Image Credit: Panos
Today is Mother’s Day. As I sit down to write this article, my social media feed is full of images of flowers and slogans and sentimental tributes to mothers. Advertisements urge us today to buy our mothers gifts. And yet, even in this hyper-visible, in-your-face celebration of motherhood, there seems to be a deliberate obscuring of the labour of mothering and care work that women perform.
‘Put her on a pedestal and forget her’ seems to be the approach of Governments. Worship of mothers and slogans of ‘Bharat Mata’ and praise for mothers’ supposed capacity for ‘sacrifice’ and ‘silent suffering’ help us to reinforce the myth that motherhood is a responsibility that women must bear cheerfully and single-handedly, expecting nothing from the State, from employers, from society.
And yet, if we would bother to listen to the voices of real live women, we would find it difficult to keep celebrating domestic drudgery as happy self-sacrificing motherhood. In the 19th century, a Bengali woman Rashsundari Debi taught herself secretly to read and write; in her autobiography Amar Jiban, she describes her life as a wife, daughter-in-law, and mother in terms of unremitting, life-sapping labour. Historian Tanika Sarkar observes that Rashsundari challenges the popular icon of “happy, self-effacing motherhood,” using the image of kolhu-ka-bael – “the blind-folded bullock moving mindlessly round the oil-press” to describe her life. (Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, 2001, p 120)
That’s why I’d like to spend Mothers’ Day this year dismantling that myth.
Unpaid Labour of Social Reproduction
Social reproduction is the process through which the labour force is rejuvenated from day to day, and from generation to generation. So, it involves biological reproduction – giving birth to the next generation of labourers; and also the endless everyday labour of cooking, feeding, cleaning, providing water, fuel, fodder, caring for children, the elderly, and the sick, and so on. The individual employer and capitalist, as well as the capitalist State, maintain the myth that all this labour is the responsibility of the individual family unit – and specifically, the cheerful voluntary responsibility of women within every family unit. Women who are better off can employ other women – domestic workers and sanitation workers – to perform much of this labour. But it is taboo to speak of cooking, cleaning, parenting, caring – not to mention tasks such as soothing a crying child, wiping a baby’s nose, changing diapers – as ‘work’ at all, especially when it is unwaged.
In countries across the world, however, women and workers have struggled to demand that employers and capitalists recognise the labour of social reproduction and take responsibility for it. They have done so by waging struggles for maternity leave and entitlements; for crèches; for housing, water, sanitation, and food. The historic struggle for the 8-hour day was itself a struggle for the right to 8 hours each of leisure and rest – as essential for social reproduction.
In workplaces today, we can see how capitalists in collusion with the State to extract as much surplus value as possible from the labourer – not only by pushing wages down but by pushing productivity up. The latter is done, in part, by denying workers the time to sit for a few minutes, to use the toilet, have a cup of tea or a meal, exchange a friendly word with a colleague, change a sanitary pad, breastfeed a baby or attend to a child. At the same time, the State’s own ‘welfare’ provisions (which should be called ‘social wages’ rather than ‘welfare’, since they enable social reproduction) are drastically being shrunk and slashed.
Maternity Entitlements and Childcare Provisions in India
A recent Convention in Delhi, organised by the Right to Food Campaign in conjunction with many women’s groups, unions and organisations, highlighted the demand for universal maternity entitlements and childcare provisions.
In India, 90% of women are engaged in informal or the unorganised sector. They do not get maternity leave, nor wage compensation during pregnancy and after childbirth; instead they can be thrown out of work for getting pregnant. The principal employers and contractors all shrug off any responsibility for maternity and childcare provisions. Even in the organised sector, the Maternity Benefits Act, like labour laws in general, is rampantly violated.
The fact that workers, especially in the unorganised sector and especially women, are not allowed to avail their right to organise and form Unions, also contributes to a situation where labour laws and maternity entitlements laws are violated.
The National Food Security Act 2013 was a significant breakthrough, since it entitled all pregnant and lactating women to a maternity entitlement of at least Rs 6000 per child birth. This amount is far from enough, and does not take wages, minimum wages or inflation rates into consideration, but it is nevertheless an achievement. But how far has this entitlement been implemented in the past two and a half years?
The NFSA maternity entitlement is provided through the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY). But the latter has undermined the universal nature of the entitlement. It is provided in just 53 districts, only to mothers above the age of 19 and for two live births – and also expects women to fulfil a range of conditionalities such as health check-ups, immunisation etc on their own responsibility in order to avail of the entitlement. This means that the State sits in judgement on women; and restricts the entitlement to ‘deserving’ mothers, blaming mothers for teenage marriages and pregnancies and for violating the neo-Malthusian ‘two-child’ norm. Perhaps most perverse is the manner in which mothers are blamed for not getting health check-ups and immunisation done or for failing to breastfeed babies – callously refusing to recognise the lack of basic healthcare provisions in vast tracts of India, and work conditions and chronic malnutrition that make breastfeeding difficult.
Nine labour laws including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act mandate crèches at the workplace – but like other labour laws, these are routinely violated.
Voices of Mothers and Fathers
At a Jan Sunvai (Public Hearing) session at the Convention, we heard more than 25 women and some men from all over India speak of their lives as mothers and fathers. The picture that emerged was alarming.
