“No One Knows About Me.” India’s ‘Left-Behind’ Women

04 Dec 2020 12 min read  Share

As India’s men migrate in the millions, ‘left-behind women’ keep India’s rural farm sector running. But they have no liberty, land rights or even the acknowledgement that they are employed. The story of women like Anita Kumari

Anita Kumari/MAHIMA JAIN

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Samastipur, Bihar: Anita Kumari was inconspicuous at a meeting of women, as they sat on a porch, their faces lit by the weak winter sun. February was on its way out as the coronavirus was entering Indian cities. But the news of the virus that causes Covid-19 had not reached the densely populated lanes of Ujiarpur village in this central Bihar district.

There was a sartorial vibrancy yet uniformity, as all the women wore a streak of sindoor at the parting of their hair and a vermillion bindi on their forehead to mark their married status.

When I asked Kumari—who is in mid-twenties and works nearly 17 hours a day at home, on a family farm and at a self-help group—what she did for a living, she shyly smiled and said: “Kuch nahi”. Nothing.

The group broke into a laugh. Other women piped in, “We all do nothing.

Kumari asked: “Is it really work if you don’t have an income?”

She was not 18 years old, the legal age for marriage for women in India, when she got married and moved 15 km from Samastipur to Ujiarpur to become “Ajeet Kumar’s wife”, as she is often identified in the village.

Soon after, Kumar migrated over 1,500 km south to Hyderabad to work at a retail outlet of a dairy company. He could not earn enough to get Kumari and their two children to live with him—an experience shared by 62% of migrant husbands in India.

For about a decade now, Kumari has stayed with her parents-in-law. A college graduate with a degree in home science—which her in-laws allowed via distance education—she works at home and on the in-laws’ family farm. Kumar visits annually.

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown in March this year to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kumar wondered whether he should stay in Hyderabad or head home, after the factory shut down. The cautionary tale of migrant workers walking thousands of kilometres deterred him from returning to Bihar.

If migrant workers were—until recently—invisible in India’s burgeoning cities, which they help build, the experiences of millions of women like Kumari are obliviated from our minds. The impact of male out-migration has often been told through the lens of remittances that men send and now as a crisis precipitated by COVID-19.

But the impact of migration on women’s lives, their relationship with the family and resources such as land, is huge but underreported in the media. The lives of women left-behind, as these women are often referred to in academia, is a silent struggle for access to economic opportunities, endless agricultural labour and a never-ending negotiation for their autonomy.

Over 4.5% women in rural areas and 1.5% in urban areas have husbands living elsewhere, noted the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) of 2005 and 2011. And 26% migrant husbands live separately in another district of the same state as their wives’. Over 23% and 13% migrant workers across India are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, respectively. In these states, nearly 40 to70% households have at least one migrant member.

In Bihar’s Samastipur, which is among 10 districts with India’s highest male out-migration rate, looking for a migrant household is easy: you just walk into a street, and ask for one.

“One male migrant supports at least four family members in his rural home,” said S. Irudaya Rajan, professor of migration and demography, at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandurm. According to the 2011-2012 IHDS data, India had about 60 million migrants. But the migration crisis made visible by the COVID-19 lockdown led experts like Rajan to revise these numbers upwards to nearly 140 million migrants.

Even through this immensely gruelling experience of being a migrant worker, “India’s migration story is male-dominated,” said Chinmay Tumbe, author of India Moving.

Although there has been a recent emphasis on “feminisation” of the agriculture sector, the 2017-18 Economic Survey linked it to increasing male out-migration. During that same period, 73.2% of females worked as agricultural labourers in rural India as compared to 55% of males, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017-2018. However, this feminisation is a double-edged sword and does not result in socio-economic empowerment of women. They own only 12.8% of farmland in India.

