Visible Work, Invisible Women

"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.

On November 3, just a few weeks ago, a forty-five year old Dalit woman was paraded half-naked in a small town in the state of Bihar. She was paraded around this way by a group of people who wanted to teach a lesson to her family for not giving away their claim over a piece of land. The district superintendent of police, when interviewed, said that the story was not true, that it was completed concocted, but after some pressure finally admitted that the Dalit woman was in fact physically tortured and tormented. To this day no case has been filed against those who committed this act.

On October 13, five Dalit were lynched and some of their corpses burned in the state of Haryana because they were accused of killing and skinning a cow. No arrests have been made. Instead a case under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act has been filed against the deceased.

On April 5, four upper-caste men abducted a 14-year-old Dalit girl just outside Japur in Rajasthan and gang raped her over a period of three days. Upon her return to the village, she was told that if her family filed any case against the perpetrators they would not be allowed to work on the fields anymore and would face further physical violence.

What all these cases have in common are the extremely violent conditions under which the Dalit struggle for livelihood is subverted, often with the complicity of the state. Sexual and other forms of violence against Dalit women, who make up the majority of agricultural laborers in India, has become a potent weapon in the hands of the state and in the upper-caste community in preserving the status quo…the status quo that is displayed in the photographs behind us. The situation of Dalit generally is not limited to India. Caste systems also exist in other South Asian countries, including in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. A form of caste system exists in Japan, and indeed there are also caste systems among indigenous populations in West Africa. Hidden under the guise of the world's largest democracy, over 160,000 million Dalit toil as agricultural laborers or other types of laborers subsisting on very menial wages in India. Bonded labor, forced prostitution, exploitation of labor are often seen as the lot of the developing world, and in India certainly poverty has offered a very interesting and easy explanation for a lot of the abuses that we see today. What is less seen-and I think what the photographs here and the text that accompanies them helps to bring out-is that poverty in India (like in many countries) is manufactured and maintained by those with a vested interest in preserving a political and economic status quo. India's tagline as the world's largest democracy-and indeed as a nation that has incredibly progressive laws, an incredible constitution that has been a role model for many other constitutions, and a very, very radical affirmative action program-helps to hide many of the abuses Dalit women in particular endure as the majority of the labor force in India.

Stepping back a little bit…allocation of labor on the bases of caste is of course one of the fundamental tenants of the caste system. Within the system, Dalit have been assigned tasks that are deemed far too ritually polluting or impure to be given to others. Therefore, a majority of manual scavengers, some of which are pictured in the photographs, belong to the Dalit community. These are people who, from morning to night, will carry night soil or human excreta on their heads or often with their bare hands, clean up animal carcasses, and perform other types of sanitation functions that are deemed too polluting for anybody else to touch. Agricultural laborers work for a few kilograms of rice or less than a dollar a day-the majority of them are also women. According to government statistics, an estimated one million people are manual scavengers. A majority of them are actually employed by the state, the same state that has outlawed this practice. Although employment by the state means that they get paid only 30-40 rupees (60-80 cents) a month, it is often a much better situation than being employed in a private household- where working for an entire month, cleaning the toilet of one family, would mean earning only 5-10 rupees (10-20 cents) and perhaps some food.

For obvious reasons Dalit, and other lower and tribal castes cannot survive on these wages. It pushes them increasingly into debt and into bonded labor, a system in which upper-caste creditors and employers give loans…sometimes for the payment of weddings, sometimes for dowry, sometimes for the buying of wood for a proper cremation and funeral, and sometimes to just put food on the table. The loans are accompanied by exorbitantly high interest rates and a great deal of corruption and police collusion in doctoring the books such that the loans are never actually paid off. Bondage is then passed down from generation to generation, so that the children of bonded laborers, and their children, will end up inheriting the debt of their families and their parents. There are over 40 million bonded laborers in India, 15 million of them are children, and the majority of them are Dalit

In Indian southern states Dalit women are also forced into prostitution, a problem that is believed to have already been effectively outlawed and combated. It is a system in which Dalit women particularly from sub-castes such as the untouchable category will, upon attaining the age of puberty, be ritually married off to a temple deity and effectively serve as a sexual slave to community members and even the police. Like other forms of violence against women ritualized prostitution is in effect a system that is designed to kill the honor and decency of all communities. And attacks on women, particularly in land disputes or in any kind of confrontation between upper-caste and lower-caste communities, becomes the means and weapons by which political dissenters are silenced.

