Banudas Sonawane is an angry man. Angry that his eldest daughter, Anita, 19, joined a hospitality course without his permission. Angry that the girl didn’t call home often enough while she was at the two-month long residential course even though he had given her a paid up SIM card. Angry that the job she was offered after the course was, in his eyes, low in status. Angry that a government job did not come her way.

Most of all, Sonawane is angry by an apparent correlation between girls who get jobs and love marriages.

Father of five girls and one boy, Sonawane drives a truck for a living and is pretty sure of what is going on in the country. “One of my relatives’ daughters got a job in the police,” he said. “She went off to train to be a constable. The next thing we heard was that she had got married in court. Her parents are shattered and their neighbours don’t talk to them any more.” His wife and daughter bent their heads as they sat quietly in the two-room dwelling in an Aurangabad slum near the rail tracks.

Yet, Sonawane is ambitious for his daughter. “Anything can happen in life, so of course women must be able to stand on their feet and be independent,” he said. But he was just as clear: his daughter would not be a “waitress” in a restaurant. “If she got a job as a captain or in a government hotel, it would be a different matter,” he said. Since she hadn’t, it was better for her to study and complete her graduation.

Anita didn’t seem to have much of a say in the matter. The job she had turned down came with a salary of Rs 7,000 a month. “Banta nahin,” she shrugged. Not viable. It would be better for her to look for a government job once she completed her graduation – as her father wanted her to do. “If she had failed her class 12, then she would have had to work,” said the father. “Now she has a choice, she can study and get a better job. What sort of a father would I be if I just sent her to get a job without a proper education?”

Anita said she had never really left home until she joined the two-month course run by the Pace Hospitality Training Centre on the outskirts of Aurangabad. The institute is one of 100 in 45 cities of 16 states run by the Pratham Institute. For the hospitality trade, Pratham has 22 centres across the country. Last year, 9,000 men and women were trained in various aspects of food and beverage, housekeeping and food production.

Within the hospitality trade, there is reasonably high demand for skilled women employees. “Both girls and boys need a lot of training in the softer areas, but girls tend to be better,” said Anita Rajan, chief operating officer, Tata Strive, the Tata’s corporate social responsibility arm that focuses on skilling India’s youth. “But with the girls you have to involve their parents. It’s the parents who have a lot of problems, especially if the place of work is far away.”

When they do travel out of the village, the girls tend to travel in groups. Usha Shihare, 19, the daughter of a farm labourer, left her village in northeastern Maharashtra’s Gondia district, 650 km away, with seven other girls to work in an Aurangabad hotel. To go back home, she must travel by bus to the district headquarters, 14 hours away, and then hop on to a connecting transport to her village. “When my grandmother passed away a year ago, I could not make it back in time for her cremation,” she said. “It’s not worth it to work for such a low salary so far from home. I wish I could get a job near my village, but there are no hotels there.”

It took a village to let young women acquire new skills

The hospitality sector – hotels, aviation, tours and travels – reflects a 5-10% increase in hiring intent, according to the 2017 India Skills Report. In terms of gender diversity, 26.26% of all employees in the sector are female. Average gender diversity for all trades, according to the same report, is 71% men to 29% women.

Part of the difficulty in recruiting women is a “mindset” problem. “There are a lot of openings at the entry level but huge barriers to entry,” said Medha Uniyal, programme director, Pratham Institute. “There’s the issue of mobility – if the job is not near her home, then where will she live? If hotels don’t provide hostel accommodation, getting one on rent is tough. Landlords don’t want to keep single women because of the perceived burden of ensuring ‘safety’ for them.”

Many of the girls who join like Anita Sonawane, who signed up while her father was out of town on work, brave parental opposition. “Aspiration is very high,” said Rajesh Thokale, of Pratham Institute. “But the challenges they face in coming out of the villages are enormous.”

It took a village to decide to send its girls to learn skills that would enable them to get jobs.

At Sulibanjan village (population 3,000), a stone’s throw away from Khultabad, the final resting place of Aurangzeb, once emperor of India, the woman sarpanch, Mehrunissa Syed Ashraf Ali, explained: “The parents were worried; their daughters had never left home. So we held meetings with the people from the institute and they explained to us why it was important to teach our daughters a skill.”

Earlier, the girls would study till class 7 and then be married off. Now they have a choice. “We have seen that the institute has a very good atmosphere and it is safe to send our girls there,” said Ali.

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That Indian women have been falling off the employment map for several years now is well known, and cause for concern. In rural India, female labour force participation fell from 49% in 1993-94 to 35.8% in 2011-12. It fell in urban India too, from 23.7% in 1993-94 to 20.5% in 2011-12, according to a report released by the World Bank in April 2017.

The single largest drop from jobs, about 53%, has occurred in the 15-24 age group, the World Bank report found.

