How Successful Has The MGNREGA Been In Eradicating Poverty Among Dalit Women?

In its recent press release, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha brought in several important issues which we need to reflect upon for the efficient implementation of one of the world’s biggest employment guarantee schemes. The budget for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for 2018-19 is ₹55,000 crores – the same as the previous year’s in monetary terms (the initial budget of ₹48,000 crores for 2017-18 was supplemented with ₹7,000 crores in January 2018). While the MGNREGA suffers from various challenges (including delays in payments, low transparency, low scale of work and non-payment of minimum wages), it becomes extremely important to see if this scheme is helping rural women uplift themselves from poverty – and possibly, dissolving the caste barrier through the labour market participation of rural lower caste women.

The caste system in India is structured as a 4-tier socio-economic-political system determined by familial line – in sinking order, the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (servants). The ‘untouchables’ (or the Dalits) were the people so low in social status that they were not included in the caste system at all – the so-called ‘outcastes’. The term ‘untouchables’ refers to their traditional degrading and ‘impure’ occupations that often involved handling dead matter or faeces. This resulted in them being considered as ‘polluting’. They were not to be touched, since Dalits were considered ‘unclean’ from their birth. Furthermore, they were portrayed as being perpetually filthy. Apparently, they could never escape their status.

According to Hindu scriptures, what is pure must be separated from what is impure. Following that logic, the ‘impure and untouchable’ Dalits are still forced to live in segregated areas in many villages and have to refrain from touching (and therefore ‘defiling’) common resources such as power supplies and water sources. It is undeniably shameful to be considered ‘Untouchable’, but the practice of untouchability, which often leads to upper caste people avoiding the presence of Dalits, can in itself be regarded as an act of shaming.

The practice of untouchability may be forbidden by the law in the Indian Constitution. But the social stigma, discrimination and social exclusion of Dalits remains, both at an institutional and a personal level, even today. The systematic exclusion has subjected the majority of Dalits to persistent poverty. Therefore, the Dalits are suffering from the double burden of being poor and their own identity. For Dalit women, the situation is even worse, as they suffer from the triple oppression of being poor, being female and being Dalits. Dalit women number 80.517 million, or approximately 48% of the total Dalit population, 16% of the total female population and 8% of the total Indian population.

The MGNREGA Act states that ‘priority’ should be given to women in the allocation of work in such a way that at least one-third of the beneficiaries shall be women. Hence, MGNREGA is designed to transform rural livelihoods by implementing a rights-based approach to employment. Moreover, it mentions empowering rural women as an expected impact of the programme.

However, the ground realities show us a different picture.

Talking about Dalit women in the public domain, Rodrigues (1994) provides the following analogy, thus showing the double tag of impurity and shame connected both to being Dalit and being a woman: “While the bazaar, or the outside, could pollute the man, the woman could be polluted by her own body and insulated from social intercourse, during menstrual cycles, childbirth, and death of her husband.”

Social discrimination does play a part in influencing women’s under- and unemployment rates. A study conducted in three states in 2005 showed that upper caste women had a higher probability of being employed than women from lower castes (Dalits, for instance). Further, the study showed that Dalit women had a maximum of 148 days of employment during a year (not under MGNREGA), while women from the higher castes had, on an average, 290 days of employment per year. Dalit women are also predominantly working within the agricultural sector – approximately 57% – as compared to the 29% of higher-caste-women employed in agriculture.

A World Bank study conducted in 2011 states that the labour market is among the most important sites of gender inequality – the struggle against which is critical to any attempt aimed at reducing poverty. Caste status and networks related to caste are important in searching for and finding employment – and precisely, the importance of these networks plays a critical role in restricting the occupational mobility for the non-caste, Dalit women.

Gender inequality is also a reason for women getting unequal pay for equal work. Even among the poor, women contribute to a major part of the disposable income. This is usually because many men tend to spend more on personal comforts, while women generally prefer to prioritise ensuring the welfare of the entire family. Therefore, women empowerment is acclaimed as a poverty- reduction measure – and this is done by creating employment that is focused on women.

Can the MGNREGA successfully bridge the various gaps (social, caste-based, gender-based) when it comes to employment opportunities? (Representative image)

Women from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) have higher work participation rates than men. A majority of women in India (79%) work in the agricultural sector, which is known for its exceptionally low wages. This could be a reflection of economic deprivation and poverty, because women from these castes are forced to accept any kind of employment and labour wages, simply to survive. Again, this can show how individuals from vulnerable social groups are driven into forced labour, thereby showing the connection with social exclusion and discrimination. Furthermore, it shows how caste, class and gender converge in the process of making the groups more exposed to discrimination at multiple levels. Dalits, specifically Dalit women, are often denied the rights each citizen is entitled to. This makes the battle for fair working conditions not only about wages, but also about human dignity.

The social background of MGNREGA workers (as shown in many scientific studies) reveals that a significant number of beneficiaries belong to the lowest strata of society (in economic as well as social terms). Therefore, the self-targeting (self-selecting) element of the scheme works in the right direction.

When it comes to the unemployment of women in rural areas, different states show different tendencies.

1. As some reports about Kerala state, among rural women, the unemployment rate decreased significantly during the period from 2004-05 to 2009-10. As per these reports, these trends can be attributed to MGNREGA among other government schemes. It has also been witnessed that the implementation of the MGNREGA in Kerala benefitted due to the innovative inclusion of the existing program “Kudumbasree”.

2. In the case of Tamil Nadu, women constitute a majority of the workforce. Women are involved in different layers of the MGNREGA implementation in Tamil Nadu (sizeable numbers in the form MGNREGA staff at the GP and Block levels as work site supervisors – Makkal Nala Panniyalars, or MNPs, data entry operators and so on). The participation of women in gram panchayats (GPs) is also high. In Tamil Nadu, GPs are well-equipped and that is an important factor for the effective implementation of public work programs such as MGNREGA. A social audit in Tamil Nadu finds that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has brought about major changes in the lives of women. Representatives in Tamil Nadu report that MGNREGA has been only source of income for them for the last few months. However, availability of drinking water, food and childcare facilities have been found to be absent, resulting either in the low participation of women with children, or women being forced not to carry their children to the work sites.

3. Even though the participation of Dalit women in Madhya Pradesh has increased over the years, they are still among the poorest in India and are most vulnerable to exploitation.

4. In Uttar Pradesh, it was found that single women were completely denied work, while upper caste women could not work outside their homes, as it might not be ‘dignified’ and for fear of shame.

The MGNREGA has provisions for providing equal wages to both men and women, making it a rather gender-sensitive public welfare scheme of its kind, expanding the wage opportunities for women. Local governments are the implementing agencies. Availability of work at local level, regularity and predictability of working hours, lower chances of work conditions being exploitative, better wages than other jobs and the work being socially acceptable and ‘dignified’ are certain features of the MGNREGA which are supposed to provide women a better earning possibility.

According to the general perception, providing a parity of wages between women and men under the MGNREGA has been regarded as a measure sufficient enough for addressing the gender issues in poverty reduction. Consequently, the questions directed at ensuring gender equality and in the management and controlling of the productive assets created by the MGNREGA, have often been seen as a distraction and a diversion. Although there is a huge scope of further studies to seek the interplay between caste, class and gender factors in the rural wage market, schemes like the MGNREGA have shown us a light. With its effective implementation, there is a chance of surpassing the divide. After all, intent alone has never been a satisfactory condition for achieving this.

Similar Posts

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below