Despite the plethora of legislation setting minimum wage and addressing land distribution in India, there is very little enforcement of these laws. And there is very little ability of Dalit to demand higher wages, to organize themselves as a collective, or to lay claim to land that is legally theirs. The first example I mentioned, of the woman being paraded half-naked, was precisely a means to teach the Dalit family, and as a result the entire community of Dalit, that standing up and fighting for their rights would result in further economic and physical violence.

Economic boycotts-we have documented many instances in which trying to organize oneself to claim one's rights also results in economic boycotts against the entire community. The entire community will be cut off from the ration shops, will not be allowed to use the village wells, and will not be allowed to come the next day for employment on the upper-caste landlord's fields.

Women are further expected to work in the upper-caste homes after a long day of work in the fields, and of course to come home to their own homes and perform many of the household functions, including being the primary care-takers of the children. The health issues, high maternity mortality rates and such, are things that I believe Adrienne will address, but are also part and parcel of being a Dalit woman in India today.

I have already spoken a little bit about gang rape and rape generally as an epidemic in rural areas in India today. Dalit women and girls are raped to suppress movements for demanding higher wages; they are raped when they dare to marry outside of their caste; and they are raped in order to teach the entire community a lesson. Something very specific to the caste contexts, although certainly not specific to India, is inflicting violent lessons to entire communities through the bodies of women.

Then we reach the issue of justice and whether or not these Dalit women have any recourse for the violence committed against them or for the exploitation of their labor. They face, unfortunately, insurmountable obstacles for seeking redress for the crimes committed against them. If a girl is poor, belongs to a lower caste and has very little access to the justice system, then seeking any redress for these types of crimes becomes nearly impossible. Some of you may have heard of a very famous case in the state Rajasthan. A low caste woman there tried to speak out against a child marriage in her community. She was gang raped for speaking out against the marriage, a type of marriage which had been outlawed in the state. Finally, after the women's rights groups had taken up the case and it had gone from court to court and judge to judge, at some point all of the defendants in the case were acquitted. The reasoning being that an upper-caste man would not defile himself by having sex with a lower-caste woman. Because the women's movement had so successfully articulated this case, it is actually still on appeal at the Supreme Court. But for every such courageous woman (behind whom there is a women's movement), there are literally thousands of others who simply do not speak out on issues of violence and exploitation against them. In fact over 100,000 cases of atrocities against Dalit are reported in India every year, and that many believe is a very conservative estimate as most Dalit are unable to report crimes against them for fear of further economic and physical retaliation.

Failure to implement national legislation also extends to the Bonded Labor Act, the Elimination of the Practice of Manual Scavenging Act and the Prevention of Atrocities Act which the Indian government enacted in 1989 almost symbolizing the idea that atrocities against lower caste communities had failed to subside after almost 40 years of independence and that they had taken on a very violent character over time. Some of the acts specifically listed and criminalized under the atrocities act include parading a woman naked, forcing Dalit to eat human waste, poisoning village wells, securing bonded labor and gang-raping Dalit and tribal women. This actually is an act which also covers tribal women who are a strong part of the labor force in India. In 1992, there was an amendment to the constitution that allowed for reservations of seats in local village counsels for women, and within that a quota for Dalit women. Many people saw this as a watershed for the political rights and power over development in a village for Dalit women. The implementation of this, like that of many other acts in India, still has a long way to go, and many still believe in the power and the promise of having Dalit women come to the forefront at the village level and of taking command of justice and the distribution of development in their own communities. Unfortunately, many women contesting these seats have themselves been gang-raped or paraded naked in villages to intimidate others and send the message that this type of political change, even under constitutional protection, is not something that the community is ready for or willing to tolerate.

