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Visible Work, Invisible Women

"Brickworkers"  from the exhibit, "Visible Work, Invisible Women"  (P. Sainath/

"Brickworkers" from the exhibit, "Visible Work, Invisible Women" (P. Sainath/


Good evening, ladies and gentleman, my name is Shyama Venkateswar, Associate Director of the Asian Social Issues Program. The title of tonight's event, Visible Work, Invisible Women borrows from the theme of the photo display at the back of the room. The powerful and evocative photos depict rural women in India who are the primary labor force working in the searing heat of brick kilns and coal mines, stone breaking, harvesting forest produce, collecting fuel, selling goods in the markets, and other back breaking labor. Many of these activities remain unnoticed, unpaid and unrecognized, and their contributions are not reflected in the nation's GDP.

The main focus of the photographs is to present rural women in India not as dependents but on whom the economy is dependent. Yet, the working conditions of these women and others in many parts of Asia remain dismal, with wages well below the minimum, and the lack of basic amenities. The issues of gender bias, exploitation, and fundamental human rights will be among the main points of discussion in tonight's panel.

Tonight's event will address the vital, yet unrecognized role that women play in the economic and social systems of Asia and the implications therein. The panelists will address the critical challenges that lie ahead in securing fundamental human rights for women in rural Asia, and the important role of international agencies, governments and NGOs to address these challenges.

It is my privilege to introduce tonight's distinguished panelists:

  • Mr. P. Sainath, veteran journalist, author and the photographer of the fantastic photo display at the back of the room
  • Smita Narula, Senior Researcher at the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch
  • Adrienne Germain, President of International Women's Health Coalition

Tonight's event is part of Asia Society's initiative, the Asian Social Issues Program, a multidisciplinary, public educational initiative that looks at critical social challenges and emerging strategies to address the problems. The Asia Society remains an important venue for constructive and critical discussions on issues like poverty, sectarian conflict, human rights, among others. Without further ado, let me turn to Smita Narula.


It is quite humbling to share the stage with P. Sainath. I have known his work for a very long time, not just as a photographer, but as an activist and journalist who has brought many of these issues to the attention of the international community, the Indian media, and the Indian human rights community as well.

I thought that I would actually spend a few moments speaking of the situation of Dalit women in India, and the issue of the caste system and how it relates to the issue of labor, particularly how the caste system effectively subverts any meaningful attempt at land reform or attaining minimum wages for the many laborers (toiling at the brick kilns and under the hot sun) that you see in the photographs behind us today.