In Aurangabad, Maharashtra, a group of women have taken on the challenging but difficult job of burying or cremating the bodies of accident victims. The women are a part of a self-help group. Traditionally, most such groups engage in traditional tasks - womanly tasks, one might say such as making papads, embroidery, making paper products etc. to earn money. It is rare that you hear of a group that breaks away from the norm.

According to a newspaper report, the women in Aurangabad successfully won a contract put out by the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation for this task. Four groups of men had also applied and had asserted that such work was not woman's work. Yet, the 11 women of the Panchsheel Mahila Bachat Gat managed to win the contract. They are paid Rs.15,000 per month by the AMC for five bodies and Rs.3,000 for every additional body. The women say that they manage to save Rs.500 per body. And amazingly, these women have overcome their own aversion to such a job and their worry about what others would say, including members of their family. They strongly believe that victims of accidents, often unidentified, must be given a decent burial or cremation.

Gendered professions

This story is interesting because it raises questions about the kind of jobs women can do, or cannot do. While women with education have crashed through many barriers and broken stereotypes in this country, choices for work are limited for poor women. Much of what they do is unpaid work, particularly in rural areas where women engage in agricultural work. Even in cities, poor women either work as domestics or do home-based work for which they are poorly paid.

Then there is a class of women somewhere in the middle, particularly in urban areas, who have some education and want to have a chance at getting steady work. But these women face many hurdles, some of them unexpected. Another story from Maharashtra illustrates the nature of these unexpected obstacles.

The majority of Indian women are engaged in work through the unorganised or informal sector.

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Newspapers recently reported the case of six women who filed a case in the Bombay High Court challenging the decision denying them the position of Assistant Motor Vehicles Inspector. Of the total of 207 posts, 62 were reserved for women. But there was a catch. The women had to be at least 157 cm tall. The reason for this, according to the department, was because the women would have to test trucks and big vehicles and would not be able to do so if they were shorter than this prescribed height. The women, on their part, argued that such a precondition was unfair, that they had met all the other criteria and that they ought to be given the job. Unfortunately for them, the Bombay High Court has ruled that the appointing authority was within its rights to lay down such rules. But the very fact that women are applying for such jobs is novel.

I was also told recently that in Bangalore city, women deliver the post. Post-women. Why did someone not think of this before? It makes eminent sense and gives another avenue for regular employment for women. And in Mumbai, women are driving taxis and in some other cities there are women auto-rickshaw drivers. Unfortunately, the experiment of women bus conductors did not last in Mumbai. But there is no reason why it cannot be tried again.

The majority of Indian women are engaged in work through the unorganised or informal sector. This means there is no job security, there is no assurance of fair wages, and there is no one to monitor work conditions. Also, even as women work in paid, underpaid or unpaid work, their choices are restricted, particularly if they are poor and uneducated. Even in the United States, a recent survey established that out of 500 occupations, one third of the women were concentrated in just 10 occupations that included teaching, nursing and bookkeeping.

Vital contribution

With the increasing costs of living, more women will have to find paid employment to ensure the survival of poor as well as middle class households. Such paid employment will also contribute to the economy in general. According to The Economist, (April 12, 2006) the increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology, or the new giants, India and China. Add the value of housework and child rearing and women probably account for just over half of world output.

Women's contribution to the economy has always been undervalued. Now economists are putting a value to their work, paid and unpaid. Of course, there are still many people in this country who believe that women should do only women's work and that they should step out of their homes for paid work only if it is absolutely necessary. But the changing nature of our economies and the pressures of survival amongst all classes, except the very rich, are already denting such perceptions.

The women from Aurangabad, Bangalore's post-women, the women from Bundelkhand that I had written about in an earlier column and many others are pioneering a real change in attitudes by doing what their mothers would never have dreamed of doing and what their fathers were convinced they could not do.