Malati is a 25-year-old tribal woman who lives in a remote rural village of Dungarpur District, Rajasthan with her mother-in-law (55 years old), husband (30 years old) and two young daughters aged two and one month old. Her husband works as a painter and travels for a small part of the year doing painting work. He also does farming work, as does her mother-in-law. Malati does not presently do farming as she is studying for the entrance exam run by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the area.
Unusually for women in her locality, Malati has a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) degree. In the last year, she worked as a teacher in a primary school for two months, where she spent six hours every day. She left this employment because she had a baby (and the school had no provision for care services), and the monthly income of Rs 1,200 she received was inadequate to meet her household expenses. The school did not provide a bus pass, and the bus fare up and down itself cost Rs 20 per day. Moreover, the bus ran intermittently and at fixed times, so she had to wait a long while for the bus, further constraining her time.
Malati got married in 2009 when she was just 18. She stands apart from the others in her neighbourhood because she insisted before she got married that her in-laws allow her to continue her studies – she had a written agreement from them to this effect before her marriage: ‘I made it very clear before my marriage that I will continue studying after marriage too,’ she says. ‘I got it in writing and stamped… I got it signed from everyone and then I married.’ Malati’s mother was very supportive and encouraged her three daughters to study; in the village that Malati comes from (which is closer to the Gujarat border), girls are educated. In the same agreement before she got married, Malati also insisted that she not be sent to ‘the market’ to do paid work. As she puts it:
You cannot trust anything here, the market is close by so they can send me there to work. I have never worked in a market therefore I got it on stamp paper signed by all that I will not work in the market or otherwise I will not marry. I will not work in the market, I do all the household work, cook food, take care of the animals but I have never worked outside.
Malati continued her education and completed her B.Ed while she was married using money she obtained as compensation for her father’s death. She lived and studied in a different town from her in-laws for two years. During the time that she was away from the house, her mother-in-law took care of all the household chores.
Malati is currently studying for an entrance exam run by an NGO. She has two really young children, one of whom is only a month old. When she had just one child, she did not find it that difficult to work as her mother-in-law helped with care, but after having the second child, and no childcare facilities being available at work, it became more difficult to juggle paid work and unpaid care work, so she quit her paid work. Even though she has quit her paid work, she still shoulders a lot of the household responsibilities. She grazes the animals, collects water, cooks, cleans, and looks after her children. She also helps look after her elder brother-in-law’s family whose wife died four years ago (he recently re-wed). She says:
I look after everyone… when everyone goes for work, I look after the goats too. When I am home I never allow any guest to go back, I stay at home. I do group/collective’s work also, I look after all the responsibilities.
She says she ‘gets a lot of tension’, especially when she is looking after the children and they cry. Malati wakes up at four in the morning to study, and her children wake with her. She says: ‘I put them [the children] in my lap and study’, and even though it is difficult, ‘it is my responsibility and I have to do it’.
Her mother-in-law is the other primary carer of the household – she shares in the household tasks of collecting water. Firewood has to be bought or it has to be obtained from a huge distance; there was a forest close by but that was destroyed and cleared for a market in the village. This means that the women spend six to seven hours collecting firewood. Groups of women (of between eight and ten) from the village go together, and often it takes them from five in the morning up until midnight to collect firewood and get back home. This is a seasonal activity as they collect firewood for the four months of monsoon, but not for the winter and summer when they use dung or other little bits of wood. During the period when they collect firewood, they collect it continuously for a month. Her niece from her husband’s side of the family, who is nine years old, also provides support for the household work.
Malati’s husband appears to support her in her efforts to get a job through education. She says that her husband helps with the housework by making rotis. With regard to her parents-in-law, she says, ‘they say that I am studying, so they help’, but, ‘they only do it sometimes’. Moreover, this support is hard fought for and is often on shaky ground:
He drinks a lot. Sometimes he sends me out of the house, he tells me that in spite of studying so much I don’t have a job. I have a lot of problems, sometimes I am very sad and troubled, but what to do? I have these children, my mother is also alone there. Who can understand my pain? I have to bear everything.
The path that Malati is striking out on is against the grain of the norm and is in the face of severe economic hardships as well; ‘sometimes I don’t have shoes to wear and not even roti to eat’, she says. ‘Almost 15 days back, the food grains had finished and we got wheat from someone’s house for two days and made roti out of it.’