Ruby Devi was fascinated by women who got up every single day, dressed up in a sari, oiled their hair, dropped vermillion through the parting, and put some itar on their way to work at people’s homes or at a seelai wali factory (a sewing shop). Born in Gaya, Bihar, Ruby was raised in big city Delhi, where her parents had come in search of work. She went to a government school and grew up in the Malviya Nagar locality with dreams of becoming an independent woman who went to work each morning and earned her own money.
Just after school, she started learning a course as a beautician. But as soon as she turned 18, the minimum age to marry in India, family and fate had different plans for her. The course had been a milestone for her, but there was no time to work, she was told. Ruby Devi was married and had babies very quickly.
Now, with all those responsibilities, Ruby had to manage her kitchen, raise the kids, cook for the husband and his family, and put her dreams of being a working woman on the back burner.
Ruby’s story is the story of many millions of women in India who may have or want skills to work and be independent but are forced into marriage. “Apart from my interest,” Ruby says, “the major reason why I chose to be a beautician was that, as a woman, it is very important to be financially independent. Especially after marriage, it is imperative for a woman to be independent because she cannot ask for money from her husband or parents.”
Ruby didn’t want to work at a parlour. She was worried about duty timings and the taunts at home. Instead, she decided to do home-to-home business, got a brand-new beauty kit, and decided to offer individual beauty services. Today, at 39, this beauty business has grown thanks to word of mouth amongst her clientele in Malviya Nagar in New Delhi, where she still lives.
The motivation for many women like Ruby isn’t to set up her own parlour or join a large chain of salons for a bigger salary. “I want to earn enough for my family needs and my independence,” says Ruby.
“There is flexibility in this. I used to take my little children once in a while if I had no one to leave them with.” Ruby earns in cash and she is spending her money to educate her daughters who dream of going to college. Ruby got herself a small house and she earns ₹20,000. What’s priceless for her is the respect at home, because she is a breadwinner too.
By one estimate, the beauty and wellness sector is one of the largest employers in India with over 70 lakh professionals of which two-thirds are women from lower socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. But at the same time, this industry is nearly entirely unorganised.
The founder of a startup, which offers on-demand beauty services via its app, claims only 5% of this market is organised. This is because most people avail local services in their neighbourhood, or call a parlour didi who is familiar to them. It was this sort of parlour didi loyalty that led 45-year-old Sandhya Sharma, mother of two sons, to set up her own little salon in Dehri-on-Sone, in Rohtas district of Bihar.
Sandhya was brought up in Uttar Pradesh where her father worked in a small factory. Growing up seeing the women in the house always being so submissive, at the young age of five, Sandhya realised the person with money in their hands had the power. And so she made that her goal—to become independent and earn when she grew up. Sandhya was married at 11, soon as she got her first period, shattering all her dreams.
She was burdened with marriage and other responsibilities that came with it at a young age, marrying a man of 22, twice her age. “My in-laws realised I was too young and deserved to do something with myself. I asked to do a beautician’s course.” But doing the course wasn’t enough inspiration for her to start working. Her husband would beat her each time he returned home after drinking and that became Sandhya’s real trigger to take the plunge and set up a tiny little parlour.
Domestic abuse is one of the many reasons why women leave home for work. But there is one more reason. Women are forced to get out and work because their husbands are either incompetent, out drinking, or just too used to eating off others rather than working themselves.
“Sometimes having your own space is about having a safe area to chit chat, laugh out loudly and have some friends,” says Sandhya.
Anita Rautela works as a masseur in a building in Gurgaon, the urban suburb outside of Delhi populated with a large number of working professionals. A mother to four (the youngest is a boy as her husband wouldn’t stop till she produced one), she used to work as a cook and then realised that that wasn’t adding up to enough.
So she started taking up beauty and massage services. At Rs 400 a massage she earns, in a regular month, close to Rs 40,000 for the family. Her husband, an auto rickshaw driver, heads to work only on days he isn’t too lazy to wake up. “I have to earn to ensure our children are raised. What’s worse is that I have three daughters and my husband wouldn’t stop until a boy was born.” That leaves Anita no choice but to work—both outside and at home.
“But there is one advantage of stepping out, I get to meet women who are empowered and that is such a big inspiration for me to keep going. Aaj kal ki didis, kaam karti hain and mujhe himmat deti hai.”
None of these women have bank accounts and nor are they part of the employment pool that feeds into the numbers in India’s economy. In fact, to most people, it appears these women are not even employed. But these women are running their homes, getting themselves some dignity, and becoming financially capable.
In India, 95% or around 195 million women are employed in the unorganised sector or in unpaid labour, says a report released by consultancy firm Deloitte. This sector defines activities not covered by the existing, conventional sources of statistics. In that sense, there is data lost on how many of these women create employment of some nature. Should this kind of employment not be given credit?
Women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another, but much of their work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics, and thus women’s work tends to be under-reported. A report by the India office of International Labour Organisation notes that in India, a substantially high proportion of females report their activity status as attending to domestic duties.
In 2011–2012, 35.3% of all rural females and 46.1% of all urban females in India were attending to domestic duties, whereas these rates were 29% and 42% respectively in 1993–1994. Mismeasurement may not only affect the level but also the trend in the participation rate.
Excerpted with permission from Sisterhood Economy: Of, By, For Wo(men), Shaili Chopra, Simon & Schuster India.