Stepping Up When Husbands Stumble: How Women Took Charge in the Face of Adversity

The narrative revolves around the arduous plight of women compelled to engage in domestic chores in other households in order to provide sustenance for their families.
As a single parent, Geeta feeds her 4 daughters by washing utensils in people's homes.
As a single parent, Geeta feeds her 4 daughters by washing utensils in people's homes.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

Geeta Devi, having married at a tender age, was oblivious to the escalating tribulations that would accompany her maturation. The true essence of "matrimony" likely eluded her at the time of her nuptials.

Presently, Geeta finds herself as a single parent, shouldering the responsibility of nourishing, educating, and nurturing her four daughters. Regrettably, a painful demise befell her fifth daughter a decade prior, a tragic consequence of being struck by a truck. Furthermore, her husband succumbed to the perils of alcohol addiction nearly three years ago. Prior to that, her mother-in-law and father-in-law had already passed away.

As the sole individual within her household, Geeta grapples with the ongoing challenge of ensuring the nourishment of her four children — Anita (18), Nisha (15), Baby (10), and Pashchila (6) — each passing day.
Residing in the town of Rudhauli within Uttar Pradesh's Basti district, Geeta has been eking out a living for herself and her children by rendering services in local residences for nearly 18 years. Her present occupation entails the daily morning and evening undertaking of dishwashing in three different households. For this labor, she receives a meager remuneration of a mere 1000 rupees per household, equating to less than 40 rupees per day.

One of Geeta's daughters had died a painful death eight years ago after being crushed under a truck.
One of Geeta's daughters had died a painful death eight years ago after being crushed under a truck.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

Occasionally, instead of monetary compensation, Geeta receives food rations from the households she serves.

According to Oxfam India's Discrimination Report for 2022, disparities in remuneration between genders are prevalent within a country like India. However, Geeta's income surpasses even these figures. The aforementioned study unveiled that women nationwide endure discrimination both in terms of recruitment and wage differentials.

Geeta recounts to The Mooknayak that her household experienced severe food scarcity. Her husband, consumed by alcoholism, habitually squandered the earnings on liquor. Due to the absence of any other source of income, her elderly mother-in-law implored her to venture forth and engage in dishwashing activities within other households to secure sustenance. Geeta recalls, "I had to commence this dishwashing endeavor when my eldest daughter was merely a year old. Even my late mother-in-law had partaken in this task initially. As I grew older, I was coerced into undertaking this work since, without it, what would my children have to eat?"

Geeta's husband Jhinnu who died 3 years back.
Geeta's husband Jhinnu who died 3 years back.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

Geeta's spouse, Jhinnu, was ensnared in the clutches of alcohol addiction. He was employed at a confectionery store and expended his earnings on intoxicants without concern for returning home. However, with the advent of the pandemic-induced lockdown, Jhinnu's work ceased, leaving him bereft of funds to sustain his drinking habit. Geeta reflects, "He consumed alcohol excessively. When work halted during the lockdown, he lacked the means to acquire liquor. Subsequently, withdrawal symptoms ensued, and we were unable to rescue him."

When questioned by The Mooknayak regarding her eligibility for widow pension, Geeta sorrowfully shared, "Several months after my husband's departure, I diligently submitted an online application for the widow pension. Alas, not a single rupee has graced my bank account to this day." The weight of Geeta's daily challenges became almost insurmountable, and her countenance grew visibly emotional as she recounted her husband's story. It appeared as though a solution to her tribulations would never materialize.

Geeta's elder daughter Anita has dropped out of school due to lack of money. Geeta is now worried about his marriage.
Geeta's elder daughter Anita has dropped out of school due to lack of money. Geeta is now worried about his marriage.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

Geeta's primary concern now revolves around the impending marriage of her eldest daughter, Anita, who is burdened with responsibilities and adversities that far surpass her own earnings. Geeta frets over how this matrimonial union will transpire. She laments, "I toil away washing utensils to keep my children alive. I could only provide Anita an education up until the eighth grade. After schools shuttered during the COVID-19 lockdown, I have been unable to amass the necessary funds to send her back to school.

Nevertheless, Geeta's other two daughters, Nisha and Baby, still attend school. Given the exorbitant fees associated with education, Geeta prioritizes the nourishment of her four daughters above all else. Although a ration card has been procured for Geeta, she receives a meager allocation of 10 kilograms of rations for two units, despite the presence of five individuals in her family. In response to inquiries, Geeta reveals that her other children's names were omitted from the ration card due to the inability to obtain Aadhaar cards for them.

During a fateful morning, tragedy struck once more when Geeta's daughter ventured to the crossroads to purchase breakfast but tragically encountered a fatal accident involving a truck. Geeta painfully recollects the heart-wrenching loss of her daughter Manisha, who fell victim to a similar truck incident approximately eight years prior.

Apart from her humble abode, Geeta possesses no agricultural land to sustain herself. The electricity connection was established five years ago, coinciding with the construction of her house. Regrettably, Geeta has never been able to accumulate sufficient funds to settle her mounting electricity bill. She discloses that her arrears presently amount to around Rs 30,000, and this burden continues to escalate with each passing day.

Anita: Overcoming Challenges as a Sole Breadwinner

Similar to Geeta, Anita, also known as Chammak, bears a story worth recounting. Having lost her parents at a tender age, estimated to be around 4 to 6 years old, Anita found solace in her uncle's family, who not only provided her support but also arranged her marriage. For the past 25 years, Anita has been wedded. Like Geeta, Anita has spent the last 20 years engaged in dishwashing at various households in Rudhauli town.
Anita reflects on her early foray into dishwashing, stating, "After two years of marriage, I resorted to washing utensils at people's homes because I had no other means of employment or sustenance."

