By Bhavita Kukreja:
A lot of debates have taken place over the years pertaining to womens’ right to employment. Have we ever wondered how this issue came into existence? In this article I will try to explain how this right came into being or rather situations that led to women demanding their right to employment.
The Constitution of Bangladesh and India guarantee women equal employment opportunities as that of men and equal pay for work as well. However, there is prevelance of gender inequality in work opportunities and remuneration. Women who need or want to work face constrains like norms which confine women to their homes, exploitation within given trades or industries and segmentation of wage labour markets by gender.
November 1975: A food-for-work site 40 kilometres west of Dhaka city, Bangladesh: Bangladesh was still recovering from a famine in 1974. Saleha Begum, the leader of a team of female labourers tells how she first began to work outside her home, after she and her husband became landless. Despite opposition from family and community she decided to work and prove how hard she could work. Initially she was embaressed to be seen working, so to escape this embarrassment she often worked at night or at other times when she was not likely to be seen. As she grew accustomed to work, criticism also died down. There was a time when Saleha and another woman were refused work at food-for-work sites. The local officials denied them the oppotunity to work saying that, women in Bangladesh should not work outside their homes and also that they had never hired women at food-for-work sites.
Udaipur, Rajasthan: Another example is that of Metha Bai, who lives in a village 40 kilometres north of Udaipur city, Rajasthan. She was widowed at the age of 28. She belonged to an upper caste in the village, having two minor sons. Metha Bai, belongs to a caste which prohibits women from working outside the home premises. Before her husband’s death, she was not allowed to work outside her home, not even to fetch water or fuel wood; her husband performed all the outside chores. Now she helps her father cultivate the land she inherited from her husband and fetches water and fuel wood. Her in-laws do not allow her to engage in any gainful employment outside her home. Her only source of support is her father who helps her till the land and brings regular gifts of food and clothing.
These are just two examples of women who must break with tradition because they lack the security that tradition is supposed to offer. In communities where women are secluded, it is necessary for women to break their tradition and leave their courtyard or home premises in search of work.
The first story illustrates how local traditions and policies can evolve and change in response to contingencies of real life. It also illustrates women’s right to employment. Second story illustrates how local tradition adapts itself to the situations and changes in due course of time.
Saleha’s story has a happy ending. In early 1976, Saleha Begum and her co-workers were hired at a local food-for-work site scheme. Saleha, her co-workers and other women who demanded to be employed at food-for-work sites paved the way for countless other woman to enter labour force. In the case of Caste i.e. in the case of Metha Bai, we tend to observe that the social restrictions on the lifestyle of women tend to become more rigid as one moves up in the caste hierarchy. If we interview other widows in North India and ask them why they don’t work outside their homes, they all answer that if they go out and work, they will either be forced to leave the village or we will be disowned or not allowed to attend any ritual, ceremony or social occasion taking place in the village.
Women’s right to gainful employment can firstly be a matter of immediate survival especially for single women and their families, secondly as a matter of greater status for women, as all those women who earn a living escape from male control, they are economically independent, it helps build self-confidence in women; it helps increase the perceived value of women within the society. Lastly a serious account of justice should not gloss over women’s right to gainful and just employment.