Field observations on the prejudices of being a woman

Akansha Yadav is a Bangalore based welfare policy analyst. In this article she shares field trip observations of gender based discrimination as a product of social relations.

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In the wintry month of February in Jharkhand, I came across these women, (including an adolescent girl who otherwise should have been in school) washing utensils with cold cold water. They carried all the household utensils once and sometimes twice a day to this hand pump, which is the only source of water in their hamlet. Wash them and carry it back. They then take another round to fill up drinking water for other members in the household in three or four bigger utensils. The whole process takes about four to five hours depending on the number of members in the family, proximity of their homes to the pump and number of women in the queue. Behind them is the village panchayat building which is locked and where some men have gathered, wearing warm shawls and playing cards.

Photo 1- Two women and a girl washing utensils while men playing cards in the background. Place - Shivrajpur tola in Gumla district of Jharkhand

Two women and a girl washing utensils while men playing cards in the background.

Place Shivrajpur tola in Gumla district of Jharkhand

Photo 2- Women feching drinking water for members of their hosuehold. The queue is quite long as is evident from the number of utensils kept. Place - Araku valley, Andhra Pradesh

Women feching drinking water for members of their hosuehold.

The queue is quite long as is evident from the number of utensils kept. Place Araku valley Andhra Pradesh

It is not that only women eat food in these utensils that need washing, or they are the only ones who need drinking water, but somehow over the centuries, has it become only their responsibility to take care of it? And this starts young, as soon as they are old enough to walk back home with this weight, as is evident from this photo in the Araku valley of Andhra Pradesh.

Photo 3 - A young five year old fetching drinking water for her family. Place Araku valley, Andhra Pradesh

A young five year old fetching drinking water for her family.

Place Araku valley Andhra Pradesh

What happens behind closed doors in city homes or subtly in the corporate world, is quite visible in the villages – two examples are gender assigned roles and prejudices against women. The point is not that the women have to take care of these essential routine tasks, the point is that they are not remunerated for it. It falls under ‘unpaid care’. So one would see them working all day like ants but no financial self-sufficiency to show for it at the end of the day! Right from an early age, they are made to believe it is their to do these jobs as women.

Along with these routine tasks of cleaning, washing and cooking for everyone in the household which keeps it functional, they also have to take care of the young ones, as they are also the ‘nurturers’- a society subscribed view of ‘essentialism’. The chain continues as the mothers pass on the baton to the younger girls in this ‘disciplined pursuit of the less’ (Greg McKeown, 2014). One would find girls as young as three or four years of age taking care of their younger siblings, when the mother is busy with above-mentioned responsibilities. (as one can observe in this photo from Lohardaga district in Jharkhand.)

Photo 4- A young  girl taking care of her younger sibling while her mother works at the farm. Place - Shivrajpur tola, Gumla, Jharkhand

A young girl taking care of her younger sibling while her mother works at the farm.

Place Shivrajpur tola Gumla Jharkhand

It becomes a mother’s or older daughter’s duty to bathe, wash, feed younger siblings and put them to sleep – and as such they end up taking a larger burden of this otherwise joint responsibility of parenting between the mother and the father. This is especially if she is a homemaker and even otherwise if she works on the field or work sites.

In Jehanabad village of Bihar, I came across this situation at a public works site where the woman (ref photo below) worked as a laborer along with her husband. As she had no one at home to take care of both her children, she brought them to work and made a make-shift creche with big dry leaves. It was scorching hot and every fifteen minutes or so, she would go and check on them, sprinkle water so they do not feel the heat as much. If they would wake up she would give them water and some food she cooked at home in the morning, and of course she woke up earlier than others for this.   

Photo 5- A Public works' site worker checks on her children in a make-shift creche. Place- Jehanabad , Bihar

A Public works site worker checks on her children in a make shift creche.

Place Jehanabad Bihar

MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) norms, passed in 2005, state, “provisions shall be made to depute workers, to look after children below the age of six years who accompany women to work sites.” I have never come across any creche during my field visits across many Indian states. In the absence of this, either women are not able to come to work and avail the benefit of this scheme or as in this case they come up with an ad-hoc arrangement. In either case, they do not and cannot depend on their men to take responsibility for this. During my five hours at the site, not once did I see the father check on them.

