On invisibility, vulnerability of women migrants
Renana Jhabvala: I have many studies to show that our statistics really undercount them (women migrants) so that they, in most ways in the country, do not exist. They exist, but they don’t exist to any policymakers.
Sonalde Desai: Of the 45 crore migrants that the 2011 Census records, 31 crore are women; which means 67 per cent of the migrants are women. There are about 21 crore marriage migrants. While women who migrate with their families are about 11 per cent, or four crore; solo women work migrants are about three percent or 73 lakh. But the biggest group for which we have virtually no statistics are those whose husbands migrate for work. Our Human Development survey in 2004 found that three per cent of women whose husbands migrated were left in the place of origin. That number increased to eight per cent in 2011.
Dipa Sinha: There is also the larger context of invisibility of women and children, not just migrants. And when they are migrants, they become even more vulnerable. There is no one representative migrant woman. It’s a hugely heterogeneous group, there are women who are migrating from one village to another because of marriage or for work with family. We need to specially design programmes and ensure that migrant women are included in the design and the way to solve this would not probably be the same for every migrant format.
On the issues affecting women migrants
Jhabvala: When work stopped (during Covid-19), problems of food emerged. Many did not have ration cards or the ration cards were in their villages. They were not transferable, and so they could not get access to the food later on. Some governments did do universal food distribution, but a lot of that was through online registration, and many of them didn’t have mobile phones, or their accounts were not linked to their phone numbers.
Sinha: Even though as a citizen of this country, a woman migrant is entitled to government schemes, she is being left out because of the fact that she is a migrant. For instance, when a woman is married out of her village, but goes back to her natal village to deliver for five or six months, often for those months, which are the most important, she doesn’t get these services because her residence seems to be somewhere else; all of our schemes are still linked to the place of residence. This keeps women out particularly from anganwadi services and PDS. So the universality of the services lose meaning if there is no portability attached to them.
Looking at the fact that they are denied those rights just because they have shifted location for whatever reason, we can work out decentralised policies.
Jhabvala: Women migrants have no identity as workers, which means that they do not have access to healthcare or work during the lockdowns. There’s also an issue of bank accounts. Perhaps the greatest burden was rent. A domestic worker in Delhi was living with three girls and a boy. Her husband had died during Covid-19. Seeing a vulnerable woman, the landlord harassed her for rent, and wanted sexual intercourse with the young girl who was 15. And this is not uncommon.
Desai: Marriage migration in north India, where a girl cannot be married in her own village, has led to a cultural tradition of devaluing daughters. These are the areas in which we see very unfavourable sex ratios. This marrying of daughters outside of the village devalues the importance of daughters to parents. The feminist movement has fought very hard for land right and inheritance rights for women. But the daughters who are married somewhere else have found it very difficult to exercise those rights and retain control of the land.
Rajeshwari B: Migrant workers live and work in very unhygienic conditions. In brick kilns, we saw that the living area is badly made. Just to save money, the contractors make very makeshift shelters for them. Women migrants are vulnerable to sexual assault at these sites. We need to have an understanding of how they work and how we can ensure people do not take advantage of these vulnerable communities.
Jhabvala: There is a Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act and it does include informal workers. But those systems for informal workers have not been set up. And they can be set up also with the help of civil society, especially in places where women work at the worksite.
On issues of children’s education
Jhabvala: Education has always been a major issue for children of migrants, even in normal times. In one study we did in brickfields, we found that 85 per cent of the children (of seasonal migrants) had never enrolled in a school, as opposed to 10 per cent of the local children. We have come across cases where girls were married off at 15 or 16 as there was no chance for them to go to school because of the pandemic.
Rajeshwari B: Hardly 30 per cent of people have access to the Internet on their smartphones. How many children can actually hold a smartphone in their hands and have access to the digital class that the government system is giving them? In rural areas, a family usually has one phone and many times not even a smartphone.
On awareness about schemes
Borhade: There is a severe lack of awareness about what kind of programmes are available for them (women migrants) when they’re migrating. There are certain schemes, specially for mother and child health such as Integrated Child Development Services or even the Janani Suraksha Yojana. Another important aspect is that the financial inclusion of migrant women is needed on a really large scale, especially related to bank account opening, which is linked with various social protection programmes.