Sunita Bharti, a garment worker in Delhi and a migrant from Bihar, spoke of how she lost her job during pregnancy because the resulting anaemia and weakness made it difficult for her to walk for half an hour to work from home. She is a contract worker, and the contractor provided no maternity leave or entitlements. When her son was a year and a half, Sunita resumed work, but had to leave her baby at home to be cared for by her 12-year-old daughter who, as a result, quit school. At work, a room is designated as a ‘creche’ as required by labour laws, but is usually kept locked – and is opened only when buyers visit the premises.
Activists from Jharkhand presented case studies of women from Jharkhand, many of whom had been denied maternity entitlements because they had delivered at home; difficult forest terrain had prevented them from being able to reach a hospital for the delivery. One Adivasi woman, Monica Dung Dung, risked her own life and her baby’s, travelling to a hospital without cutting the umbilical cord, hoping that this would persuade them to register it as an institutional delivery. But they refused – and as a result she could not avail of the entitlement.
Babita, a sanitation supervisor in JNU, spoke of how she was kicked out of her job by the contractor when she returned after her delivery, and remained out of work for some 8 months till JNU students and the AICCTU affiliated General Kamgar Union held a Ghera Dalo Dera Dalo protest, occupying the ad block night and day for weeks to force JNU to reinstate her in the same position. They tried to demote her but could not, under pressure from the agitation. Sonia, another worker at JNU, said she took leave to deliver her baby girl, and wasn't kicked out, but wasn't given wage compensation or ESI benefits either.
Babita asked, 'Don't the poor have a right to deliver babies? Why won’t JNU compensate me for the eight months I was forced to take a break in service after having a baby? There are 300 contract workers in JNU, yet no creche facilities for them, nor nursing breaks. I think every woman is a worker and should get maternity entitlements and every parent should get child care and creche facilities at the workplace.' (An aside – JNU is the University that the Hindutva right wing has branded as a ‘den of sex racket and sedition’. Babita and Sonia clearly saw the JNU students in a very different light – as allies in the struggle for dignity as workers and as women.)
It was painful to hear Himesh Bhai Vankar, a worker from Gujarat, speak of his wife’s death after childbirth and his struggles to bring up his daughter Shreya alone. HimeshBhai and his late wife Gangaben both suffered disabilities thanks to kyphoscoliosis. During her pregnancy, Gangaben was never warned of the dangers of this condition. After delivering a baby and being discharged from hospital, Gangaben fell grievously ill. When she returned to the hospital, a cotton pad that had been left in the uterine lining was removed – but she died of the resulting infection. Subsequently, the Government and the various health agencies did not want to admit to medical negligence, and instead blamed her death on the kyphoscoliosis, alleging falsely that she had gone ahead with the pregnancy against medical advice.
The baby Shreya is malnourished and the natural weaning process is yet to happen even though she is two years old. One member of the Jan Sunvai panel asked HimeshBhai if he could possibly find enough time to personally feed the baby and try to wean her. His answer reflected such helplessness and anguish that it was painful to witness. He travelled a couple of hours each day to his workplace where he is a tailor; his mother, brother and brother’s wife all have to go to work as well. “If I don’t get any help from the Government, how will Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (the Modi Government’s call to save and educate daughters) become a reality,” he asked with tears in his eyes.
Paternalism and Public Shaming of Women
At the Convention, the paternalism of the state and statutory institutions stuck out like a sore thumb. The current Chairperson of the NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights), instead of speaking of what her institution plans to do to enforce maternity and childcare provisions, delivered a lecture on how women must help themselves and not expect the Government to solve their problems. From the floor, however, her speech was met with vigorous slogans by participants, saying ‘We women are struggling for our rights, NCPCR we expect support from you!’
When Neelam, a woman worker, came to give her testimony about being denied maternity entitlements in her first two pregnancies, the representative of the National Commission For Women (NCW) interrupted to ask her if she was now pregnant with a third child. When Neelam said yes, the NCW representative (to the visible discomfort of other members of the Jan Sunvai panel) began to administer a prolonged public shaming and admonishment: “You belong to a women’s organisation, don’t you know better than to keep having babies, don’t you know there should be a gap of at least three years between babies?” The lively participants challenged this attitude from the floor though, with activists urging her to remember that she was there to give a hearing to the women and tell them what the NCW planned to do, not give the women a scolding.
These episodes actually gave us a glimpse of the sheer humiliation and denial of basic human dignity to which women are subjected daily – not only at home and at work, but at the hands of hospitals, doctors, and a range of State institutions. Women are humiliated and shamed in patriarchal society for being barren or choosing not to bear children and for bearing girl children. And State institutions that supposedly work for women’s welfare also humiliate women in their turn; routinely deeming them ‘ineligible’ and ‘unfit’ for the entitlements they demand.
The Central Government, the ruling party and its camp followers use the slogan of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (victory to Mother India) to intimidate Indian citizens into ‘proving’ patriotism by performing ‘worship’ for the ‘Nation’ imagined as a Hindu goddess. But the Government and the ruling party is least bothered about rights of ‘Bharat ki Matayen’ (mothers of India), ‘Bharat ki mahilayen’ (women of India) to life, to dignity, to control over their reproduction and their bodies, to food, maternity entitlements and childcare.
(The author is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association)