It’s getting tougher to be old, especially if you’re poor and a woman in urban India.
Over 60% of Indian women over the age of 45 years were forced to work on domestic duties, says a National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) report on work participation by women, based on 2004-05 data. And that figure is also climbing, up from 58% at the turn of the century.
More and more women above the age of 45, many of them above 60, are forced to concentrate on domestic work, and additionally, gathering firewood, looking after poultry or fetching water from afar.
The most common reason for these women to remain tied to this work, says the report, is that “there was no other member” to carry it out.
Women like Shanta Devi, who says she is 47 but looks 10 years older. Devi works as a domestic helper. Her day starts at seven in the morning and typically ends at six after a free dinner at the local gurdwara, if she’s lucky. She then heads back to a slum room she shares with another widow. Devi says she might ask her son to support her, if only she knew where he was. After five years of having to fend for herself, she looks resigned to the prospect of never finding him.
Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal were the states where the highest number of women above the age of 15 were tied to domestic work.
Mathew Cherian of Helpage India says: “The inadequacies of the social support system and the lack of income security in organized and unorganized sectors impact both men and women, but the women tend to suffer through a greater degree of vulnerability.”
This vulnerability will only increase as, by 2016, 51% of India’s elderly population will be women, says Vandana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, Delhi. According to her, in virtually all countries, women live longer than men but in poorer health.
Also, with the breaking down of traditional Indian family system, usually a safety net for older women, 60-75% of the elderly population in the country is now financially dependent on others.
The implication of this is that policies should be formulated keeping gender differences in mind, says Kumari.
Many states have been running widow-pension schemes even before the National Old Age Pension Scheme was introduced for people above 65 years of age, but they are hamstrung by poor implementation and bureaucracy.
The National Commission on Labour has recommended the introduction of a National Widow Pension Scheme.
“In law there is no discrimination between men and women, but in practice, poor and old women may not be able to avail themselves of government schemes because of ignorance,” says R K Subrahmanya of the Social Security Association of India, which is based in Bangalore.