“There is clearly stigma attached to the idea of working women”
COVID-19 has exacerbated inequities. It has highlighted the plight of working women. Evidence indicates that women are overburdened with care responsibilities and constitute the ‘disposable half’ losing jobs with less likelihood to return to work.
Breakthrough’s formative research in Delhi indicates that norms and perceptions around working women constitute a significant barrier to their engagement in the workforce. Working women navigate familial expectations; strict control on mobility and social interactions; and increased vulnerability to harassment due to these perceptions. While workplace interventions are important, they need to be supplemented with community led interventions that address pervasive norms about women’s role.
Despite India boasting of significant economic growth in the last few decades, in stark contrast, Women Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) has declined by 20 percentage points between 2005 to 2018 in India. Many studies cite various views to explain this steady decline; where the first viewpoints towards “increased household income” correlated with more women pursuing higher education. However, the second view highlights barriers such as lack of quality jobs or self-employment opportunities clubbed with poor wages, long commuting hours, work timing, migrations, safety issues etc. restrict women’s mobility and freedom as one of the prominent reasons for the decline. Sadly, despite overall progress in various socio-economic parameters a substantial difference still persists in labour force participation rates between men and women in low-income and middle-income countries, which is even starker in the informal sector. However flabbergasting the falling in LBPR may seem, this a complex problem with myriad economic, cultural, and, social factors impinging upon it.
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So far only nine other countries in the world, including India, have reported a lower proportion of working women in their economies. One of the major factors limiting the participation of women in the labour force is concern for their safety. These include fear of sexual violence in streets, in and around public transportation, schools, workplaces and other public and private spaces. This reality decreases women’s and girls’ freedom of mobility by impacting their ability to participate in school, work and public life; access to essential services; and enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. The social norms that steadily influence our beliefs and attitudes about women and their defined roles in the private and public sphere have a symbiotic relationship with mobility. The level and range of mobility of women is a consequence of the unequal and unjust patriarchal structures and norms which also significantly influence the choice regarding the same. This, as a matter of fact is further exaggerated by lack of access to and availability of resources particularly spatial mobility such as safe public transport and public spaces.
The location for the formative study was Dabua Colony residents and the sample consisted of men, women, youth (girls and boys) and duty bearers. During data collection, 32 in-depth interviews (IDI’s) with 11 men and 21 women and girls, 4 Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) & Focus Group Discussion (FGDs) were carried out with a diverse sample population of Dabua Colony. The sample included local leaders such as Parshad/Councilor, health workers such as ASHA/AWW/ANM, factory owners and workers, teachers, auto drivers, youth who were pursuing their education, women engaged in paid work outside such as factories or companies (nearby or in Delhi), women engaged in paid work from home like stitching etc., and women involved in unpaid care work.
The present findings from the Participatory Rural Appraisal approach of the study throw light on the perceived and actual barriers faced by women on account of social norms and safety concerns of women and girls in Dabua Colony in Faridabad’s New Industrial Town (NIT), Faridabad.
The young boys and girls were to do a community mapping exercise to understand the overall geographical description of the colony with focus on the ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ areas marked by the participants.
All the participants unanimously pointed towards the abandoned Housing Board Building as highly unsafe. According to many participants this area is also unsafe as there are many anti-social elements present in these areas. Some participants shared that “yahan ched chaad hai..log nasha karte hain.” (People come here to do drugs and they harass the others.) The surrounding area of the building is also extremely filthy and unhygienic, rife with stagnant, open sewage lanes, marsh areas and no street light. Some other highly unsafe areas particularly highlighted by young girls are Dabua Chowk, Police Line, Auto Stand, Schools and within the lanes. There is a perennial problem of no or little street lights in these areas especially within the lanes that adds to the vulnerability of women, girls and children in these areas. The women and girls shared that they hardly venture out alone especially after 7 pm within the community itself and need a male family member or a relative to escort. They also pointed that, ”Shaam ke 7 baje ke baad koi ladki nahin nikal sakti’..’hamari to baat hi mat karo mummy tak ko chedte hai.” (After 7pm, no girl can go out, even our mothers do not venture out.”
Therefore, out of 21 female respondents, most women and girls go out only for work, education and shopping (occasionally) and apart from family members, women and girls themselves monitor their own movements in various public spaces in the community.
The mapping exercise highlighted that most areas are considered unsafe by women, young girls and young men alike, however, men don’t consider the area to be unsafe at all especially during the day and can be considered unsafe post 10pm. According to them, there is no need for women to be out post sunset and this might attract unwanted attention or danger of being harassed. In fact, this typical belief is governed by the norm that ‘women are responsible for their own safety’ which can be ensured by limited mobility or mobility with a man as an escort.
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Safety and law
The participants (men, women and youth) were largely unaware about the organisations, law or a helpline to address these issues but considered reporting to the police as ultimate form of redressal, particularly if sexual violence escalated. Only one or two boys were aware about the presence of ‘Durga Shakti’ squad to tackle violence against women at a community level.
Concern about sexual harassment and abuse while commuting or at work is a barrier to women’s employment in contexts where such harassment is widespread. In this context many youth, male and female participants spoke about shared autos, rickshaws being the most commonly used mode of transport to commute. The shared space in the vehicles also invites harassment. Thus, women and girls shared about being guarded or being accompanied by male members of their families escorting them in these spaces. Similar view was shared by young men pointing to many unsafe places thus, “puchho kon sa area safe hai wo itna aasan hai kyunki sare unsafe hi hai. Ladki ke school ki chutti ke time yani afternoon aur mahilaon ke factory ke lautne ka time yani sham se raat tak unsafe hai” (Telling you which area is safe is easier because all are unsafe, When girls return from school in the afternoon and when women return from factories in the evening or night, it is especially unsafe.). In addition, many respondents particularly men and duty bearers, and some women participants shared that harassment at workplace by colleagues or senior staff also is detrimental to safety and participation of women in the workforce.
The above findings clearly resonate with various surveys and studies such as in a survey conducted in New Delhi, 95% of women aged 16–49 stated that they felt unsafe in public spaces, according to findings by UN Women and ICRW 2013. Chakraborty et al. (2018) correlate neighborhood-level perceptions of crime and female employment using 2005 India Human Development Survey data and found that a higher perceived level of crime against women is associated with lower female labor force participation. Siddique (2018) also found a negative link between perceived violence and female employment in India, measuring perceived violence using media reports and female employment using National Sample Survey (NSSO, 2018) data.
This is the first in a two-part series of articles on working women’s safety and mobility.
Breakthrough works towards making violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. We change gender norms by working with adolescents and youth, their families, and their communities, as well as by using media campaigns, arts and popular culture to build a more equal world around us and create a more enabling environment. You can find them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Featured image source: news18.com