Also, it would be pertinent to know that under MGNREGA, the daily wage depends on the amount of work (under Schedule of Rates or SoR) a laborer has completed. Since women like her spend considerable time giving attention and ‘unpaid’ care to their children, they also lose out monetarily under this government scheme. So while both parents are equally poor and enrolled in the scheme to demand work, they experience poverty differently and unequally.

This is also one of the ways to understand how external environmental factors affect women more than men. When there are droughts which are ever increasing with climate change, they need to walk longer distances for finding and fetching drinking water, and collecting firewood for  cooking. They are also the last to leave when a natural disaster strikes and may not be equipped with necessary skills such as swimming in the case of floods.

The prejudice of being a woman does not stop at becoming experts in unpaid care from an early age. The social patriarchal structure also ensures that her reproductive system becomes a family controlled institution. Girls are married off at a young age, sometimes just when they hit puberty, without any pre-marital counselling, knowledge of her own body or birth control measures.  It leads to the reality of becoming a mother even before she turns an adult and perhaps every subsequent year after that. This along with low nutrition puts her at high risk of death during childbirth which is reflected in the high Maternal Mortality Rate of 174 in India in 2015 (while the least is 3 in the developed countries as per World Bank data.)  

Surviving year after year of childbirth, the emotional and physical trauma on herself leaves her in a fragile state. But again the onus of birth control and contraception measure is solely on her. The liability falls on them to take oral contraceptive or undergo tubec tomy as a birth control measure, when men in their family refuse to undergo vasectomy or use condoms. It is well known that tubec tomy is a far more complicated procedure as the Fallopian tubes are deep-seated in the abdomen and between the vital organs. The pain stays for days but in their context it is better to live through this pain then the one they go through with every childbirth and their body weakening with it.

One has to understand that all of this is a continuum – that all of these things are connected, same ideas and attitude about women lead to gender allocation of roles and their subsequent abuse. An unconditional surrender is induced by a system that keeps them poor, by depriving them of the time and resources they could put in becoming educated and equipping themselves with skills that pays in the job market. Many women work as farmers and laborers in the fields (as seen in the photo below) or may run small enterprises to share burden of poverty but this is hardly considered important enough to give them any control over household decisions or control over their reproductive system.

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Photo 6 - Women working as hard as men at a public work site at Kanker village, Chhattisgarh

Women working as hard as men at a public work site

at Kanker village Chhattisgarh.

Men are often associated with earning livelihoods not only in India but in much of the world, but are rarely allocated a deterministic role in unpaid work of caring for family.  Hence they have traditionally enjoyed positions of power – both in the job economy and within the households, while taking negligible responsibility of housework, care and nurturing off-spring, as has been illustrated.

Photo 7 - Women selling vegetable at an evening market, Nagpur, Maharashtra

Women selling Vegetable at an evening market

NagpurMaharashtra

Public awareness drives rarely encourage men to share the burden of housework, care and contraception. As per Economic Survey of India 2014-15, we rank 127 out of 152 countries on the Gender Inequality Index (GII). The GII is a composite measure reflecting inequality in achievement between women and men in three dimensions – reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. This puts India in the bottom twenty percent of all countries on the GII.

Prejudices against women are more pervasive than any other form of discrimination, it is a feature of social relations, hence understanding its causes and consequences is important. However, there is a marked inequality in the resources that men and women are able to mobilize to carry out their responsibilities. Households tend to operate as sites of cooperative conflict in which men as a group have been able to use their privileged access to resources both in the households and in the wider public domain to defend and promote their own interests, most often at the expense of women and girls. In other words, inequalities in the domestic domain intersect with inequalities in purportedly gender-neutral institutions of market, state and community to make gender inequality a society wide phenomenon (Naila Kabeer, 2013)

I am leaving you with this photograph depicting ubiquitous gender assigned roles – a woman cleaning in her verandah in Nagpur, Maharashtra.

Photo 8 - A woman cleaning her veranda. Place - Nagpur, Maharashtra

woman cleaning her veranda.

Place Nagpur Maharashtra

The question we should be asking ourselves, how to break this continuum of deliberating keeping our girls poor and vulnerable and make this rare sight of brother and sisters going school together in Alluri Nagar village in Odisha, more common and pervasive?  

Photo 9 - Bunch of happy siblings walking to school. Place - Alluri Nagar, Odisha

Bunch of happy siblings walking to school.

Place Alluri Nagar Odisha

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