The World Economic Forum predicts that gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. For some women in Delhi, even this estimate sounds ambitious. Neelam, a 34-year-old woman working as a computer operator in a pharmaceutical company, has decided to quit her 10-year-old job to “fight back sexual harassment”.
Jokes laced with sexual innuendos and references to the female anatomy are a routine affair for women at Neelam’s office. Mother to a 13-year-old boy, she started to pull up her colleagues and seniors for misbehaviour, when she realised she had heard enough. “When women talk back and catch these men off guard, they become defensive and petty. They try to defend their inappropriate behaviour by pressuring female colleagues, bullying them and cornering them for small mistakes. If nothing works, they begin sullying her reputation and questioning her character,” Neelam said.
The International Women’s Day movement began in the early 1900s as a working class agitation led by thousands of female garment factory workers in the United States. The agitation later spread across Europe, with women demanding better pay and working conditions in a gender unequal world.
In Delhi, working class women like Neelam have been affected by unequal pay, exploitative working conditions and arbitrary hire-and-fire policies. No significant changes have been made to the status quo, and women workers often just accept unfair work conditions.
“This is how it is and will always be. I never thought of questioning my contractor. Women sanitation workers are paid just Rs 8,500 at the airport,” says a 40-year-old woman, requesting anonymity. Their male counterparts are paid Rs 13,500 for the same work by private contractors.
Daily wage labour is also skewed in favour of male workers. Meera Devi was fired from an electrical appliance manufacturing unit in Okhla last month, after seven years of work, because demand dropped post demonetisation at the factory unit.
She has been making ends meet by working at construction sites in Okhla for private contractors who pay her Rs 250 to Rs 300 for carrying heavy bricks, while men are paid Rs 350 to Rs 500.
“Men are physically stronger that is why they are paid more. The difference in rates has always been so… there is no way to fight for more,” Devi said. “Earning our own money gives us a say at home over what to spend on, especially when it comes to our children and their future.”
Mamata Rani, who works for government-instituted Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), has been protesting with other ASHA workers for a fixed monthly salary. In charge of about 2,000 people, an ASHA worker gets a variable pay at the end of each month, calculated on the number of vaccinations or other accredited services she has overseen.
“This is based on luck. In a month, I may get Rs 500 or Rs 1,500 based on the number of pregnant females and newborns that fall in my group. We have written to the Delhi government and the central government several times, but it has amounted to nothing,” she says.
Low and variable pay is only one of the problems ASHA workers face, besides hostile male family members at home. Some female ASHA workers also allege that male doctors belittle the work done by them.