in Jhajjar is aware that time is running out for her. Engaged to be married to a navy man in November she knows her days at the factory are numbered. He doesn’t have a problem with her working but has made it clear that only a government job will be respectable enough. “In the village many people think that working in the private sector is not good. I’m trying hard for a government job, but it’s not easy to get,” she said.
The married women, on the other hand, said they were working for their children’s future.
It’s tough balancing work with household chores.
Monica Rohil joined the training programme because she said she wanted to secure the future of her 18-month-old daughter. With no plans to have more children, Monica’s day starts at 5 am when she wakes up, heats the milk for her daughter, packs her husband’s lunch that he takes to his job in another factory, cleans the utensils, washes the clothes, has a bath and then leaves for work at 8.45 am on the two-wheeler Activa Honda scooter gifted to her by her father. Her mother who lives close by looks after her daughter when she is away at work.
By the time she gets home from work, she gets in a bit of playtime with her daughter and then it’s time to cook dinner. Bed-time is rarely before 11 pm, sometimes midnight.
Does her husband help with the household chores? “Of course,” she said. “He plays with our daughter while I cook the dinner.” Then, as an afterthought she added, it also his job to fetch the water from the tanker that comes early every morning since the tap water in her locality is brackish.
Others like Rajesh Kashyap, mother of two children aged 14 and 10, work to supplement the household income: “Both my kids study in private school. We cannot make ends meet on one income.” She said her husband did not contribute to household chores because of his long working hours as a driver. “But my children help a lot,” she said.
Ask the women who aren’t working why they didn’t accept a job after training and the answer very often is that they are studying. Sonia Rohila who trained at the steel factory but turned down a job offer said she is studying for an entrance exam for B.Tech. Pinky (who only gave one name) says she too is busy with coaching classes but will ‘definitely’ get a job once she completes her B.Tech.
Ask Monica what she really loves about her job and her reply comes without hesitation: “It has given me an income, that is for sure. But more than that, it has given me an identity.”
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on gender issues confronting India)