Along with cleaning utensils at home, Anita (45) alias Chhammak bravely faces social challenges on a daily basis.
Along with cleaning utensils at home, Anita (45) alias Chhammak bravely faces social challenges on a daily basis.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

Anita is married to Dilip, also known as Bhallu, who unfortunately suffers from mental health issues. "Sometimes he undertakes road sweeping or works at a hotel, where he may receive a meager sum of Rs 2-4 or a cup of tea," Anita confides in The Mooknayak. However, prior to their marriage, the extent of Dilip's mental condition was not fully evident, as opportunities for interaction between them were limited. It was only upon returning home after their marriage that Anita realized the extent of her husband's mental struggles.

Anita and Dilip have two sons, Alok (15) and Abhay (12). Anita ensures that both of her children attend school. However, she worries about their future education, as her earnings are insufficient to afford them a quality education in reputable institutions.

Anita (45) alias Chhammak cleaning utensils in a house.
Anita (45) alias Chhammak cleaning utensils in a house.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

In the course of Anita's marriage, she faced the loss of her parents-in-law and father-in-law, leaving her husband mentally incapacitated. With the responsibility of caring for two children and her husband, Anita chose the path of working in other households to sustain her family, despite the potential stigma associated with it. She diligently engages in dishwashing in five houses within the town, earning varying amounts ranging from 500 to 800 rupees per month. These earnings provide sustenance for her children and husband.

As a woman, Anita has not been immune to the societal adversities that afflict countless others. She shares, "I have encountered numerous experiences that cannot be uttered in the presence of others. Initially, when I embarked on this work, neighbors and members of society would taunt and label me as immoral," she reveals. "However, I no longer pay heed to what people say. Over time, I have grown accustomed to living with such circumstances."

Plight of India's Female Domestic Workers: Unaddressed Vulnerabilities and Legal Loopholes

According to government data, female domestic workers constitute 30 percent of India's female workforce. However, despite their significant presence, the harsh reality faced by Anita highlights the vulnerability of the four million women engaged in domestic work. Considered highly susceptible to sexual harassment, they continue to grapple with the absence of adequate protections. While many state governments have recognized domestic work as scheduled employment, the implementation of these regulations remains a pressing concern.

In 2020, the Indian Parliament enacted amendments and consolidated outdated labor laws, passing the Code on Social Security. The intent was to extend benefits, such as insurance, a superannuation fund, and maternity assistance, to workers in certain informal arrangements. Unfortunately, these measures have not effectively addressed the challenges faced by domestic workers, as individual households are not officially recognized as workplaces. As a result, these workers are left without the legal safeguards and entitlements afforded to employees in more conventional work settings.

The Resilience of Mithlesh

Mithlesh's journey diverges slightly from the narratives of Geeta and Anita. As a cook, she ventures into other households to prepare meals, compelled by her husband's alcohol addiction and the need to provide for her children. For nearly 15 years, Mithlesh has taken on this role, catering to two households each morning and evening. In return, she receives approximately 3000 rupees per month from one of her employers.

Mithlesh (45), has been cooking food at homes for years.
Mithlesh (45), has been cooking food at homes for years.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

Meanwhile, her husband Shiv Shankar, a fruit vendor for nearly three decades, recently found himself incapacitated. A fall while transporting his handcart home resulted in a broken hip bone, necessitating surgery. This unfortunate event left him unable to work, and his earnings were primarily squandered on alcohol and other vices. Mithlesh, determined to support her family, secured a loan of Rs 42,000 from her workplace to cover the medical expenses. She is now repaying this debt by working extra hours.

Within Mithlesh's household, a total of six individuals depend on her, including her husband and their children—Suraj, Roli, Shelly, and Nancy. Mithlesh shoulders the responsibility of providing for their livelihoods, education, and medical needs. With no agricultural land at her disposal, the income from her cooking jobs and the monthly government ration of 25 kilograms sustains her family.

Mithlesh's husband Shiv Shankar ruined his life due to the habit of drinking alcohol. Due to which Mithlesh has to work in other's houses.
Mithlesh's husband Shiv Shankar ruined his life due to the habit of drinking alcohol. Due to which Mithlesh has to work in other's houses.Pic- Rajan Chaudhary, The Mooknayak

During an interview with The Mooknayak, Mithlesh's husband acknowledged the unpaid electricity bills that have accumulated over the past 5-6 months. Financial constraints prevented them from settling these dues. On the subject of his alcohol addiction, he admitted his fault, expressing remorse for the burden it places on his family. Determined to change, he resolved to renounce alcohol and take responsibility for their well-being.

Despite the tremendous weight of her responsibilities, Mithlesh exhibited remarkable courage and determination. She remained unwavering in her commitment to provide for her family, facing every hardship head-on and inspiring hope with her unyielding spirit.

Domestic Work- Crucial Source of Livelihood

In India, domestic work poses significant challenges for countless women like Geeta, Anita, and Mithlesh who engage in tasks such as sweeping, dishwashing, laundry, cooking, and childcare. For many uneducated or minimally educated women, domestic work is a crucial source of livelihood. However, statistics reveal a stark gender disparity, with over 90% of Indian women engaged in unpaid domestic work at home compared to 27% of men. In contrast, only 22% of women participate in employment and related activities, while 71% of men are involved. These figures highlight the unequal burden of domestic work and the need to address gender inequality in this sector.

As a single parent, Geeta feeds her 4 daughters by washing utensils in people's homes.
Juggling Responsibilities: The Struggles of a Woman Farmer in Uttar Pradesh
This report has been published in Hindi in October 2022.
Story Translated by Geetha Sunil Pillai

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