A humbling day at work

This week RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education) carried out a program for a group of 15 women who are all day labourers from the village of Arpakkam in Kanchipuram, in order to make contact with these women while also giving me the opportunity to learn first hand about their lives. The women work mainly in agriculture and sometimes stone quarries and struggle to get work on a daily basis. The process for labourers to get work on a daily basis is to stand at a collection point first thing in the morning and wait for a land owner to come and offer work. The landowner will chose their workers based on their looks and build alone and if you are not picked you go home.

RIDE provided the women with half a days paid work (paying more than their usual rate) to clear the ground of weeds at the RIDE training centre. I attended to be a part of the later discussions, however could not stand back and watch these women work. So I got the chance to be a day labourer, for all of about 1-2 hours (2 being a very generous estimate) in the searing Indian heat. It was an extremely humbling experience, especially as these women get paid so little for their work. The will usually get paid between 100-150 rupees for a days work (160 rupees = £2) and will only have very short lunch breaks eating basic rice with a watery broth. I suppose you get used to this situation but I don’t see how you can be upbeat, however we were laughing and joking and bonding with one another, the support of the group felt very strong.

At the end of the day RIDE held a discussion with the women to find out about about the problems affecting them and their families. Their main issues were not having a sustainable income, with many only getting work for 1-2 days a week, much less during monsoon rains and flooding. Also, many of the women have husbands who work in the stone quarries and are dependent on alcohol, which is where a lot of their wages end up being spent. Some are also beaten by drunk husbands. One woman told the group that she finds it best not to ask her husband for money or challenge him and instead she makes do with whatever little money he gives her plus whatever she can earn. This highlights how important it is for these women to have their own income in order to support themselves and their children, the majority of whom are now in full time education and changing their future paths. I also heard some enlightening stories from the women, many of whom have continued to send their children to school against all odds, two women have children in higher education and are so enthusiastic about their future prospects.

What is important for RIDE is to have a presence in these women’s lives and for them to know that they have people on their side who they can turn to. Jeyaraj the director of RIDE, gave a talk about human rights so that they may understand a bit more about their rights both at home and within society. They were also given a talk about multi-crop farming and the possibility, even with little land, to grow some vegetables in order to feed their families during hard times.

After the discussion the women were given a free lunch, provided by RIDE and served by RIDE staff, plus a gift of a sari each, donated by members of a local doctors surgery. Most of the women only have one sari which they wear every day so this gift was especially poignant.

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