For educated girls from rural areas, urban pockets are centres of hope with promised potential for social and economic independence and upward mobility. Many cannot make it to the metros, and for them, small towns are places to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. The murder of 19-year-old Ankita Bhandari, a receptionist at a resort in Uttarakhand, has jolted the dreams not only of Ankita, but of many young girls all over the country. There is a fresh wave of anxiety and fear that is generated in the minds of girls who have such dreams and their parents.
Young girls of all strata aspire to move out of the social control, which combined with the lack of jobs in the local area, leads to their migration to urban centres for employment. In many cases, their contribution to family incomes are critical for survival, especially at a time rural household incomes are dwindling. Migration to big cities is a hard task for those coming from the economically weaker strata, given the difficulties in finding jobs and places to stay. For such women, services sector jobs in small towns are the only possible option. Ankita, was one such girl, took up her first job as a receptionist – a job which is highly stereotyped and feminised the world over.
At a time when low participation and decline of women’s employment have been matters of much concern and policy discourse, such incidents are bound to affect young women’s entry into work. However, the bigger picture is that in urban areas, there has been a long-term trend of more women in employment. It is important to note, though, that while there has been a greater diversification of occupations as a whole in cities, women’s employment shows concentration in a few occupational segments and sectors. This reflects the broader discriminatory components of the urban labour market and the manner of women’s exclusion/inclusion in urban employment. The age profile of the urban-bound women has also seen a change towards younger age brackets with increased education among girls and the emergence of new services and occupations in urban centres.
For a good section of these urban-bound migrants, many of who are not highly educated, the usual options other than paid domestic work is employment in informal services, which are highly unregulated. Such women are thus forced to negotiate the volatilities in the labour market and simultaneously fight against gendered notions both at the workplace and outside. These jobs are not highly paid. They are not seen as permanent jobs, but as a stepping stone in their aspiration for mobility for themselves and their families.
Lack of employment possibilities is an issue that pushes girls into precarious work in urban areas. While sharing their experiences in searching for jobs, for a study undertaken by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies a few years back in five metros and four small towns, many women reported their difficulty in accessing employment in urban areas. Lack of adequate information on the job profile, conditions of work including working time characterise women’s experiences in many services sectors. Informal channels were found as the major source of information in urban areas including in small towns. Non-uniform wage rates, the absence of defined working hours, incidences of violence and harassment including sexual harassment were highlighted by women, though the prevalence varied across sectors and locations. Cases of women and young girls facing physical and sexual violence go unreported due to various reasons, including social stigma which is compounded among migrants.
The challenge of working in highly-gendered spaces is an issue that most women have to negotiate except in certain feminised occupations, which throws up specific challenges. Away from familial protection, the initial settling-in is often challenging, though it is also liberating them from social control. Changing jobs is also not easy. All of these factors force young women to put up with hostile workspaces and precarious working conditions. An unawareness of their rights and laws around sexual harassment, coupled with the absence of support from civil society and non-governmental organisations, often leaves women in these sectors in the custody and control of their employers. Enabling institutional arrangements, such as working womens’ hostels, are almost non-existent.
Some of the responses to Ankita’s murder by young girls and their parents captured by the media such as “our daughters are not safe “or “how are we ever going to work outside with this kind of incident happening” point to the possible implications of the incident on young women’s mobility and economic independence. For many young girls, moving out of parental and family supervision is still not an easy affair given patriarchal control and cultural norms. Convincing parents and relatives, through persuasion and resistance, is often a long drawn process as women’s safety and young girls sexual freedom are major concerns for most families.
While this incident could be an isolated one, it will surely lead to further restrictions on young women’s migration and employment in a context where issues around the safety of girls and women are already a deterrent for their mobility. Further, such crimes will also delimit their scope for negotiations to attain self-dependency and economic freedom.
Neetha N. is Professor at Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi