Loss and Labour: The Effect of Lockdown on Rural Indian Women

Rural women in India have never had it easy, and the Covid lockdown has further increased their workload while leaving them financially vulnerable.

Text and photos by Shweta Bhandral

Past few months have been exceptionally brutal for India’s economy. With GDP contracting by 23.9 per cent from April to June, as many as 21 million salaried jobs are estimated to have been lost in the wake of the pandemic. The informal sector has taken a beating, and some economists have noted that the number of unemployed does not even consider millions of people who may have gone back to farming as jobs dried up in other industries. That has also meant a reverse migration from cities to villages in the wake of the sudden lockdown.

What does that bode for rural economies, families, and especially the faceless women in India’s villages, who are far less literate (58 per cent compared with 78 per cent men); earn only 60 per cent of male wages; constitute 42 per cent of India’s agricultural workforce and are yet not counted as ‘agricultural workers’; denied access to government schemes and property rights; and are instead themselves considered the ‘property’ of their fathers, husbands or even sons?

To understand the effect of lockdown on the ordinary village woman, I travelled to Turehti in Pathankot district of Punjab. Represented by Bollywood actor Sunny Deol of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, it’s a small village by Punjab’s standards. However, it is better off compared with many of the other 6.4 lakh villages in India.

Kamlesh, Turehti village, Punjab

Like most other north Indian villages, it has its fair share of patriarchy, caste discrimination and other repressive social structures. Marrying outside one’s caste or religion could very well lead to an ‘honour killing’ here, not unlike the autocratic rule of Khap Panchayats in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

Very few women from the 300 families residing here are involved in agriculture. They are mostly employed in domestic labour, while men work as farmhands, daily-wage workers or as drivers for school buses in nearby towns.

Once the lockdown began, these men sat at home doing nothing. I met Kamlesh, whose husband and son are both drivers, but Kamlesh and her daughter are the family’s only breadwinners since the past seven months. Kamlesh works as a cook and caretaker at the home of an old couple. Her daughter works as a tailor while doing her Bachelor’s degree at a local college.

Kamlesh worked all through the lockdown and was paid her regular salary. Several retired Army couples in the area need help for household and farm work. Their presence is a boon for the village women, who work in these households as cooks and cleaners.

Kamlesh with her daughter

“Lockdown has been hard for the family, but we managed well with my income, and my employers bought us ration,” says Kamlesh. “Now that things are opening up again, my son recently got a job as a driver. My husband is waiting for the local school to open so that he can go back to driving the bus.”

Her neighbour, Sushma, who is a homemaker in a family of seven, was not so lucky. “Since everyone was at home, life was tough. My daughter-in-law and I have not got time to breathe,” says the middle-aged woman sorrowfully (lead image). Managing fodder for animals, cleaning, cooking and keeping the kids occupied took up all her waking hours.

“We used up whatever little savings we had,” says Sushma, whose daily-wager husband is unemployed at present. Her son, also a daily-wager, was out of work for several months. He has only recently got work again.

Sulochna from the same village works as a cleaner in a nearby school. A widow, with two sons aged 20 and 21. Both her sons are educated till class 12 and are sitting at home waiting for a job opportunity.

Sulochna, mother of two unemployed sons, currently earns half her previous salary

“They would not go and ask for work as labourers in local farms or shops; it is below their education status,” says Sulochna, adding worriedly, “There are no notices for government jobs. They are hoping for something in Punjab Police or the Army, but nothing has come up in the past 18 months. Once they cross the age requirement, they can’t apply. The government should understand this.”

The first two months of lockdown were challenging for the family. Sulochna had to sit at home without pay. They managed with help from the neighbours and some ration that they received from the panchayat. Sulochna is now back at work earning just half of her earlier salary, but as she says, “Something is better than nothing.”

Moving towards the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), the plight of women is no different. Women in most households here run the show on all fronts, be it domestic and mental support or financially.

Just last month, news broke of how 250 women of Angrotha village in Chhatarpur district of MP laboured for 18 months to cut through a hill to reach the only source of freshwater in the village. There was no news of the men.

Mangla, a 32-year-old widow and mother of two, with fellow workers at a pre-primary Army-run school in MHOW

Over 500 km away in Kodariya, a village in district Indore in MP, I met Mangla, a 32-year-old widow who raised two children while working as a caretaker in Shaurya School in MHOW cantonment area, six kilometres from her village. Her son goes to college and the daughter is in higher secondary.

Run by the MHOW War College, the pre-primary school continued paying her salary so she had no financial crunch. But with schools going digital during the lockdown, her kids faced a huge setback in their studies as they have only one smartphone between them.

WiFi connections are either weak or not available in the village, and data is expensive since they consume more than 2GB with online classes, assignments and other activities.

Mangla expresses her concern: “Children in our villages are at a loss in this new system. We don’t have the gadgets, nor do the schools here have the infrastructure and capacity to teach online. How will my kids give exams like this?”

Women workers break for lunch at Shaurya School in MHOW cantonment area, Madhya Pradesh

Her colleagues Kiran, Pushpa and Kamla are all in similar situations except they are married and have an extra unemployed mouth to feed at home. They could manage modestly through lockdown because the school kept paying them their monthly wages. In some of these households, the men don’t work at all; in others, they are daily-wagers who had no work for months.

The biggest setback for them all is the lack of jobs for the educated workforce. Most male relatives who moved back from the cities during the lockdown had nothing to do for months. These men refuse to take up small jobs in the village and instead have taken to drinking, smoking, playing cards or consuming substances.

The load of running the home has fallen on the women who earn from either their craft or jobs while putting up with abuse at the hands of their frustrated husbands or fathers. If the life of India’s village women was hard earlier, the lockdown has only made it worse.

First published in eShe’s November 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control