Summary of Martha Chen’s Women’s Right to Employment in India and Bangladesh

Response to Martha Chen’s A Matter of Survival: Women’s Right to Employment in India and Bangladesh

In this article, Martha Chen tracks the history of the food-for-work program in South Asia, and the struggle women have had to go through to be able to work and provide enough money and food for their families. In South Asia the divisions of labor are divided by sex. Women are in charge of the family and home life, and men are in charge of the public, work, and market life. Within these societies there is a “hierarchical social structure” divided into castes. What is startling about the caste system is that the higher up in caste a women is the more secluded and less free she becomes. Also, the middle castes try to mimic the higher castes, so often time those in middles castes also seclude their women, but those women may be allowed to work in the fields of their own farm, as opposed to not going outside at all. In many households in the lower castes, they women work either on their own lands, or neighboring lands to help support their families.

The first story Chen brings to our attention is about the conditions of Bangladesh after it suffered from a famine in 1974. UNICEF began the food-for-work program in 1974 after witnessing women left to begging for food because of the famine. There were already some food-for-work programs, but they where strictly for men. Surprised by the almost 100% more than expected turn out, illustrating just how in need the countries women were. At first there were problems with the type of work that men and women were allowed to do and also with payment to men and women, so even if a woman found work, she would get paid considerably less. This is due to the fact that wages are allotted according to how much earth is moved. Naturally, men, who naturally tend to be stronger, and have the advantage of learning the skill, were always paid much more than women. Here, the UN stepped in to see how women could best fit into the working world in Bangladesh.
This process consisted of visiting work sites that women were currently working at and interviewing several of the works to more fully understand their story and why they were working. The teams objectives were to find the average “marital status, dependency ration, work output, and energy requirements” of the women. What the team found was that most of the women were either widowed, the primary head of their household, or unmarried, deserted or divorced. This helped this women’s case tremendously as the below par wages
Were based on the assumption that women would be a secondary source of income. However, as the interviews showed, that was entirely not true—without the work, most of the women would die, as well as their families. This study aided in the support of the Bangladesh government, who began promoting women’s participation is such work. The greater acceptance of women in the work place has allowed women to organize into organizations that help other women find work and regulate their work. There are even women running for election in local government.
The story that Chen relates to us of North India is very similar to that of Bangladesh. In this region of India women are still secluded from work and the castes work very much in the same way. However, here it seems much harder to get past the stigma of no women in the work force. Chen offers several examples of women whose husbands either passes away, or are no longer able to work, and still the women are barred from working. This is most true for those women in higher castes. In these cases, if the women try to get work outside the home, they, as well as their children, will be disinherited from any money or land they may have entitlement to. If a women in a higher caste tries to get work, she will also be disconnected from others is that caste. So maybe it is understandable when women practically disappear, their fear of being ostracized is far greater than dying of starvation. This is particularly bad because many women just feel that this is the way that it naturally is.
Care for women is supposed to be built into Indian society. Women are not allowed to work or be out of the homes, but they are, in theory, always taken care of, regardless of the condition of the husband. For women who have lost their husbands, they are supposed to be taken care of by the husbands’ families, but as Chen relays very vividly, this is not always the case. Sometimes the husbands family makes things even worse by stealing, or taking things from the women and her children, and threatening to disinherit her and the children if they move out of their home or if she tries to get work. Many times the kin of women have no way of providing extra help in monetary forms, but many times the father of the women will help plow the land that that women has, if any.

Published in: on September 27, 2006 at 1:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

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