Gendered Spaces in India

Pranita Choudhry

Examining the spatial exclusion of Women in India

According to the latest census, in India, there are currently 37 million men in excess of women. A country that experiences the giant gender gap in population, also has an equally large gender gap in employment where only 20% women currently participate in the labour market (according to world bank data). India’s performance is among the lowest globally with stark comparisons to its neighbours: 36% in Bangladesh, 59% in China, and 35% in Sri Lanka and 80% women in Nepal are currently in formal employment. This is in the vicinity of 80% for men according to an ILO report. The reasons for India’s low global ranking are all too well-known and obvious – patriarchal society, preference of sons over daughters, fertility, domestic and care activities. While economic growth and rising overall education levels for women are reasons to celebrate, absorption of women in the labour force through creation of suitable job opportunities has been all too slow. Invisibilisation of women due to economic growth was further achieved through increased household incomes that no longer deemed it necessary for housewives to seek work outside, also known as the “income effect”.

“the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses.”

On the other hand, the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses. Among the minority who make it to the formal sector, most are performing tasks that are an extension of home duties such as nursing, teaching beauty, healthcare, fashion, textiles, teaching etc. Take the textiles industry, for example, where 71% of the workforce according to a World Bank report are women, but where they are subjected to low pay, extensive hours, exploitation and bad working conditions. Women’s primary role in society is seen as that of a ‘caregiver’, therefore even professionally they are engaging in activities that are an extension of the home. Professionals or homemakers, they are never excused from taking on the burden of household chores and responsibility as caregivers to children and the elderly. 

“On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work.”

On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work. Take a look at the graph below that showcases the Female to Male ratio in terms of the time devoted to unpaid care work i.e. domestic and household chores as well as care activities for children and elderly. Amongst the highest in the world are Pakistan and India where women devote 10.25 and 9.83 hours for every hour devoted by men (respectively).

Deshpande, A. and Kabeer, N. (2019) (In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers. The size and shape of women’s work in India (with Ashwini Deshpande) Discussion Paper Series in Economics DP 04/19. Department of Economics, Ashoka University.

While this has shifted slightly in urban spaces, the status quo remains in rural areas. Even in urban areas, policies and compliance is meagre especially in the informal sector and thinking about alternative careers such as those in manufacturing or technology is a distant reality.

The spaces that women claim are largely private. At the end of the day, it’s all a tussle between the public and private spaces and how power is experienced and negotiated within them that creates the silent rules we adhere to in our jobs, relationships, and interactions as a society. Take a look at the picture below of a small village in Bihar, India.

If you visit the interiors of India, you will see this as a common sight. While girls are tasked with commuting from home, holding containers of material or water, often several times a day, boys are found out playing, being with friends, or just running on the streets, just being who they’re supposed to be – children. In other words, you would see boys claiming the public spaces early on, while girls are restricted to private “for their own safety”. The only times they must only be out is to study or related to housework. Here’s another image that’s not specific to rural areas, but all around us.

As I ventured into the rural spaces, I was struck by how hard women worked all day long, engaged in agriculture work day after day as well as performing household duties, ready to forego any payments or rights. While their husbands often roamed about in the evenings to visit their friends or drink at the local pub, women often spent their evenings ensuring the rest of the family members, including the livestock, are well-fed and taken care of. This is an accepted form of behaviour instilled early on in life. Most women I spoke to expressed their discontent at the unfairness of it all, but simply didn’t want to voice their unhappiness from the fear of bringing shame to the family. I noticed they continued to treat their sons differently, maybe unintentionally, contributing to this vicious cycle. It demonstrates the deep-rooted acceptance of norms that dictate our behaviour and accepted both by the oppressed and the oppressor, that leads to the inter-generational repetition and continuation of the status quo, in rural and urban spaces.

“it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices.”

