20 year old Parvati Sharma lives in a slum settlement in Maypuri, Ujjain. She was widowed at a young age when her husband, who was a construction worker, died about a year ago after falling from a building while at work. Having received no compensation from his employer, and with a lack of support from her in-laws, Parvati soon went back to live with her maternal family with her five-month-old daughter. Her maternal family comprises of her father, mother (35 years old) and five-year-old brother.
Parvati and her mother, Anu, both do home-based work rolling incense sticks, devoting up to seven hours each per day to making these. It is difficult to make incense sticks (agarbattis) with young children at home as the children demand attention. In addition, the raw material is harmful to them and leads to respiratory problems. Parvati says, ‘we sometimes make less when the children trouble us. We have to leave work at that time.’ To keep the five-month-old baby away from the incense stick raw material, and to stop her from constantly disturbing them, Anu explains, ‘we tie the little girl’s leg to something so that she doesn’t move around and make the boy who is elder to her sit and play with her’; she adds, ‘we make 5.5kg for Rs 80. It takes two days. Now, what do you with just Rs 80?’ Parvati’s father is a construction worker but he does not contribute to the family income as he spends all of his earnings on alcohol and gambling. Therefore, Parvati and Anu have to run the household using their meagre incense stick-making earnings. As the children grow older, however, it is becoming more and more difficult to cover the household’s daily expenditures; consequently, Anu has decided to take up work in a nearby factory. Her decision to work in the factory is a brave one as her husband does not approve of women stepping out of the house to do paid work; Anu says, ‘Her [Parvati’s] father is a bad man, he beats me up even if very little work is not done.’ She knows her decision will irk her husband who has already been very violent towards her. Anu further adds:
I make agarbattis at home and he has no problem with it. If I go out to work, he has a problem. He has been fighting with me since yesterday after I told him I will start working in a factory soon.
She justifies her decision by saying,
If I don’t go then how will we meet the household expenses? We have small children with us and if they fall sick, who will I beg money from to take them to the hospital? In today’s time, no one helps.
Parvati and Anu divide the care work among themselves. Anu does more of the care work, such as cooking, and washing the dishes, and Parvati takes care of the children and helps with the remaining household chores such as fetching water. However, Parvati increasingly tries to spend more time on making incense sticks and Anu does the majority of the care work. Now that Anu has decided to work at the factory full time, there will be a switch in roles whereby Parvati will be taking care of the household in Anu’s absence, while also finding time to roll incense sticks.
Anu’s family does not have a ration card that would enable them to buy food essentials at subsidised costs. She says she has been running from one government office to another to get one, but to no avail. She says in anger,
The government does nothing. They don’t listen to us. I must have filled up 50 forms for my ration card… I went to the councillor and asked him to get my ration card made. He promised me that he will get it done and asked me to get stamps worth Rs 150 each. Everything has gone to waste.
With the water drying up in the community’s hand pumps they have to pay Rs 5 daily to fill water from the water tanker for washing purposes. Drinking water has to be fetched from another area, which Parvati says ‘takes a lot of time.’ The main government facility that they have access to is the anganwadi centre, the pre-school that Parvati’s five-year-old brother attends. While he is there Parvati and Anu have some time to do their household or paid work as at least one child is taken care of for a few hours. But Parvati says, ‘there are anganwadi centres [for children aged between three and six years old] but no such centre where my small child will be taken care of.’
After her husband’s sudden death, Parvati found support from her mother’s home where she works and contributes to taking care of her family. She did not receive any support from the government, or her community. Parvati’s situation could vastly improve if she received social security benefits from the government such as a widow’s pension and childcare allowance. Additionally, free public services such as easy access to water would save her time and money, and facilities such as a crèche for younger children would support her with her home-based paid work. Access to subsidised food essentials would also go a long way in alleviating the pressures they have to survive.
Alcoholism is a major problem in many families in Ujjain, where men are rendered futile in both paid and unpaid care work because of their addiction and instead are becoming a further burden on the women. A campaign to promote treatment against all kinds of addictions is critical to help bring families out of poverty and to remove the disparaging conditions that women are living in as a result of men’s addictions. Only in the absence of addictions can there be a dialogue on the fair distribution of care work within families.