Both these books focus on the situation of poor women. Emphasizing oppression within the household, they highlight the trivialization and invisible status of women’s intrahousehold work. Using an interdisciplinary approach, the two books cover some ground in common.
In Invisible Hands some thirteen papers study the nature, ideology and context of home based work as well as strategies to improve the conditions of home based workers. This book is the first of five volumes, each being a collection of papers presented at the Regional Conference for Asia on ‘Women and the Household’ (N. Delhi, 1985) co-sponsored by the International Sociological Association and the Indian Association for Women’s Studies. In their introduction, Menefee Singh and Kelles Viitanen point out that few accu¬rate statistics exist on home based women workers, although the number of such women is not only massive but increasing. Home based producers are simply not recognized as workers in most national data gathering systems.
Ela Bhatt, in her paper on ‘The Invisibi¬lity of Home based work’ distinguishes between home based workers who are self employed and those who are engaged in piece rate work. Focussing on the latter, she argues that employers enjoy tremend¬ous advantages from a home based piece rate system, since they do not have to con¬tend with overhead costs, investment in tools or machinery, trade unions or legis¬lation. She presses for policy oriented data collection that would give some visibility to home based workers. She also calls for a home based workers’ protection bill as well as extension of trade union member¬ship to piece rate workers.
Usha Jumani, in ‘The Future of Home based Production’ focuses on the category of self employed workers, and sees their situation as preferable because they exer¬cise control over raw materials and mar¬keting. She feels that if appropriate industrialization policies and legislation are adopted, then the processes of paupe¬rization can be reversed and piece rate workers revert to being self employed workers.
However, this view is somewhat unrealis¬tic for, as Rukmini Rao and Sahba Husain show in their paper ‘Women in Home based Production in the Garment Export Industry’, the increasing employ¬ment of piece rate workers is a reflection of wide, ranging changes within industry. The increasing internationalization of various industries has resulted in strate¬gies to reduce costs, which include reloca¬tion to countries where labour costs are low, utilization of the most vulnerable sections of the workforce within countries, and establishing links with local manufac¬turers so that dependence on foreign buyers is created without investment of foreign capital for production. The home workers are at the bottom of the heap, bearing the burden of a system that forces the subcontractor at each level to increase profits by squeezing the price of labour. Reorganization of industries, including textile and garment, coir, food processing and electronics, etc., has therefore resulted in rapid expansion of home work and there is little likelihood of a shift back to factory production.
Isa Band, in ‘Industrial Subcontracting: The Effects of the Putting Out System on Poor Working Women in India’, makes a useful comparative analysis of women home based workers in four industries i.e., beedi, garments, food processing, and textiles. She too argues that the extent to which the piece rate system prevails is determined at the industrial level, representing as it does efforts to mini¬mize investment in each industry. Dis¬cussing women’s consciousness and orga¬nization, she finds a linear progression from home work to workshop to factory in terms not only of income but also in terms of women’s autonomy. She is less optimistic than Bhatt about the potential for organization or unionization of home based workers, since even in factories unions pay scant attention to the needs of women members. In fact, a common reaction to increased unioniza¬tion in factories is for employers to increase the extent of subcontracting.
Hameeda Husain, in ‘Capitalist Penetra¬tion into Handicrafts Manufacture’ undertakes a historical review of women’s handicraft work for the market in Bangladesh. She finds that the visibility of these workers has increased since independence (1971) due to development programmes, specifically the formation of cooperatives. But the greatest danger she sees is that in the long run the interests of producers will be subordi¬nated to those of importers, exporters, and cooperative management (which is largely in the hands of the elite).
Jan Brower, a structural anthropologist, strikes quite a different note. In ‘An Exploration of the Traditional Division of Labour Between the Sexes in South Indian Crafts’, he categorizes fourteen crafts into three groups—those in which women participate fully, partially, and not at all. He explains the patterns of sexual division of labour in terms of the liminalities of the human body and the Hindu universe. It appears that the division of labour follows unconscious Hindu conceptions of male and female, particularly in the symbolism of the body and rules of contamination.
Manoshi Mitra examines the impact of a development programme in Andhra Pradesh that promotes the organisation of women into dairy cooperatives. In her ‘Gains Analysis of Women’s Labour in Dairy Production’, she finds that the cooperatives were being manipulated by the upper class and upper caste village elite. Poor women, on the other hand, now had increased workloads with no corresponding increase in their con¬sumption of food or milk. She stressess the need to recruit more women as exten¬sion officers, ortienting them to women’s issues and training them well in their educative and organizational role.
Jana Everett and Mira Savara, in ‘Insti¬tutional Credit as a Strategy Toward Self Reliance for Petty Commodity Pro¬ducers in India’, examine the impact of the government’s differential rate of interest scheme, which aims at extending institutional credit at low rates of interest to the poor. They find it a relevant policy, but are disappointed by its actual functioning. They conclude that it is essential to use women’s organizations as intermediaries between the women commodity producers and the banks and/or establish women’s banks.
Helzi Noponen in ‘Organising Women Petty Traders and Home based Pro¬ducers’, studies five occupational groups organized by the Working Women’s Forum, Madras. The WWF uses credit as a means of attracting members, but once organized into small residence based groups for group-secured loans, a range of economic and social issues are identified and tackled jointly by the women them¬selves. The WWF is a good illustration of how large numbers of home based workers can be unionized. Key reasons for its success are its grassroots character, the absence of elite women from its leadership, its exclusive focus on women, its intercaste stand, and its consistent emphasis on increased incomes.
