This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
Economic downturns impact women in more ways than they do men. Here's why.
If you stand at a fixed spot on the road leading from Mantralaya, seat of the Maharashtra government, to Churchgate station in south Mumbai at around 5.30 p.m., you are likely to be mowed down by the phalanx of government employees moving out of their offices. If you survive this onslaught, you will notice that the majority are women. They are all rushing to catch the “Ladies special” that transports thousands of women like them to their homes in distant suburbs. This scene also reminds us of the importance of the public sector and government jobs for millions of ordinary women.
India, we are told repeatedly, is not going to experience the kind of economic downturn so much of the Western world has witnessed in recent years. That is small comfort for most people whose fixed and limited incomes are disappearing under the onslaught of rising costs. High growth does not benefit everyone equally. That is self-evident. But the costs of economic decline are born disproportionately by the poor, and also by women.
This is already evident in the UK where the Conservative Party government has started the process of pruning public services in the face of the economic downturn. According to The Independent, London, 80 per cent of the 710,000 workers in Britain's public sector who will lose their jobs in the next five years are women. In the local government, where 75 per cent of those employed are women, an estimated one in every 10 employee is going to receive marching orders. The rate at which women are being rendered unemployed is almost double that of men.
In addition to this, the British government has been cutting down on services, such as childcare that women could use in the past. Now they have to pay more. As a result, many women are choosing to stay back rather than resume work after childbirth. By creating redundancies in sectors where women employees are the majority and cutting back services that benefit women, the British government has delivered a crippling blow to thousands of women.
In India, the majority of women are employed in the informal sector with no job security. They do not know from one day to the next whether they will earn enough to eat. So if there is a problem with economic growth, not only will more women be pushed into the informal sector as they lose secure jobs, but even those already there will have to struggle harder to remain where they are. This is the silent, unrecorded calamity that occurs in the lives of millions of poor women when there is an economic slowdown.
What of the small percentage of women who do find permanent jobs in the formal sector? How much job security do they have? How much of a risk do they face of being laid off or made redundant when there are cutbacks?
Politically, few governments in India can take the unpopular decision of laying off people. In fact, the government is the largest employer in every state and women have benefitted from this. A growing and diverse private sector is also giving many women opportunities. But how secure is the future of women in this sector?
According to the Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia 2011 report, many women drop off due to social and family pressures even when they have permanent jobs in the private sector. The report looked at women in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and India employed in technology, consulting, financial services and consumer goods companies. It found that while in the first five countries, the majority of women dropped out between the middle and senior levels, in India they left between the junior and middle levels. Clearly, family pressure played a much larger role in the lives of Indian women. Few young married women in India have the autonomy to choose to work in a city of their own choice. They must give priority to the husband. And once children come along, then career growth plans come to a screeching halt, or are so badly ruptured that they cannot be resurrected. In any case, few Indian companies have pro-active policies in place to encourage young women to resume their careers. Also, as those in junior positions are more likely than others to be axed if companies prune their workforce, once again women are disproportionately affected.
Economic independence is an important step in enhancing women's status. It does not provide all the answers. For, even when women contribute substantially to family income through paid and unpaid labour, there is no guarantee that they will either be respected or spared violence and abuse within the family. But it does make a difference to the lives of many women. Unfortunately, governments and employers fail to recognise this gender dimension of economics.
Come March 8, another Women's Day will get buried under marketing buzz. But it's a good time to introspect on what empowerment really means.
March 8, International Women's Day approaches. And the marketing gurus are hard at work. Selling. Selling. Selling us women the idea that we are empowered if we buy. Empowered if we spend. Empowered if we get a facial, a manicure, a pedicure, even a botox job. Empowered if we dress right, look right, are the right shape, have the right hair, of the right colour. The origins of March 8 have now been well and truly buried under the lavender hues of the marketing buzz that surrounds us through an ever-obliging media.
Time to take stock
A Women's Day, however, should be a time to assess, to introspect, and certainly to celebrate. We need to make an honest assessment of where we are, introspect about what still needs to be done and celebrate what has been achieved.
So while we, who live in cities, are being told that nirvana lies in spending more, there are millions of Indian women who cannot afford to buy enough food to feed their families, let alone themselves. While we are told how to exhaust the country's energy sources by buying energy-intensive gadgets that will reduce our “drudgery” (although most women who can afford such gadgets pass on the “drudgery” to other women who they employ), the other half, or more than half of Indian women spend hours each day collecting the fuel wood that will light their inefficient stoves. What remains of the day will be spent collecting water. In their case, for the fraction of energy they need to cook, they drain a great deal more of their physical energy. And no energy planner takes into account how to reduce this very real “drudgery” that the majority of Indian women are never spared.
I choke each time I listen to an advertisement on a popular radio station in Mumbai where a domestic help complains to her employer about the amount of work she is forced to do and threatens to quit. The response of the woman employer is to tell her about a new liquid that magically removes stains and cleans tiles without any effort! The domestic responds (you can almost ‘ hear' her beaming) that now she has no problems! If only new cleaning agents would remove the drudgery of cleaning.
And while young women living in cities are being lured by the marketing brigade into believing that they can let their hair down and party until there is no tomorrow, we have gang rapes in Kolkata and Noida that remind us that no woman, regardless of her age or her class, can assume that she will be safe or that law-enforcers will be sympathetic.
In Kolkata, when a 37-year-old woman is gang-raped in a car, she is asked by the police to describe in lurid detail how the rape took place and mocked while she tries to lodge an FIR. A Minister in the West Bengal cabinet goes further by asking what a mother of two was doing in a nightclub drinking. And the media does not help by giving details such as the fact that she is an Anglo-Indian or that she is separated from her husband. How is any of this pertinent in a case where the police initially failed to take the basic steps required in a rape case?
In the Noida rape, where a minor was gang-raped by five men, it becomes worse. Not only do the police reveal the identity of the rape victim, the Noida superintendent of police, in full view of television cameras, proceeds to cast aspersions on the victim's character by claiming that she went willingly with the men and that she had consumed alcohol. Are the police anywhere in this country trained at all to deal with rape? Have they not been taught the basics about how to deal with such cases? This was not your havaldar in a small chowki but an SP, someone who should have known better.
Remember them too
So, certainly let's celebrate March 8 as Women's Day and applaud the women who have succeeded. But even as we admire a woman like the boxer Mary Kom, who is preparing hard for the Olympics, let us not forget Irom Sharmila from her home state of Manipur, or ordinary Manipuri women who live daily with violence and the lack of basic infrastructure that could ease their daily burden. Even as we appreciate the women who have clambered up the corporate ladder and made it almost to the top, let us not forget that the majority of women in India work in the informal sector where there is no job security, no increments, no designations.
The glass is not half full. It is three-quarters empty. There is a long way to go before we get to the point where March 8 will be a day only of celebration.