Much of Bangalore's spiffy Koramangala area boasts new road infrastructure, and shopping arcades of various kinds have mushroomed everywhere. But the L R Nagar slum, a cluster of a few dozen lanes with one main road, is distant from this world. The first few lanes have covered drains and tarred roads, the rest are made up of mud roads and are flanked on either side by open drains. Like many slums, here too there are authorised constructions as well as unauthorised ones; residents of the latter live in perpetual fear that their homes will be torn down by city authorities one day. Poverty is widespread, with 89 percent of the families falling earning less than 50 rupees a day per capita.

In my study, based on field work in 2005, followed by in-depth interviews with 100 women of different age groups in 2006, I focused on the relationship between ageing and gender relations in this slum. The study broadly covered areas of the lives of these women which could be said to reflect the existing gender relations. These included employment or the ability to seek employment outside the home, contribution to and control over household income, their experiences with domestic violence and the restrictions placed on their mobility.

Working outside the home

For women in the slum below the age of 25, the need to step outside the house is seen as a sign of extreme poverty. Only 33 per cent of women in this age group actually seek employment outside the house. In fact, strict patriarchal norms are enforced, keeping a majority of newly married young women within the house completely. Maryvincy, a 21-year-old housewife, lives with her mother-in-law, husband and two children. When asked whether she left the house, she said that she did not leave the house at all and that her mother-in-law handled the shopping and other such matters. Her mother-in-law, she says, would not like her to leave the house as she was still 'very young' and it would not 'seem right'.

At times however, sheer necessity overcomes this code that keeps young women within their homes. Anthonyamma, a 28-year-old mother of three school-going children works as domestic help. Her husband, a freelance wall painter, rarely goes to work. The family is therefore entirely dependent on her income of Rs.1000 per month, using it to pay school fees as well as to buy rations and other such necessities. Her husband, though unhappy with the idea, cannot afford to stop her from working and therefore places other restrictions on her in the form of strict timings which she has to adhere to.

A delicate balance is worked out by individual families between the financial challenges thrown up by poverty and the need to preserve the social order they desire, and only when the former far outweighs the latter, is the younger woman allowed to work. With age, this need for exclusion from the rest of society becomes less prominent. However, other factors such as ill health take over in restricting a woman's ability to be employed outside the house. As a result, for the older group too, the percentage of women working remains relatively low, with only 35 per cent of women aged above 50 being employed outside the house.

Household incomes

A natural consequence of this low percentage is that women's contribution to household income is not high. On the whole, only 31 per cent of women in the slum contribute to the income of their households. Of these, only 7 percent contribute more than 50 percent of the total income of their households. Interestingly, the contribution of women to the total income of the family increases with age, with over 17 per cent of women aged above 50 contributing more that 50 per cent to the total income of their household. The main factor explaining this increase is the ability of women, largely engaged in sectors like domestic help, to work much longer than their spouses who are often engaged in the construction industry where the heavy physical demands make it impossible to continue work beyond a certain age.

The proportion of this total income that is controlled by the women, however, is much higher. Control over income was measured as the amount of the household income that could be spent by a woman without seeking the permission of her spouse or any other member of the family. Around 80 per cent of the women of the slum control some part of the household income while 47 per cent control more than half the family income. These percentages indicate that women in the slum enjoy a considerable degree of control over household income, despite the restrictions on mobility which prevent them from contributing to this income very significantly. This, however, masks a much more painful reality. For some families, maintaining this control over the resources of the family can involve a constant struggle, which often includes the use of violence.

Ageing and gender relations

The extent to which the overall picture hides the functioning of a patriarchal relationship becomes evident once we bring age into the picture. With age, the struggle for control changes leading to a greater percentage of women controlling more than 50 per cent of the income of the family. Two-thirds of older women reported control over more than 50 per cent of the resources of the family. There are several reasons for this trend. The percentage of women in this age group contributing more than 50 per cent of the family income is the highest among the various age groups, leading to some of them having a proportionately higher degree of control over family spending.

A delicate balance is worked out by individual families between the financial challenges thrown up by poverty and the need to preserve the social order they desire.

 •  Older women in the city
 •  Working in the world

More importantly, this pattern points to the position of the mother-in-law and her control over the family. Most of the women who were over 50 years old were mothers-in-law. This position provided them control over finances as the son often gave his income to his mother, a practice that continued after marriage. This factor also accounts for the relatively high percentage (28 per cent) of women below 25 having no control over family spending. This control in most of these cases rests with the mother-in-law, who is usually in the 50+ age group.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence serves as an indicator of unequal gender relations in two ways. First, the very presence of violent abuse of women indicates coercive gender relations. Second, the way in which domestic violence is perceived by the victims lends further insight into the entrenched nature of these coercive gender relations. 36 percent of women admitted to have been subjected to physically abusive behaviour at some point in their adult lives. This figure, if anything, may be an underestimate, given the unwillingness of some women to talk about such incidents.

What is more disturbing is that a while a majority of women listed 'alcohol' and poverty as the problems which caused the violence against them, not one of the women saw such abusive behaviour in itself as a problem. Some respondents even felt that the violence was 'just' or 'deserved'. Ludviga, a 33-year-old mother of three admits that she is beaten as many as two times a week. She refuses to let me take it down however, commenting that "if you give women too much freedom, they act funny".

The main perpetrator of domestic violence in the slum is the husband, with 96 per cent of the respondents naming the husband as the perpetrator. In a few cases however, the mother-in-law was also pointed to. In some cases, older women were in fact seen to be subjecting younger female members of the family to domestic violence. Hence, with age, some women go from being the victims of domestic violence to the perpetrators of domestic violence.

With age, the percentage of women who admitted to having experienced domestic violence within the last 12 months decreases dramatically, often due to widowhood, or ill health of the abuser. Forty-five-year-old Pavitra, for example, is a garbage collector. Her 60-year-old husband is no longer capable of working. He used to hit her almost every day, until about ten years ago. Today, he is economically and physically dependent on her and no longer subjects her to this abuse. It has been more than ten years since he last hit her.


Gender inequalities do not disappear with age, and the disadvantages associated with being old and female are certainly considerable. It is noteworthy, however, that ageing does give women some degree of control over their lives, especially finances. In some ways, this control, arising out of the status given to the role of the mother-in-law as well as the perception of the mother-in-law as an enforcer rather than a victim of patriarchal norms, helps mitigate other factors that worsen inequalities as women age.