Dialogue  January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3

Women in the emerging economic scenario

Patricia Mary Mukhim

The Information Technology (IT) boom in select metros of India has witnessed an exodus of young women from the country’s North East to these IT hubs. A number of renowned IT companies like Tata Consultancy Services, Satyam, Infosys etc have come to Guwahati recently to conduct campus interviews. Many others are responding individually to advertisements from the IT and IT enabled services (ITES) companies which appear with regular frequency in local and regional newspapers.

Hence there is a large pool of young working women in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Gurgaon who seem to have adapted fairly well to the demands of an industry that extracts every ounce of their energy and skills. The problem with such professions is that they push people into an unnatural cycle of life. Morning is no longer the time to wake up but to start sleeping. Night is the time to be up and going at work. These work hours which are referred to as sunrise shifts or graveyard shifts are taking a toll on IT and ITES employees. Imagine what life is like when you never get to see the sun rise or just to soak in a bit of sunshine. Naturally you are deprived of essential vitamins and other health benefits that the fresh morning air and early morning sunlight provide free of cost.

Many of our young women have entered live-in relationships with their male colleagues. Sometimes the relationship works well and may culminate in marriage. At other times the relationship ends up destroying the peace and well-being of the partners. But more often than not] women end up getting hurt because they invest a lot in the relationship. Yet they are in a job that makes no concessions for personal emotional and psychological needs. Being far from home there is little wise counsel that can come from family and friends. What these young women need is a counseling centre within the work place. Most companies would not even think of such a facility because they have learnt to treat employees like robots.

Naturally couples working in such industries cannot even think of starting a family. They have joined a new generation of ‘double income, no kids’ (DINK) breed. While in this new age women do have a choice to have or not have kids, very often they are forced by circumstances to put off the reproduction process because of their profession. By the time they are ready to settle down to a normal family life it often becomes too late to conceive and deliver a child. Hence while they have the money they forego the natural cycle of womanhood. One is not arguing here that childbirth is a compulsory process but for those who choose to have kids it is a nightmare if they cannot enjoy maternity benefits and if parenting is not a shared responsibility by both spouses.

The Global Gender Gap Report measures the difference between the sexes in matters of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health, survival and political empowerment. As far as economic empowerment of women is concerned India is placed in the 110th position. In the US the study found 60% participation of women in the labour force and 55 % in professional and technical workforce. India has only 34% and 21% respectively.

Interestingly the Gender Gap Report also throws light on lesser known facts about women’s economic empowerment like the duration of paid maternity leave, maternal mortality rate, and access to skilled health staff for childbirth. Norway provides 42-52 weeks parental leave which is all paid for. Sweden allows 14 weeks paid maternal leave and maternity benefits of 480 days paid parental leave. In India we are way behind these indicators particularly in the private sectors. That is one reason why female workers in the IT and ITES sectors sub-consciously parrot that they cannot afford to have a family.

In recent times a more alarming phenomenon is the premature menopause among Indian women. The Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) Bangalore working with NFHS drew samples form 100,000 women in the age group of 15-50 years across 26 states. The percentage of menopausal women was highest in Andhra Pradesh with 31.4 %. The study found that the percentage of menopausal women was higher in rural India than in the urban areas. ISEC also found that menopause in the age group of 29-34 was highest in India. The natural age for menopause is between 45 -55 years with an average age of 51 years. Medical findings denote that early marriage with the attendant problems of women’s malnutrition, lack of family support and the increased stress on women to be financially independent affects hormonal production which leads to early menopause. According to the study, delayed marriages usually mean delayed menopause.

Menopause is the strongest biological transitory phase in a woman’s life which is accompanied by volatile physical changes. Naturally this also affects the woman psychologically. Yet a majority of women have no access to post menopausal care such as hormone replacement therapy HRT) or counseling. Many women are traumatized just thinking that there may be something seriously wrong with themselves when they do not menstruate at the age of 35 years. It can also have serious impact on the family life.

Today roughly one-third of the workforce in Indian software companies are women. NASSCOM puts the figure at 38% which is higher than in most western countries. This has happened mainly because girls from middle class families who attended engineering colleges avoided civil and mechanical engineering courses since these were considered areas that included more outdoor activities and hence unsuitable for Indian middle class girls. More girls opted for softer options like electronics and communication and computer science. But the kind of work schedules that women have to live with in these sectors leaves them with little or no space for starting a family. Childbirth is out of question. So are we not then producing a generation of women who cannot even have a natural family life?

Redefining childbirth and parenting to make them not just social responsibilities of the woman but an economic contribution towards the natural progression of a society is imperative. There is need to engender all institutions in this country which plan and implement development schemes. Unless women are part of the planning process and also oversee the implementation part they will continue to be economically marginalized.

In India women still have to take on the parallel roles of wives, mother and kitchen mistresses even if they have a well-placed job outside the home. A woman’s option to work is still considered secondary. What a man earns is considered the main income. So unless these mindsets change and women assert their right to earn incomes and for shared parenthood within the home, economic empowerment will still be an ideal that we can only be striving at but never achieve. 

