She is everywhere. She constitutes around 40 per cent of India’s agricultural labourers, 33 per cent of cultivators and 86 per cent of workers in the non-agrarian sector. Yet, these statistics do not say much about women’s total contribution to national development or their ability to don various roles or even their perceptions about themselves.
She crowds the spaces of the poor, and is usually among the first to lose her livelihood in a crisis. Her daughters are either surrogate mothers or sold for survival. She easily merges into crowds, be it a ragpickers’ demonstration or a political rally. Hers is the face used to publicise social welfare programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and also their opposite — poverty, malnutrition, and, most important, widowhood. Yet, though she is the principal sustainer of the household, she is not the focus of political goals.
Her economic position varies across regions, depending on the extent of freedom local culture and production patterns give her. The geography of gender, as a scholar puts it, reveals striking differences in her various roles, which are decided by climate, caste and crops. However, two occupations for which women need no training are domestic work and sex work. Almost 60 per cent of the women in the ‘service’ sector are domestic workers and not, as we imagine, call centres employees.
This responsible aam aurat can turn around a divided and an unequal India into an equitable and progressive society. Take the case of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which has around a million members working in the informal sector, mostly self-employed, who have unionised themselves. Lijjat has about 42,000 women members, who are part of a tier of cooperatives owned by papad rollers. Women in Amul’s dairy co-operatives number nearly 2.47 million.
Would men have been able to organise themselves in a similar way, and sustain it too? Or is it women’s innate desire to sustain their households, their sense of responsibility towards their families that keep them from breaking the chain? Try her, the aam aurat — she will usher in transformation.
Devaki Jain is a Delhi-based economist and writer
The views expressed by the author are personal