Madhubani, Bihar: Arhuliya Devi remembers a time when she could barely sleep because of stress. A petite woman with a weather-worn face, she tightens her red scarf around her hair and shudders at the memory.
One of her children was sick with high fever, bad chills and nausea. Her husband was away in Punjab working as a migrant agricultural labourer. She had no money to pay for a doctor, no way to take her child to a hospital even if she could afford it, no way to contact her husband to ask for money, and had four other children to care for.
Because of her poverty and Dalit status, local moneylenders were reluctant to give her a loan. She finally managed to get a small loan—at more than 60% interest—that would take her many months to pay off. It was the turning point for Arhuliya Devi and her family; she realized she could no longer depend on her husband to be the decision maker. She would have to learn to manage on her own.
Much has changed since. After forming a women’s collective of migrant workers’ wives, not only is she out of debt, but also, often, funds her husband’s trips to Punjab. She’s one of a growing number of Madhubani wives who see collectivization as a survival strategy. Such collectives, which often serve as de facto support groups, sources of credit, insurers and decision-making bodies, are slowly transforming the social role of women in rural areas. This is particularly true of Dalit communities that, for at least six months of the year when the men migrate in search of work, are run nearly exclusively by women.
The phenomenon is evident all over India. As men move away from their homes and villages in greater numbers, “an unprecedented change is under way in how the households and communities function", according to a recent study on women in Rajasthan by the Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit organization providing services to seasonal migrants.
“In particular, changes are visible in relation to women’s status, responsibility and challenges as they cope with the new reality of long and frequent absence of men—husbands and fathers—from their midst," it says.
In the village of Jhanjharpur, Bihar, women toil on small wheat patties (pieces of land), often bringing their children along with them to work. Poverty—in the form of pothole-riddled dirt roads, lack of electric lights or vehicles, and small huts with thatched roofs and manure-packed floors—is a fact of life.
Less apparent is the dearth of men. For between four and eight months every year, nearly 70% of Jhanjharpur’s male population migrates to places such as Delhi, Punjab, Mumbai and Haryana in search of work, according to Ramesh Kumar, president of the non-profit Ghoghardiha Prakhand Swarajya Vikas Sangh (GPSVS), which has set up self-help groups in the area.
Most men are illiterate, married and landless, and send back remittances to support their families.
Due to the recent droughts, many men are leaving earlier, and staying until later, every year.
According to a study published by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) in July, Bihar is the biggest source of migration in the country —nearly 5.2 million people—closely followed by Uttar Pradesh, the vast majority of whom are married men migrating solo in search of work.
Around 84% of the Bihar migrants surveyed said they believed male migration to be on the rise. But the tremendous pressure this puts on women is just beginning to be studied.
Arhuliya Devi describes having to cobble together income from odd jobs such as sharecropping and selling vegetables in the market, as remittances from her husband are irregular.
“Suddenly she will have to manage agricultural expenses, interface with banks, insurance products, sell produce in the market—all things that men usually do," says Prema Gera, who heads the poverty unit at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “It’s very tough."
A larger issue is credit: Most women can’t easily get a loan without a man. According to the IIPA study, 58% of migrant families from Bihar are in debt to moneylenders. Unaccustomed to dealing with women, some banks and moneylenders simply refuse to work with them, says Gera. “Women are invisible to some service providers," she adds.
An additional problem is that women do not have title to the property the family owns. “Many have to till their own land if they want to increase productivity, they need to have fertilizer—to get that, they need credit, money—which they can’t get," says Reiko Tsushima, gender specialist at the International Labour Organization. “They are completely dependent on men to access this system. This is where self-help group can be helpful."
At a recent gathering in Madhubani, Arhuliya Devi—along with nearly 20 other Dalit women—sat on a dusty tarp in a clearing between tiny open rooms. The group, one of many that have been set up in Madubhani by GPSVS, meets twice monthly to administer small loans and discuss problems.
It might not look particularly well organized, but the women say it’s had a transformational effect on their lives. Prior to its formation, all members of the group reported having been in debt to loan sharks—with interest that ranged from 60-120%. Many also reported chronic health problems, malnourished children and depression—feeling of loneliness and stress.
Such self-help groups have flourished in Madhubani. Introduced nearly 11 years ago by GPSVS, there are now 296 such groups in the region, 80% of which are headed by women, in the absence of men who had migrated in search of work, Kumar says. Although this group is relatively new—just three years old—all its members have already managed to get out of debt. Between them, they’ve saved nearly ₹ 8,400 that members can dip into to pay for health or food expenses. Such common funds can be accessed even to pay for a daughter’s wedding.
The husband of one of the members says that he feels secure now that there is a group to take care of his family when he is away. “In Punjab I only earn ₹ 100 per day, I can’t save that much—now (my wife) is sometimes earning more than me, and taking care of the family. So it’s a great comfort to me," he says.
One member joined the local panchayat, or village council. She has since secured three solar lights for the village, and is pushing through old age pension applications for 12 of the group members. “Before, I had no information about it, I had no confidence," she says. “Now I can help the collective to access government schemes."
When a banker repeatedly refused to open an account for another women’s collective in the village of Gurgipati, they used their collective power to force him. Nearly 100 of them camped out in front of the public sector bank early in the morning, and refused to allow it to open until they were heard. After 5 hours, the banker opened an account for them. No woman has had a problem there since.
UNDP has found that levels of distress migration drop in areas where there are well-established, financially savvy women’s groups. “There is more opportunity created back home because women have access to collective loans, so there’s benefit for the entire family," says Gera. “This creates more opportunities for men."
But the new-found power of women in such communities is limited, according to Bina Agarwal, an economist at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi who studies gender and land rights. “The men are never entirely away," she says. “They still have a say in whether or not the women form a collective. In general, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have to be the catalyst."
Still, having effected some change through self-help groups, the women are inspired. In the village of Suggapapi, one of the more established groups struck out collectively to address the problem of liquor consumption in the village. They exerted pressure through local police officers and panchayat leaders, staged a public rally and eventually succeeded in shutting down the local liquor store.
Alongside, they mounted social pressure on their husbands by refusing to serve them food until they gave up their drinking habits. Eventually the men had to take a public vow not to drink.
This is the last of a three-part series on the plight of working women in India.