Role of women in socio-economic development of North East India

Women have always played a dominant role in the socio-economic life of their State. However, they have been invisible as a work force because they work primarily in the unorganized sector whether as farm women, domestic help, in small trading and businesses. But the point that needs to be emphasized is that women are always investing their labour and time whether that be in house work or outside the house. Sadly women’s labour is not defined as ‘work’ in the economic sense. This ‘work’ is largely unpaid work and it is time that this unpaid work is recognized as work because without the woman doing the household chores from washing, cleaning, cooking, fetching water, caring for the sick and elderly and bringing up children other members of the family would not be able to leave the house for work outside.

The truth is that women do different kinds of work simultaneously. Whenever we have an exercise between men and women on the gender division of labour we find the women invariably do much more than men and different things at that. In fact women are multi-taskers. While cooking they are also looking after the children and doing many other things besides. Men are generally mono-taskers who cannot and are not trained to do more than one thing at a time. Sometimes this handling of multiple tasks can result in  schizophrenia.

If we are today discussing what women can do in the socio-economic growth of NE, we are not implying that they have not done so in the past. We are perhaps looking at how women can be more effective and visible and also more organized.

First and foremost, to be more effective and to have greater impact, women should be empowered. We have spoken much about women’s empowerment in the last decade but that has not translated into affirmative action to reach women in the rural areas. Women in most of our villages are still unaware of their basic rights such as reproductive rights – which essentially means the right to decide the size of the family. In Meghalaya, women are still being rewarded for giving birth to 16 or 17 children. What does this say about the success or failure of the government’s family planning programme?

If women are expected to give birth to so many children when will they ever have the time for other activities outside the house? How can they be healthy individuals if they have to carry the burden of childbirth for 20-25 years of their lives without any or very little spacing? Undernourished, anaemic women who fall prey to all kinds of illnesses cannot be productive assets of our nation. On the contrary they are a liability. Besides that they have minimal access to health care. The infant mortality rate in the NE according to the 2001 census stands at 41 children per 1000. In Meghalaya, the IFR figure for 2000-2002 was as high as 61 per 1000 births. Although the IFR average for the NE is below the national average, the fact is that the figures do not reflect the ground situation. States like Nagaland did not have the IFR rate even as late as 2000. None of the states have the maternal mortality rate (which is indicative of how many women die in childbirth) in their statistical documents. Does this not mean that women’s most vital issues are not important to the State? Empowerment then is a long way away.

Economic empowerment through the intervention of government agencies are often unrealistic because these are not preceded by thorough grounding on the elements of micro-crediting and what sort of behaviour is expected from a micro-credit group. It is not easy to group together women and expect them to get along to the point of investing in a project together, putting money in a common corpus and borrowing from that corpus.  Initially there are suspicions that loans may not be repaid and it is only after a couple of years that the rapport is established. Governments are target-driven and usually have no time to wait for the women’s groups to graduate into a cohesive self help group (SHG) at their own pace. Very often funds are pumped in when the groups are not yet cohesive. So as soon as the government funds dry up the groups also disintegrate.

In the matter of training women’s self help groups NGOs with the expertise to carry out capacity building programmes on step by step basis have been more successful. Otherwise it is difficult to generate interest in women to meet week after week and to share out money each time they meet, unless they see that the meetings are productive, will generate livelihoods and will also make them bankable individuals in the long run. Wherever the SHG movement has been possible it is only through a sustained programme of information, education and communication (IEC). Without this SHGs can regress and default. It is important for women shgs to maintain transparent books of accounts and for each member to know how much she has saved and has to her credit.

The importance of SHGs are that they are also platforms for social action. Here, besides other livelihood issues, women can also openly discuss health issues, the need for proper water and sanitation facilities, the importance of family planning and also about child care and nutrition. Here they also have an opportunity to come together for collective action against social evils like alcoholism and drug abuse. Without SHGs it is difficult to push in these social action agenda. As the groups learn to trust each other and work together they also derive a certain confidence to speak up for themselves and to represent their views to the local village headman. In a way SHG is also a training ground for women political aspirants.

When women have acquired livelihood skills such as weaving, knitting, small business,  food processing at the family level etc they know they are not dependant only on the husband and that they have spare cash to meet family exigencies. In fact the savings and borrowings by women have come in handy during a family crisis such as sudden illness or death, the urgent need to purchase uniforms and school books for children and several such requirements. As women’s savings grow their livelihood opportunities also grow. Slowly they can become financially independent as individuals and go beyond the SHG to approach banks for loans.

Another important function of the SHG is that it is an easy space for any intervention whether that be in the area of conservation practices, cleanliness and orderliness in the villages. Lack of cohesion in villages have resulted in a few individuals or owners of private forests and catchment areas doing whatever they like within those forests even to the point of destroying water sources by wanton destruction of forests.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati