50.50: Feature

It was ‘taboo’ for young Indian women to work. So they joined a union

They faced poverty, corruption, discrimination and threats. But these women in Rajasthan kept organising

Ritwika Mitra
9 May 2022, 12.00am

Women from different parts of Rajasthan gathered in Jaipur to demand a social accountability law in March, 2022

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Ritwika Mitra

Four years ago, Kanika was forlornly trying to piece her life together in Malaton Ki Ber, a village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. The 18-year-old had no job and no prospects. The village was too poor to afford more than the chance of odd jobs.

One day, she heard that a grassroots organisation was visiting the village. Perhaps it might help her find work? With nothing to lose, Kanika attended a meeting organised by the worker-led Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), and learnt about India’s flagship rural employment scheme.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), she found out, is supposed to guarantee 100 days of work to a household. The labour law also mandates that at least one-third of its beneficiaries should be women.

Kanika realised, however, that MGNREGA had an image problem. It didn’t have any visibility, especially among those for whom it was meant. What’s more, its effectiveness was also damaged by poor implementation, and rampant corruption meant achieving 100 days of work in a year was a distant reality.

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She knew unionising women could help challenge inequality. So, after training with MKSS she joined the Rajasthan Asangathit Mazdoor Union (RAMU) – an offshoot of the worker-led grassroots organisation from which she had originally learnt about guaranteed rural employment. RAMU, a union of unorganised workers, was growing into a formidable force, having registered more than 15,000 workers across the state.

Now, a typical day for the 22-year-old involves mobilising women in rural Rajasthan to join the workforce.

She empowers them to speak up for their rights, regularly conducts meetings in far-flung districts and negotiates with the local and district administration.

I tell women about their rights. I tell them that [by seeking work] they are not begging.

“Once I started understanding about the importance of rights, I started fighting for them,” said Kanika, who has mobilised 2,000 women to access the rights guaranteed by the government scheme. “I tell women about their rights. I tell them that [by seeking work] they are not begging.”

But it isn’t easy to be a catalyst for change. “When we started out we got many threats from local authorities,” Kanika added. “We get them even today. But I am never scared. It does not deter me from my work. It also helps that we have the backing of a union.”

Kanika is poised and unemotional as she speaks about the challenges of her life. Her paternal aunt married her off in exchange for 30,000 rupees (about £315) while her father lay in a coma following a road accident. Her mother had no say in the matter. Kanika faced abuse and beatings in the marital home and the darkness was relieved only by the few hours she was in school every day.

“What would a child of 12 understand?” she said. “Even before I got my period… all of it started. I would cry at night. I was so scared of him… like a child. I would study, then get beaten up. I would wake up in the morning to do all chores and then go to school.”

She added that the trauma made it difficult to focus. “My mind would wander off to what would be the trigger that evening for my husband to beat me up.” She finally left when her husband poured kerosene over her in an attempt to burn her alive.

Not too far away from Kanika there is Kanchan, also 22, and yet another woman who is driving change in Rajasthan. Kanchan is in Jawaja block in the state’s Ajmer district. She says it felt almost like “escaping from home” when she attended the training programme offered by MKSS. She did not have family support because it was taboo for a young girl to go to work as a ‘labourer’. But the toil – long hours under the blazing sun, levelling land and digging ponds – proved to be a revelation.

Kanchan

Kanchan, 22, is in Jawaja block in the state’s Ajmer district

Kanchan realised the everyday struggles that women go through. She began to fight for the restoration of MGNREGA workers’ wages deducted by the local authorities. “It motivated me,” she recalls. “Initially, women would not drink water for three hours because they thought they would get delayed for their household chores.

“Then I started mobilising them to streamline their work. I held meetings regularly, and more people started joining us.” Kanchan added that the training she received has given her bargaining power within the family.

Then there is Pooja Devi, who had to leave her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter at home in Bhim block to join protests in Jaipur for more MGNREGA work days and better wages. She says that to be a part of a workers’ union “is a matter of survival”.

Both Pooja and her mother-in-law have been members of the union for three years. “My mother-in-law and I have separate job cards,” she said. Knowing their rights under the jobs guarantee scheme has made a difference. “My mother-in-law says it was a very different scenario when she did not know the MGNREGA law properly. She encouraged me to come to the protest site.”

Kanika, Kanchan and Pooja’s efforts are catalysing the change

According to Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), an NGO, improving the quality and experience of women’s work pushes more sustained participation in MGNREGA.

Kaliat Ammu Sanyal, a senior manager at IWWAGE, said that childcare facilities such as creches and women-only job sites would help.

Kanika, Kanchan and Pooja’s efforts are catalysing the change. It is a testimony to the impact of grassroots mobilisation that Rajasthan had the highest number of person days in the past year in the country. Dipa Sinha, assistant professor at Dr B R Ambedkar University, Delhi, says Rajasthan’s civil society movements have made a demonstrable difference to women’s workforce participation.

MGNREGA is often seen as more “socially acceptable,” said Sinha, because it is considered to be government work. “Hence more dignity is attached to it.”

And for people like Kanika, Kanchan and Pooja, it means the chance to make something of their lives.

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