Women working on a leased farm in Palakkad, Kerala. Over 73.2% of females worked as agricultural labourers in rural India as compared to 55% of males. However, they own only 12.8% of farmland in India/MAHIMA JAIN

“The problem starts with the definition,” explained Nitya Rao, author of Good Women Do Not Inherit Land”. “Women are doing the bulk of the agricultural work, but they don’t have control over their labour, income or assets.” In India, those who own farmland are classified as “farmers”, thus rendering most women farmers as “agricultural labourers”.

Kumari’s life is a testament to unacknowledged and underappreciated roles that women play in families and agriculture. Rao said that one reason why some women don’t migrate to cities is because of lower availability of work and wages. And, if they left homes, who would take care of the families and farms?

COVID-19 pandemic or not, apart from the anxiety of extended separation from her husband, nothing much changed for Kumari. Over the last decade, her life has revolved around the small piece of land in the backyard of the house that she shares with her children, parents-in-law, a sister-in-law (whose husband is also a migrant) and their three children.

‘I Think The Land Will Be In My Husband’s Name’

Kumari’s house has a front yard, where four buffaloes and two cows are tied to a wall of exposed bricks. The open yard gives way to a crowded porch occupied by father-in-law’s cot, husband’s dusty motorbike, a green water can here, a pedestal fan there and sacks of potatoes and rice.

It is here that Kumai starts her first shift at 4 am, under her father-in-law’s sleepy oversight. She prepares fodder for the cattle by mixing fresh grass with hay in a semi-motorised machine. Then, she feeds the cattle and cleans up their morning mess. At dawn, her second shift begins in the kitchen.

A woman prepares fodder for the cattle in a village in Samastipur, Bihar. In families that own small farms it is the women who are generally in-charge of rearing cattle. This takes up a significant part of their day/MAHIMA JAIN

The semi-open, mud-floored kitchen has a roof of corrugated aluminium sheet and a wall of bamboo sticks. She and her sister-in law mostly use a wood-fired stove to make breakfast and then lunch. On rare occasions when an LPG cylinder is available, they use that. Meanwhile, the parents-in-law leave to attend the family farm of around four katha; a katha could be between 750 sq ft and 2,000 sq ft.

Before COVID-19, Kumari would pack her children off to school. Now, they loiter in the backyard and climb pomegranate and Assamese lemon trees there. After cooking, and in between meals, Kumari’s third shift is undertaken here.

In this backyard, Kumari maintains a one-katha farm. Here she sows and raises cauliflower, radish, onions, pumpkins, bananas, which the father-in-law sells in the market, along with the produce from his farm. Kumari is not allowed to go to the market to sell.

“My father-in-law owns all the land,” she said. “They pay a male labourer to help them at the four katha-land. My sister-in-law and I are not allowed there. We work on this farm.”

Kumari has never been paid any wages for her farm labour. The women’s laughter in the group meeting that February morning made sense. Their work means nothing because they get paid nothing.

According to Rao, women’s work on the family farm is considered unpaid household help, which devalues their contributions. “Women have negligible influence on household decisions, resulting in weak claims over incomes,” Rao explained.

Globally women do 75% of unpaid care work. If accounted for, this unpaid household and farm labour of Indian women would equal a staggering 49% of India’s gross domestic product, the value of all the goods and services produced in a country. Couple of years ago when Kumari’s in-laws informally divided their ancestral property between the two sons, each got one katha. The returns from the smaller farm weren’t sufficient for Kumar’s growing family.

Farm sizes have been declining in the last few decades, with small and marginal holdings (up to 2 hectares) constituting over 86% (125 million hectares) of total holdings across India. Such small landholdings drive distress migration of men, and in turn causes the so-called “feminisation of agriculture”. Water distress and climate variability add to women’s work burden. To address this problem, agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, the father of Green Revolution in India, introduced The Women Farmers Entitlement Bill in Parliament in 2012.

Since women did not own the land, he argued, it caused significant barriers in accessing land titles, credit, insurance, technology, and the market. The Bill proposed “Women Farmers Certificates” to enable access to land and water rights, and thereby entitlements.

