Swati is a 25-year-old tribal woman who lives in the urban slums of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India with her maternal family. Swati was widowed at just 21 years old, when her husband fell into a well and died. He left behind three young children – a boy (currently aged ten), and two girls (now seven and five years). Soon after Swati’s husband’s death, she moved back to her parents’ home because her in-laws were not supportive of her: ‘you know how in-laws are. They didn’t want me to stay with them. So, I had to come here.’ Swati now lives in an extended family with her three children, parents (aged 60 and 50), brothers (aged 23 and 18), sister (aged 30, who is also widowed) and her sister’s three children.
Swati, who has no schooling, works informally as a construction worker during the monsoons (15 minutes’ walk from home) and as a brick kiln worker for eight months of the year. She works for 8–12 hours per day. As a brick kiln worker, she migrates to the brick kiln site with her three children, along with one of her brothers, her sister, and sister’s children. She migrates to each temporary site as it is set-up, all within the same city. At the young age of 25, she is already an experienced brick kiln worker, having started work in the brick kilns at just eight years old. Swati has now been a brick kiln worker for most of her life (17 years).
Swati finds that life working in the brick kiln is filled with drudgery: ‘there is pain in my hands and feet because I have to climb many times. I go crazy.’ Even so, Swati finds the facilities available at the brick kiln site are better than the conditions at her maternal home, particularly as there is running water at the site of the kilns. When she is at work at the kilns, the children, ‘spend their time playing near the work site.’ Swati also values the work that she does as it enables her to contribute to the household – she buys the essential commodities such as wheat flour, pulses, vegetables, spices, etc.
When Swati is home from the brick kilns, the division of labour in the household is as follows: her father stays at home and looks after all the children, her mother works at a paid kitchen, Swati does construction work, her brother works on a vehicle, and her younger sister (when she is not also working at the brick kiln) brings in the firewood. Swati helps with the housework when she gets back from her construction work. She cooks, washes clothes, looks after the children and fetches water. The biggest issue Swati faces is the difficulty with accessing water and sanitation facilities at her home, as public services are very sporadic: ‘we are fed up with running around for water.’ She has to walk 3km daily just to collect water. Swati’s ten-year-old son and her sister’s children are recruited into collecting water too. Swati’s mother also helps with the collection of water, and her father helps with washing the children’s clothes and with looking after the children. Most of Swati’s support comes from her family, rather than the wider community.
Swati’s migratory status as a brick kiln worker has a big impact on her children, as they do not attend school when they migrate with her to the brick kilns. Even when she is back in her maternal home, none of Swati’s three children attend school, as the school is ‘very far’ (3km away). Moreover Swati says, ‘on the way to school, there is a drain which overflows and it is difficult for children to cross it.’ She sees educating her children as an impossible choice: ‘there can be only one thing, either I go to my work or they go to school.’
Swati’s life has been determined by the loss of her husband. She says of herself and her sister (who lost her husband to a snake bite several months ago):
Now we both are widows. We have no facilities. Neither me nor my sister received any compensation [a payment to widows] of Rs 10,000. Government has not paid us even a single penny… Even our children have not received any facility from government… I do my work to bring up my children.
‘Once your husband is no more, no one cares for you’, Swati says.