But isn’t it a woman’s duty to take care of her children and elders? why should they be paid for the tasks that they do for their family? Well, it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices. Gender norms dictate that claiming public spaces is considered desirable, attractive, challenging and ambitious, and are largely “masculine”, while being in the private sphere, no matter how much work you do, is considered feminine, a duty that’s taken for granted, in some instances leading to ill-treatment and exploitation. It’s about control. Take a look at the positioning and space distribution below which was completely unplanned and in fact but took place organically, reflective of the power dynamics.

“Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity.”

Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity. Their dominant presence in the public spaces is what leads to an insecure and unsafe space for women, who face eve-teasing and harassment, and thus have to constantly sacrifice their share of freedom & mobility to participate in the workforce. When taking a non-binary gender view, the experiences of those from the LGBTQIA communities who face violence and discrimination are nerve-racking and are immensely invisible. On other hand, the well-meaning male allies try they find it hard to make changes given the deep-rooted structural shifts that are needed.

The only solution to breaking this imbalance is for more and more women and girls to step into the public sphere and are well-supported to do so. However, with expectations around marriage, fertility, and care responsibilities, the challenge for us today is to facilitate this process and ensure they enter and then remain in the workforce. As the Economist, Amartya Sen explained, women can become agents of change only if certain conditions are fulfilled – they acquire more than basic education; they have an independent income; they have land rights; and that they have the freedom to work outside the house. However, when it is achieved, it brings about development not just for women themselves but others too. On average, countries with greater female labor force participation generally see later marriages, fewer children, better nutrition and school enrolment, and higher gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. There is also research that suggests that choices made by women’s groups not only led to empowerment for women themselves but greater development for children’s education and health, and the community at large.  

“The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since.”

The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since. Therefore, the challenge is real, to drive women from the “Private” to the “Public”. Unfortunately, there isn’t any quick fix to a problem this deep-rooted and ingrained. A change to this lopsided social structure will manifest only if we put in place certain provisions and solutions that are unconventional and multi-dimensional. At a policy and systemic level, change takes time and various initiatives are underway to influence policy change by organisations such as Sewa Mandir that unionised workers.. At an organisational level, some evidence-based initiatives seem to have worked in the west in the formal sector that may help lead the way towards increasing and sustenance of the labour force participation rate for women. Provisions such as having work-life balance policies in the workplace, effective protections against dismissal for pregnant women, shared parental leave, flexible working arrangements, company provided care services, a robust workplace harassment policy are some of the ways to help women continue being in the workforce. Having mentors and role models is crucial to help access the next stage, and to chart a path less travelled before and keep confidence and self-esteem high. 

While the gaps are structural with empty policies, profit-seeking corporations, poor implementation of laws, or political will, it is as much about changing individual behaviours, mindsets, attitudes, that rests upon us. We as citizens must keep our eyes open and intentions intact by ensuring we put in place a safe and dignified working environment, policies and contracts for staff members, domestic workers, part-time employees, ensure protection in the workplace, and have borders that are defined for our “employees” and not “servants”. Within the household, it is to encourage boys and adult men to teach their children that it is valuable to do “house” work, and a necessary aspect of being truly “independent” and “empowered”. It isn’t enough for men to think and say they “let” their partners work and that they are empowered because they have a job, it will take an equal division of labour both at work and at home. For women to claim public spaces, they need their partners and allies to pick up the slack in the private spaces, only then will the balance be restored.

“The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst.”

To top it all off, the imbalance recently has further been exacerbated by the pandemic. The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst. These are areas of work being taken up by various charities, NGOs and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and other civil society actors. While many of us may not be able to shift these outcomes by ourselves, being part of the larger interventions and contributing is the need of the hour. In addition, there are things we can do and changes we can make within our own lives to contribute to a fight that needs our contribution. The pandemic has indeed offered us a unique opportunity, as we stay at home, to truly re-imagine our roles and contribute equally to all household chores to ensure we aren’t just advocates but practitioners of equality. 

Pranita is an international development professional, writer and activist, working with charities and not-for-profits, specialising in research and evaluation in youth development, gender and inclusion.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.