However, in 2018, the government said that since 36 million women had already been recognised as “cultivators” by the 2011 population Census, there was no need for the certificates. The Bill never became law. Experts said identifying women as “cultivators” is not enough.

Bina Agarwal, a development economist and author of A Field of One’s Own, has noted that lack of land ownership is one of the main reasons for women’s subjugation and their status as lower citizens in India.

Sometimes social realities come in the way of changing this situation.

“Women are often afraid of asking for a share of their land in their parents’ property, let alone land owned by the in-laws,” explained Manjistha Banerji, social demographer at National Council for Applied Economic Research, who studies gender, migration and women’s access to resources. “It does not fit well with the normative idea of a good daughter.” Anita’s parents-in-law, too, did not give their daughter a share in the ancestral property after her marriage, and she did not ask.

“Women here don’t get property after marriage, and there’s so little land what will they give her,” Anita said. “All this happens in your cities.”

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 was amended in 2005 to allow women to inherit property, but legal provisions cannot overcome patriarchal attitudes. In many cases, Banerji found that women were made to sign affidavits at the time of marriage, explicitly stating that they would not ask for a share in their parents’ property.

There are practical reasons why women do not demand their share in ancestral property. “If women asked their parents for land, it would strain social ties with their brothers,” said Rao.

Nearly 46% India’s migrants moved for marriage (of this 97% are women), making them the largest migrant group in India. That’s over 200 million Indians. Many of them don’t want to let go of the option of returning to their parent’s house in case relationships at the in-laws sour after marriage.

Parental homes are women’s safety nets, said Rao, who noted that once a woman migrates, she finds it difficult to manage property in a faraway parental village.

While there has been a push to register the husband’s land as a joint property, the outcome of that still needs to be examined.

Kumari isn’t sure if she will be the co-owner of the property when her parents-in-law finally transfer the title deed to Kumar and his brother. “I think the land will be in my husband’s name,” she said. “I am the wife, so will it be mine too?”

Over the many conversations I had with Anita, she would sometimes acknowledge, during long pauses, that she had not gotten a fair deal. The land that she has tilled for nearly a decade will perhaps never be in her name. But she did not want to rock the boat.

Sometimes she was conflicted. She would say, “I am a graduate, I can earn a salary.”

Across India, experiences of women left-behind differ depending on the status of women in that region. In Kerala, which has high emigration rates, a majority of the women became the de facto heads of the household, enjoyed greater freedom for decision making, and led to better outcomes for families.

In an Uttarakhand village, women left-behind did not control any assets but had to handle household chores, childcare, farming and animal husbandry. They had more say in the household than in village meetings. In one Jharkhand village, women were the “worst sufferers” of male-out migration as they had to take on all the workload yet couldn’t take any decisions. They had to depend on the men of extended family, from whom they feared untoward sexual advances too.

Anatomy Of Autonomy

What does freedom mean to women like Kumari?

For many years, her husband and his brother would send the remittances to their parents who controlled the purse strings of the household. “We didn’t have any money for ourselves, and we could not even save any money because it was always monitored,” Kumari said.

Women like Kumari who live in joint families have less autonomy in comparison to women who stay away from in-laws. The latter may have more responsibilities though. The choice, however, is not made by women many times.

Banerji and Sonalde Desai, a demographer at the University of Maryland, in a 2008 study on the autonomy of left-behind women, found that households almost certainly reorganised after men migrated. They found upper-caste Hindu women were less likely to live alone than lower-caste Dalit women, resulting in more autonomy but also increased work for the Dalit women.

“Autonomy has different connotations in the life cycle of a woman,” said Rajan. Newlyweds have less freedom compared to older women who have children. This reflects in women’s access to remittances, freedom of movement, participation in economic activities and work.

In Bihar, left-behind women were often chaperoned by elderly women or men of the house. Banerji and Desai found nearly 34% of women living with their husbands had an older woman in the households; this proportion rose to 56% among women who had migrant husbands.

“In my husband’s absence, my parents-in-law are my guardians,” Kumari said, highlighting the shared experience of several women who referred to a “guardian” in the family.

