Kamla Das, a 25-year-old NREGA worker from Salba gram panchayat (Surguja district, Chhattisgarh) belongs to a landless family. Her husband does not earn anything, so she is especially appreciative of this opportunity to earn in her own village: ‘Now women can also earn, so the family's earning increases. NREGA is very important because women get the same wage as men.' NREGA enabled her to stop working for a local landlord, who pays women less than men. She has used her NREGA earnings to buy rice to feed her family, books and clothes for her children, fertilisers (they are share-croppers), and also to celebrate Holi. However, she is worried about her four-year-old child, who stays alone at home when she goes to work. She would like to bring her child to the worksite, but this depends on a child-care facility being made available there.

In spite of the vital importance of this new work opportunity, the participation of women in NREGA was below the stipulated minimum of 33 per cent in our sample, and in many of the survey areas it was abysmally low. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were at the bottom, with women accounting for only 5 per cent and 13 per cent of the NREGA workforce, respectively; the situation was only marginally better in Jharkhand (18 per cent) and Chhattisgarh (25 per cent). The only States where women were well represented were Madhya Pradesh (44 per cent) and Rajasthan (71 per cent).

What prevents women from joining NREGA in larger numbers in the other States? We were often told by gram panchayat functionaries that women are not interested in NREGA work. But when the field investigators spoke to women directly, most of them expressed a keen desire to work. The interviews with women revealed five important barriers to their participation in NREGA.

First, there are, in many areas, tenacious social norms against women working outside the home. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we met women who said that they had not been able to register and were told that this programme was ‘not for them'. Women in Sitapur also reported that when there are more applicants than can be accommodated at a worksite, they are turned away to make way for men. Some of them also faced verbal sexual harassment — they were teased, ridiculed, or verbally abused by male labourers and other villagers.

Another big hurdle is the lack of child-care facilities. The Act requires that when there are more than five children under the age of six at the worksite, a female worker should be spared to take care of them. But we did not find child-care facilities anywhere (except at two or three worksites, that too possibly due to ‘window dressing'). The lack of these facilities can be crippling for women, especially those with breastfed babies who cannot be left behind for long hours.

Third, the continued illegal presence of contractors at many worksites also affects the availability of work and its benefits for women. In some places, the presence of contractors actively impacted women's participation in NREGA work. At some sites in Madhya Pradesh, contractors were offering work only to young, able-bodied men. On worksites where contractors were involved, 35 per cent of women workers said they had faced some harassment, as compared to only 8 per cent on contractor-free worksites.

Fourth, in some States productivity norms are too exacting, because the Schedule of Rates is yet to be revised in line with NREGA norms. To illustrate, in Jharkhand, the standard task for a day's work at the time of the survey was digging 110 cubic ft (in soft soil), which is far too much. Certain types of NREGA work also limit the participation of women. This applies, for instance, to the construction of wells on private land, as women stop being employed as soon as digging has reached a certain depth.

Fifth, delayed payments also come in the way of participation of poor women. Delays in wage payments make things particularly difficult for single women, who cannot afford to wait as they are the sole earners in the family. When the wages do not come on time, they are often forced to return to previous, less-preferred forms of employment.

Women's battle to be full participants in NREGA goes beyond being able to get their names on the job cards and getting work. An important part of NREGA is participatory planning, where the list of NREGA works is to be decided. Only a small proportion of women workers in our sample have attended a gram sabha (village meeting), and even fewer had spoken at one. Many do not go to gram sabhas because they do not feel welcome, or because they believe these meetings are not for women.

Over time, much of this is changing, and the participation of women in NREGA is certainly improving. But there are also new challenges. One of them is the introduction of wage payments through banks. When a single account is opened per job card (as happened in some of the sample villages), the account is generally opened in the name of a male member of the family. This means that women have to rely on men to withdraw their wages. Ideally, there should be one account per registered NREGA worker, or at least joint bank accounts instead of men-only accounts. Even better would be for every individual worker (man or woman) to have his or her own job card, bank account, and entitlement to 100 days of work.

(Excerpted from ‘The Battle for Employment Guarantee')

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