Shaila Pathan is 30 years old, and lives in an all-female household in a slum settlement in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. It has been six years since she divorced her husband who was violent and an alcoholic. After her divorce, she moved back to her maternal home and now lives with her mother, Zubaida (55 years old). Six months ago her younger sister, Rashida (22 years old), also had to undergo a divorce and left her marital home to join her mother and Shaila. Shaila and Rashida both have daughters, who are five and two years old respectively. The women make disposable paper bowls to generate income together, and occasionally Shaila also works as a substitute worker for domestic workers in the vicinity. Previously, Shaila worked as a regular domestic worker in two households, until her employers moved to another locality. The two homes she worked in were also all-female households. After losing this work, she decided against working in other people’s houses, as she explains, ‘these days times are bad… instead of going alone somewhere, it is better to stay home’; this refers to her fear of sexual exploitation and fears for her safety in the workplace, and her preference to work in the security of her home. Shaila has only attained primary level of education.
The three women divide the paid work and care work between them. For paid work, while Rashida works at the machine to mould the disposable bowls, Shaila and Zubaida cut the material into stars and place them together ready to go into the machine. They get paid Rs 280 for 7,000 paper bowls, and they are able to make this number in eight days by devoting approximately eight to nine hours each per day. The rate of pay is abysmal but Shaila expresses their inability to bargain in the lack of feasible alternatives: ‘What can we do? We are compelled to accept [low rates of pay]!’ Their alternative option for home-based work is making incense sticks, but Shaila explains that they prefer to make paper bowls as there is ‘quite a loss [in making incense sticks], our clothes, hands get soiled, they turn black and yellow.’ Zubaida receives a widow’s pension of Rs 150 per month from the state. In the event that the women’s income falls short, which it often does, Shaila’s maternal uncle supports them financially. Their Below Poverty Line card helps them to get subsidised food essentials. Shaila’s daughter goes to a government school, where the tuition fee is waivered and Shaila gets the uniform and books for her daughter’s education for free. Her daughter is also covered under the Ladli Laxmi Yojna scheme, introduced by the government of Madhya Pradesh to increase girls’ participation in education, whereby the child receives a nominal scholarship amount at the point of school admission and as she progresses into higher classes. ‘We get a lot from the government’, Shaila says, expressing her satisfaction with the support she has received. Overall, the household makes do with the small amount of income they receive from making disposable bowls, Zubaida’s widow’s pension, and the support they receive from their family and the government.
The unpaid care work for the household is also divided among the three women: Zubaida takes on most of the cleaning, Shaila does the cooking and takes care of her daughter, while Rashida takes care of her own daughter and does most of the paid work. Shaila also takes care of her sister-in-law’s two children when her sister-in-law, who lives nearby, attends a beautician training course. Referring to the combined pressure of paid and unpaid care work, Shaila says, ‘It is lot of pressure... a few days ago I fell sick and mother had to take a loan of Rs 15,000–20,000 for my treatment in a private hospital.’ Shaila has been diagnosed with a tumour in her stomach and tuberculosis (TB); while the TB has been treated she is still undergoing treatment for the tumour. Zubaida mentions that Shaila has been sick for over a year and cannot exert herself or lift heavy objects, which is another reason for her to do home-based work.
Shaila wants support in finding better paid work options – preferably home-based. Her suggestions include, ‘anything we can get... like tailoring, making simple ready-made garments... I would like to do that.’ She doesn’t, however, like to spend time doing the skills training sessions conducted by the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), as she prefers to invest the same time into making paper bowls or finishing her care tasks at home. SEWA allows her to take her daughter to meetings and training sessions but she says, ‘kids become cranky sometimes and ask for some food or other things.’ She is not comfortable sending her and Rashida’s daughters to the nearby government playschool (anganwadi) as she says that the children are not taken care of properly: ‘we are in a state of fear for the child. We are scared that our child may walk out or if something happens... they do not take good care.’ Nevertheless, she tries to stay in touch with SEWA and goes to their meetings if possible: ‘I want to remain with SEWA because it has a lot of good and beneficial things. We get a lot of knowledge.’