The English word “guardian” has effortlessly crept into Bihari vocabulary as the literal manifestation of reorganised patriarchal structures. In 2015, one politician called Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar “the Guardian of Bihar”, a phrase that perhaps only Biharis fully understood. From government officers in Bihar’s capital Patna to the women in villages of Samastipur, everyone uses and understands the term “guardian.”

As guardians, parents-in-law and husbands dictate what women should do, right down to the chores and the people she meets.

“My family had asked me not to speak to you and go to the self-help group meetings,” Kumari told me. But she continued to pick up my calls, as she enjoyed telling me about the lives of women like her.

During video calls at dusk she would vigilantly look at the front porch to check if the guardians were returning.

How would Anita’s life shape, if Kumar had returned to Ujiarpur during the scorching summer months, along with scores of men like him, seeking comfort and safety in their homes as Covid-19 spread? Banerji’s latest findings, currently under review, are that women lose even more autonomy when husbands return.

Before Covid-19, Banerji had studied the fluctuating levels of empowerment which women experienced when men would periodically visit home. That reflected in small instances like women could no longer go to the market because husband would. As migrant workers began to return home due to the pandemic, women may have experienced similar fluctuations, renegotiating their autonomy all over again, Banerji said.

In India Moving, Tumbe writes that India’s migration story goes back ancient times, and so does the control of women who are left behind. During the Mauryan empire, from 2-3 century BC, Tumbe writes, there were categories of punishment for women for leaving the house when husbands were away for an extended period. Punishments ranged from oversight of the women to extreme ones like the nose and an ear being cut off in case the women committed adultery.

“Over two millennia, some caste norms pertaining to the ability of men to migrate have been broken. But the norms around women’s mobility are still intact,” said Tumbe. He explained that in many places, norms dictated that a woman should migrate for marriage but not for work. Hence, a woman’s position of dependence on men and his family still continues in many parts of India.

“My guardians provide everything for me, I have nothing more to ask,” said Sarita Sharma, (not hear real name), a recently married woman in Dekari village. She was the only woman who was not surrounded by a “guardian” during my interviews with several women in Samastipur. Someone from their in-laws’ family was always present in the room. Sharma had taken my phone number and later called me to retract her paeans about her parents-in-law.

“Please tell my husband to send me some money or take me away,” she pleaded on the phone call.

“The social cost of male-dominated migration is really high. It has a psychological impact,” said Tumbe.

“Many young couples are separated right after their marriage; imagine the mental torture for the women living with complete strangers,” said Rajan.

It becomes impossible to challenge patriarchy when women are in a new place without any support systems. Control also comes in many non-violent and benevolent forms.

Kumari’s in-laws allowed her to finish her college degree through distance education, but she was not allowed to take up a job. They allowed her to join a self-help group of women in the village but did not allow her to become the community mobiliser, even though she was eligible and would receive a stipend.

“No one knows about me; no one asks me about my talent and potential,” she said.

Kumari told me that sometimes she picks her battles. She agrees to the parents-in-law’s diktat to cover head with her sari, if that means she can be allowed to go to the meetings she enjoys.

Despite the desire to rebel and get a job, a self-imposed sense of duty binds Kumari to her husband’s land.

“We are poor; we have to do many things to keep the house running,” Kumari said. “My husband and I have to work together to make this work, for our children, somehow.”

Between her three workspaces—the front yard, the kitchen and the fields— is Kumari’s room. The walls are a cerulean blue. Open shelves contain assorted metal trunks that pack her few precious possessions of new utensils, clothes, wollens and jewellery.

At the end of the day, when she lies down on the wooden cot at around 9 pm and stares at the dark brown fan hanging from the corrugated tin roof, Kumari finally rests between her two children—after having done “nothing” all day.

This story was supported by an International Women’s Media Foundation Grant.

(Mahima Jain is an independent journalist writing on science, environment, culture and socio-economic issues.)