Twenty-four year old Shimla works as a daily wage labourer in Uttar Pradesh. Hailing from Ambedkar Nagar, one of the state’s most backward districts, she and many other female residents have been compelled, by less-than-favourable economic conditions, restricted mobility, patriarchal tradition and age-old discrimination against girls and women, to pursue this line of work.
Until recently, she spent every day in search of work anywhere she could find it – in fragmented workplaces with countless, exploitative and loutish employers – to earn a mere INR 80-100. She worked long hours at work without so much as a break, and came home to a growing list of chores and responsibilities as her husband, Vijay, refused to help out or find employment.
In 2015, Shimla attended the Plan India and European Union supported International Women’s Day celebration as part of the Samanta Project that aims to create a discrimination-free environment for working women by enabling them access to information on workplace rights and equality.
Life was never the same. She had found a platform to reflect, learn, lead and take bold initiatives for gender equality – at home and at work. She joined the programme, its Working Women Collective, and soon learned about workplace provisions and rights to which she and all her friends had always been entitled. She made good on this knowledge and began counselling her peers and advocating for the achievement of their rights.
In October 2016, her employer refused to pay her wages, despite a fortnight of work and her repeated requests. She took this up with fellow members of the Collectives and, bolstered, approached the Gram Pradhan (village head), persuading him to intervene. Together, they took the matter further, presenting their case to the Department of Labour and Employment in the district block of Akbarpur.
Supported by the Women’s Collective and with the law and senior government representatives on her side, Shimla’s employer came around. He increased all his female employees’ wages to match that of the men – INR 170 – almost double the amount they were receiving.
Inspired, Shimla is determined to break the glass ceiling for all women. Her routine now features orienting women on their rights, motivating and mobilising them to come together, and negotiating with their employers. In November 2016, under her leadership, the Collectives, for the very first time, were able to secure agricultural labour contracts with their employers. In doing so, they have become equal partners in the profits of these enterprises.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Shimla and her peers commemorated the day by setting upon a priority agenda of negotiation with employers on the provisions of a gender friendly workplace environment. Their list included eight hours of work, a one-hour break, equal pay (to that of men), safe drinking water facilities and a routine feedback session for grievance redressal. These changes aren’t always welcome, but they are always advocated, fiercely.
In view of Shimla’s formidable negotiation skills, she has earned great respect within her family, community and neighbouring communities too. So much so, other women from ten proximate villages have since joined the Women’s Collective and engage in empowering reflection and discussion – just like their role model.
Vijay too, has realised the error of his ways and is now very supportive of his wife – both at her workplace and in the home. They work together to contribute to their household chores and finances, jointly dealing with every day issues as well as planning for their future. With her savings, Shimla was able to repay an outstanding debt to a neighbour.
Speaking of her success, she says, “It was near impossible to convince my employers to pay me wages in parity with my male peers. There were times I ran their personal errands to change their mind-set in the hope that they would see my capabilities and know I was equal to any man, but this was a losing battle considering the monetary gains and patriarchy involved.”
“Now, my approach to problems has changed due to my learnings from Samanta and the Working Women’s Collectives. I have moved from request to negotiation, towards a vision of equality for all women everywhere. In coming years, I hope to increase the periphery of all local, contracted work so the women in my village and all neighbouring ones too, have access to work opportunities, greater confidence, empowerment and improved household economic security.”