If you were to look for a silver lining, it is here. India’s girls have finally caught up with the educational achievement of boys, particularly at the secondary and high school levels. Sustained efforts by governments and NGOs have bridged the education gap and if fewer young girls are working, it is quite simply because they are studying.

Note: Combined participation rate is the sum of the labour force participation rate and educational participation rate. Source: Author's own estimate, World Bank
Note: Combined participation rate is the sum of the labour force participation rate and educational participation rate. Source: Author's own estimate, World Bank

The bad news is that it only explains part of the decline that occurred across all age groups. The World Bank report pins an actual figure: 62% of women in rural India who quit jobs did it for reasons other than education. In urban India, 28% quit for reasons other than attending school.

Most of the women trained get job offers, not all accept

The Pace Hospitality Training Centre at Nandrabad village, 23 km northwest of Aurangabad and on the way to the famous Ellora caves, recruited 960 young men and women from nearby districts, including Ahmednagar, Yavatmal, Nashik, Dhule and Beed last year. Almost all came from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sarika and Sunil Vithal came here after their parents were killed in a road accident while on their way to a wedding. While Sunil had been working at a local dhaba, Sarika found work as a daily wage labourer in the fields owned by other people. Both are now enrolled at Pace, learning the ropes of housekeeping.

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Nearly 30% of students at Pace are women. Unlike the men who pay Rs 16,000, they pay a subsidised fee of Rs 2,000, including for boarding and lodging, uniforms and training material. If the men can’t afford to pay Rs 16,000 upfront, they can apply to pay in installments. The Vithal siblings’ fee has been waived.

Aurangabad is a bustling town made famous for once ordering 150 Mercedes Benz in a single transaction. There are no Mercedes on the streets, though. Instead women whizz by a replica Statue of Liberty on two-wheelers, arms and faces carefully covered to avoid getting tanned under an unrelenting sun. Tuition centres such as Bansod’s classes, “the synonym of success”, and hotels jostle for space with hardware and paint shops.

At the end of Pace’s two-month course, which includes basic English, computer training, grooming standards, interview preparation and other soft skills, 95% of the women received jobs offers.

Not everyone accepted. “Sometimes the job is in a big city and parents are reluctant to send their daughters so far away,” said Saurabh Deshpande, Pratham Institute’s academic head for hospitality training. “More than the girls, you often have to convince their parents.”

'Sometimes the job is in a big city and parents are reluctant to send their daughters so far away. More than the girls, you often have to convince their parents,' says Saurabh Deshpande of Pratham Institute.
'Sometimes the job is in a big city and parents are reluctant to send their daughters so far away. More than the girls, you often have to convince their parents,' says Saurabh Deshpande of Pratham Institute.

Chef Swati Shinde, an assistant food production trainer, had no such problems. As a single mother to a five-year-old son, she knew she had to get a job to survive – just as her mother had worked after her father’s death. Yet, her choice to train as a chef is unusual for most women tend to opt for housekeeping or food and beverage.

“Being a chef is hard physical labour and not all women can do it,” said Shinde who after a seven-month job at Cream ‘n Crunch café now works at Pace, teaching other men and women to be chefs. It’s a job that gives her a place to stay while her mother, Ashabai Shinde, takes care of her son who is in class I at Sant Gyaneshwar School in Ranjangaon district.

“When you have to work, you do everything,” said Ashabai. “I had to do it all – construction sites, washing utensils and clothes, whatever it took to bring up my daughters after their father died.”

Swati was married soon after she completed class 8. Her husband though wealthy was a drunkard who beat her “like a mad man”, said Ashabai.

In no time, Swati was back home with a newborn son and hasn’t gone back. She managed to complete her schooling “cutting vegetables and peeling garlic for madams who worked and had no time to cut them”. Then, last year, she heard about the hospitality training course and thought, “why not?”

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Today, Swati said, she earns enough for her mother to lead a retired life – she owns her own place and rents out part of it that gives her an income to take care of her personal expenses.

Meanwhile, Swati has started a BA programme. “One should be educated,” she said. But she’s clear she wants to continue as chef. “I am learning a lot,” she said. “Facing a class has given me a lot of confidence.” Ever since she joined in June this year, she has not had a single girl student. But the boys have no problems taking instructions from her, she said. “Everybody respects me.”

Growing up, Swati dreamed of becoming a doctor. “But this line has given me a skill that nobody can take away, even if I lose this job,” she said.

She’s still dreaming. One day she will have her own café where she will serve her favourite pizza. “In my village nobody likes it,” she said. “But I think it will be popular in Aurangabad.”

This is the fourth in a series of stories investigating why Indian women are dropping out of the workplace. You can read the first part here, the second part here and the third part here.

This article first appeared on Indiaspend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.