Photo reproduced from Fibre2Fashion
As early as 1818, a group of British women weavers, or ‘Lancashire girls’ were brought to India to train women workers or ‘introduce factory methods of work’ in the Bowreah mill in Hooghly in Bengal. In her captivating account of the presence of women in India’s industrial sector, historian Samita Sen quotes an account by Janet Harvey Kelman, who wrote one of the earliest and most remarkable accounts of Indian labour, and according to whom women were associated with the ‘tragedy’ that surrounded the ‘first efforts to introduce modern mill industry into India’. The British women were released from a prison on an island in the Atlantic into the custody of a certain McAllister, who was the manager of the mill. It is believed that all succumbed later to an epidemic in India.
The presence of women in the industrial labour force in India, particularly in the and the jute mills of Bengal, has thus been acknowledged from the beginnings of factory labour in India. Not only were women part of the industrial workforce, they also were the subject of numerous debates and controversies around their presence, especially between the introduction of the Factories Act in 1881 that was to regulate the conditions of industrial employment and the First World War.
Expectedly, the debates centred around the supposed contradiction between women’s sexual and reproductive roles in their families and as workers. The anxieties expressed about women’s participation in industrial work and the fear at what this presence outside the home and the family meant was, in this case, mediated by the colonial discourse around the usefulness of the female colonized subject. The debates also encompassed genuine concerns for women’s working conditions and safety in the industrial sector.
More than a century and a quarter later, the Female Workforce Participation Rate (FWPR) in India fell to 26% in 2018 and is seen, alarmingly, to have declined continuously over almost three decades. If we consider the region of South Asia, the pattern is mixed; in some countries, such as Nepal, the figures are quite high, whereas in Pakistan and India, they are declining, in India’s case alarmingly. This is particularly so when compared to the global level, where women’s global labour force participation rate of around 48 per cent in 2018.
If women are participating less and less in what is conventionally considered ‘work’ or what contributes to the output of the economy, both as paid and unpaid workers, could it have something to do with gender-based violence which is a major contributor to the resilience of patriarchy? As with the ‘tragedy’ of women’s employment from the example of the ‘Lancashire girls’ and their Indian counterparts in the mills of Bengal, how does patriarchy’s continuous reiteration of the contradiction between women’s reproductive and productive or ‘visibly productive’ roles relate to the threat of violence?
It is acknowledged in academic work as well as in policy initiatives that actual violence and the fear of it affects the extent to which women participate in political and social processes. How does the violence that women face within and outside households, in communities and in workplaces impact women’s participation in, access to and exit from work and the workplace?
These are questions that need to be examined from the actual experiences of women with work as well as of violence and it is necessary to develop analytical frames that look at both simultaneously as fundamentally underpinning women’s lives and existence. The literatures that exist around the two axes, of work on the one hand and violence on the other, tend to be mostly mutually exclusive. Violence as an active variable tends to figure only tangentially in analyses of work and the understandings of gender based violence tend to address the structural features of women’s lives as workers only in a limited way.
Gendered analyses of work point out how the complexities of women’s existence and the invisibility of their labour results in complex negotiations between reproductive labour and both paid and unpaid ‘productive’ labour. The threat of violence within the family and from social networks is often seen to keep women out of the labour market or confine them to sectors where their work is considered more acceptable, or remains invisible.
Economic and political conditions within countries, like slumps or political upheavals, are also seen to have social impacts that typically raise the risk and incidence of violence against women. Further, even if, as in many countries in South Asia, the FWPR is very low and also falling, at the same time, there are newer sectors – particularly in services – where women are being employed and seen to be ‘visible’, often having to transgress patriarchal restrictions within families and communities.
The insights provided from actual experiences of work and workplaces could be useful to understand the multifaceted dimensions of gender-based violence. Further, the lens of violence and the dispositions within individuals, families and communities towards women’s work thus could generate rich material that allows for a nuanced understanding of the gendered dimensions of work.
Sumangala Damodaran is a Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of industrial and labour studies. She is also a singer and composer.