Hema is 24 years old and the mother of three children, of whom the older two are girls aged six, four and youngest is a boy aged two, and at the time of the interview she was pregnant with her fourth child. Her six-year-old goes to a anganwadi, a pre-school run by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), close to her house. The other two children do not go to the preschool. Like most of the other tribal families in Medi, Udaipur, Hema’s is also a nuclear family. She has not been to school and is illiterate. She has previously worked at a watershed construction site under the forest department, a check dam construction site under a non-governmental organisation and last year she had worked under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Her husband, Suresh, is 27 years old and has studied up to tenth grade. He migrates to the nearby state of Gujarat to find paid work, as income from farming their small landholding is inadequate, and the village does not have much paid work to offer except for MGNREGA which is only available seasonally.
Since her children aren’t old enough to help, Hema is the only one who is responsible for all the care tasks including fetching water and collecting firewood. Water has dried up in the wells and hand pumps, so the family is investing in digging another well on their land so that water is easily available. Hema has left her paid work for a while to oversee the digging work. But on days when she has to go for paid work, she has to wake up earlier than usual to complete all the tasks. If waking up earlier is not enough to complete her care work, she said, ‘I used to take leave. Who else will do it?’ Her paid work at construction sites involves working for eight hours with a break of an hour for lunch. Depending on the worksite, it usually takes 15–30 minutes to reach the worksite, but sometimes it takes up to an hour on foot. She often leaves her children behind to be watched over by her sister-in-law. There are no crèche facilities at the worksite. Her husband is generally not around as he migrates to Gujarat for work, but even when he is home, he does not help her in care tasks as the dominant gender norm in the community does not favour men’s involvement in care tasks. Hema also feels, ‘if I won’t [take care of children] then who else will take care of them? It is the mother who has to do everything even if she is going through hardships.’ If Hema is away, the children are looked after by her sister-in-law, who lives adjacent to her house.
Reflecting on how she balances the different types of work Hema says:
I have to do household work, then work as a labourer, do the agricultural work. There is no one to help me out. There was no rest at all. Just keep doing whatever work there is to do.
At the time of the interview Hema looked very weak and frail, she mentions that she has pain in her legs since over a year and she often has headaches. She explains that she would have to go to Ahmedabad to get herself treated as the medicines are not available locally. On taking care of herself, she adds, ‘If I have money then only I can improve my diet. There is problem of money’.
Her experience of working during pregnancy has also not been very encouraging. She says she was expected to work equally like others and she was not allotted any lighter tasks. Even when she worked earlier worked under MGNREGA she faced similar issues. She recalls, ‘when I sit to take rest for some time, other labourers start abusing me that each one has to do the same amount of work.’ But despite her health, pregnancy and insensitive working conditions she has had no choice but to work: ‘If I don’t work, how can we fulfill our needs?’
Hema Bai’s suggested solution is improved farm productivity. She says, ‘we should get more facilities for growing cotton and wheat. There should be better production then we can also eat properly.’ Water is a major problem in this area, and women have to go long distances to fetch water. Hema and her husband have taken their own initiative of digging a well which is a big expenditure and Hema has also lost some days of paid work to oversee the work. Despite being pregnant, Hema has had to carry water and collect firewood from the forest. She suggests that availability of water and fuel will bring immense respite to her. Strict gender norms that rule out care tasks for men become especially problematic when a woman is physically weak and frail. The medical facility for any uncommon health problem is not available close by, and it was observed that in such cases there is further procrastination on part of the family when the health of the women is involved. There is also discrimination of pregnant women on worksite as they may be slower than others – Hema feels availability of decent work with a friendly environment for pregnant and lactating women will lighten the stress that women face at worksites.