By Tinku Paul:
I recently came upon an article that talked about the unique custom of ‘water wives’ in the drought affected village of Denganmal, in Maharashtra. This village has no taps. It has two wells at the foot of a hill, the only sources of water. The journey to and fro can take hours in the sweltering heat. For this reason, the village has developed a tradition of polygamy. For Sakharam Bhagat, aged 66, and many others in the hamlet some 140 km (85 miles) from Mumbai, the answer is a contract upon which women are entitled to the designation of a ‘married woman’ while men get an unpaid servant to run all chores. Two of Bhagat’s wives were married solely to bring water to drink while the third takes care of the house.
The famous statement of Alfred Marshall about the housemaid and the housewife is pertinent here. Many tasks of the housewife have alternate market prices and hence every housewife is performing work in the economic sense of the term irrespective of the fact of direct payment. Instead, real income is generated in the household by several tasks and this could not find its way into the national income estimates due to its operational limitations. Most of the women’s work at home is economic in nature as many studies on time use pattern reveal.
The deep roots of patriarchy in our Indian cultural system have stemmed out in forms of cultural alterations that breed on women’s unpaid labour. The irony is that women have internalized this culture of patriarchy, holding that it is their duty to obey and serve men, accepting arguments that their aptitudes are inferior to those of men.
Women enter the labour market experiencing many inhibitions. Literature on women and work are flooded with articles on feminization of the workforce that may create misconceptions. Feminization may occur in two ways, firstly with more females entering the labour market, and secondly there may be opening up of more sectors for female work. But interesting revelations from national data sets reflect the fact that these women entering the labour markets are vulnerable to poor social security norms as well as skewed wage gaps. Also neo female specific sectors like hotels, restaurants etc. capitalize on women’s state of acute vulnerability.
Therefore, when we talk about women empowerment and their emancipation through increased employment participation, we need to be very cautious as to what parameters of empowerment we are considering. This article focuses on the vulnerabilities in the labour market that may challenge the thesis of positive impact of female employment, considering the nature and quality of employability. There are simultaneously other issues that need to be looked upon like whether women, who work, have control over their resources, whether they have autonomy to take their own decisions etc. The entire nature of empowerment or disempowerment is conditioned by socio-cultural and economic context, unique to each individual woman. Further, it is a deeper issue of research how the urban and rural socio-cultural set up governs her status of empowerment or her status in the family and society at large.