Another example of successful organizing emerges in Carla Risseeuw’s ‘Case Study of Women Coir Workers in Sri Lanka’. In this study, day to day dynamics come alive, and the women come across as the multifaceted creatures that they are. She does not shy away from discussing contradictions among the women them¬selves. Through five years of observation and participation, she finds that the women had the energy and initiative to organize despite deep-seated socio¬economic problems, and in so doing they devised constructive forms of change that avoided violence, destruction and apathy. Though none can take away the positive experience of succeeding, the organization itself can be crushed by various factors, including hostile local politics, inaccessibility of raw meterials, reduction of sales outlets, and politico-military conflicts. Nonetheless, new ways of organizing and consciousness raising are beneficial, specially in areas where trade unions have feared to tread and traditional cooperatives have failed.
Tyranny of the Household too is a collec¬tion of (twelve) papers, taking up a broad range of issues. This volume is the out¬come of a series of seminars initiated at the First National Conference on Women’s Studies (Bombay, 1981). In contrast to the tight structuring evident in the first book under review this second is extremely disjointed. Many papers, including the introduction deal with a lot of obvious generalizations. Moreover, the book is badly produced, with a plethora of spell¬ing and grammatical mistakes. When ‘incidence’ can be written as ‘incidents’ (p. 125), ‘chikan’ as ‘chicken’ (p. 156), ‘patently’ as ‘parently’ (p. 119), threshing as thrashing (p. 149), ‘notional’ as ‘national’ (p. 93), ‘reversed’ as ‘reserved’ (p. 98), we are not surprised to find that the adoption of small family worm should be part of a household centred poverty alleviation strategy!
At least one article, Krishna Dutt’s ‘Women’s Work and Employment belong¬ing to special categories (SC and ST) is completely incoherent. However, let us turn our attention to the coherent and the meaningful.
In their paper ‘Malnutrition of Rural Children and the Sex Bias’ Amartya Sen and Sunil Sengupta present findings from an intensive survey in two villages of West Bengal. They record a remarkably high incidence of undernourishment in the total child population and a system¬atic sex bias reflected in a higher depriv¬ation of girls vis-a-vis boys. They suggest that whereas increased household income may not be able to combat the unequal deprivation of girls, direct nutritional intervention through supplementary feed¬ing does combat the sex bias.
Alauddin Chowdhury reports findings on ‘Maternal Nutrition in Rural Bangladesh’ based on a large survey, of nearly 2,500 women over a 2½ year period. His findings confirm that ‘females consume less food than males in terms of quality, and quantity, although their needs are greater’. In their continuous pregnancy—lactation— pregnancy cycle women through the span of their reproductive years receive little additional nutrition, and are therefore the most malnourished.
Srilatha Batliwala’s paper ‘Women in Poverty: the Energy, Health and Nutri¬tion Syndrome’ based on already avail¬able data, is lucidly argued. She stresses that women’s daily activities, which are mostly perennial use up more calories than even the peak period activities of men. This is true even if we leave out women’s additional calorific requirements during pregnancy and lactation. The distribu¬tion of food within the family is quite the reverse, with the women consuming on an average 25 per cent less than the men.
In ‘Women in Employment: A Micro study in Karnataka’, K.S. Krishnaswamy and Shashi Rajagopal point out that at both Central and state levels, schemes and programmes for women continue to be in the nature of marginal additions to a basic plan rather than an integral part of the planning process. Unless women are taken squarely into account, the pro¬grams will continue to betray their inte-rests. Standard schemes for even mater¬nal welfare or adult literacy do little to alleviate women’s actual problems.
In ‘The Household Trap: A field survey of female activity patterns’, Devaki Jain tries to develop a methodology in which women’s economic roles emerge in their fullness, and not as ‘supplementary, sub¬sidiary or secondary’. She replaces the survey method with observation-cum-survey, and redefines categories of eco¬nomic activities. Sudhir Bhattacharya’s ‘On the, Issue of Under Remuneration of Women’s Work in the Indian Data Collec¬tion System’ tackles the same problem, and he too attempts to redefine work and reorganize categories so as to integrate women’s domestic and other household work. In ‘Contributions to and Use of Social Product by Women’, Moni Mukherjee evaluates and quantifies house¬hold services, and suggests that if we count these into our National Domestic Product, it would add a third to half to the NDP. This would give us the ‘extend¬ed NDP which is a better figure than the NDP as an unduplicated aggregate of goods and services produced in the economy.’
In ‘Women’s work and Discrimination’—easily the best and most thoroughly rese¬arched paper in this volume—Nirmala Banerjee explores the ramifications of dis¬crimination against women in the labour market. Women’s inferior position is clear— they are relegated to low pro¬ductivity, repetitive occupations, and there is a general degradation of their tasks. Banerjee analyses the forms of discrimination over a wide range of tasks and industries. She shows that the pattern of sexual division of labour does change, but in such a way as to always allocate to women jobs in which the rates and working conditions are poorer and emp¬loyment is less secure. The main dividing criterion between male and female acti¬vities appear to lie in the tools and techno¬logies they use. Women’s jobs use rela¬tively less capital per worker than men’s jobs. ‘Women’s Skills’ are generally ingenious ways to substitute labour for capital. The recent demand for women’s labour in modern industry does not mean that the women are now being absorbed in modern processes, but rather that, for reasons of profit maximization, modern industry is adopting some tradi¬tional labour intensive techniques and women are being absorbed into those.
Searching for explanations, she comes up—as ultimately we all do—against the ‘powerful social myth that women are basically inferior beings and their labour and effort is less valuable than men’s’. Discrimination against women, in the household and in the labour market, cannot be fully explained without positing the widespread prevalence of such a belief.
Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a research scholar.