I also want to address a little bit about what the international challenges are here. And of course looking at the stream of international laws, the Bill of Human Rights and many of the treaties that India is party to one would think that many of the cases that I have mentioned would no longer exist in India. India is party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against women, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and has signed but not ratified the Convention Against Torture. However, the tortuous treatment of Dalit women by the police, one of whom I met and interviewed in 1998, is quite common and thus makes it even more difficult for women to come forward, demand their labor rights and demand protection from sexual violence against them.

There have been many positive developments however, so I do not want to leave you with such a grim picture. I think it is very important to point out that the issue of Dalit rights and the issue of caste discrimination as an obnoxious source of human rights violations-not just in India but in other parts of Asia and West Africa, and dare I say even among the Indian diaspora in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere-has actually come to light internationally within the last few years. The very fact that we are sitting here in the Asia Society and having this discussion tonight I think is testament to that. And it is also testament to a growing and inspiring movement in India led by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights which is a grassroots campaign connecting over 200 non-governmental organizations in 14 states. Beyond that, it is connected to solidarity bodies in 12 countries asking for the international community to assist India in the long overdue task of bringing the on-the-ground reality in compliance social rights vision of India's constitution. Most recently this was done at the World Conference Against Racism in Durbin, controversial for many reasons, but also a watershed for the Dalit movement. Over 200 Dalit activists participated in that conference, demanding that the word caste be included anywhere in the agenda of the conference, which was a conference on racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The Indian government however, throwing a lot of its political and economic weight around, managed to successfully ensure that the word caste did not appear once in any of the documents of the conference, even though the effect of caste is on 250 million people worldwide. What the conference also did was to become an organizing tool allowing various marginalized communities (Roma, African-American, indigenous activists, etc.) to join hands with the Dalit, and to call on international partners to join hands with grassroots groups in India to ask the Indian government to effectively enforce its own laws, and ultimately to remove the manufacturing of poverty and bring Dalit women outside the bonds of their labor and exploitation. Since the conference and the work that the national campaign has done on the ground there actually has been incredible developments within India. For so many years the Dalit movement did not include women and the women's movement did not include Dalit, and this is beginning to change. I will end on that positive note because there is a lot to be hopeful for. And I want to thank the Asia Society for holding this event and also thank Sainath for his amazing work in documenting this in photograph and in writing for many, many years. Thank you.


Thank you very much for inviting me here. I am always very pleased to come to the Asia Society, and particularly so around this set of issues. I want to say this evening that the comments that I make are primarily about India, and rural women in particular in India, as I have understood them, but what I say is broadly applicable to the sub-continent at large, especially to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in different ways to Nepal. So if we keep that in mind, the comments that we have made tonight are not at all about Southeast Asia which in my experience is quite different from the sub-continent.

I would like to begin by paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes, who is probably familiar to most of you in saying as you could very well see-not just from Smita's comments but those of you who have had a chance already to look at the photographs-that the lives of most poor rural women in South Asia are nasty, brutal and short. And a lot of this has to do of course with caste and income differentials, but it also fundamentally has to do with sex.

Normally, in all societies of the world, more boys are born than girls. This is a fact of nature, and it happens because boy babies are more fragile than girls, and I guess somewhere along the line in evolution someone figured that out-more boys are born than girls. But in South Asia the skew in the number of births is greatly exaggerated and it is really the major region in the world where this happens. You get very, very great variation or difference between the numbers of males and females alive at any time. And the first manifestation of this comes now with technology in sex selective abortion in which women for a variety of reasons seek to abort female pregnancies. This is a well-know phenomenon occurring in India; it has been protested greatly by the women's movement in India; and national as well as state laws have been passed against it. However, as we all know, laws are not sufficient and basically the practice has been driven underground. We have seen continuing decline in the sex ratio in India for the last decade.

Now after birth girls also face continuing discrimination that includes, still in the 21st century, female infanticide at the moment that the babies are born-often by the traditional birth attendant who may be caring for the woman in her labor. As children, girls also die at much higher rates than boys due to neglect and driven primarily of course by poverty that forces their parents to chose which children they will feed and provide health care and education. Let me give three examples from rural India:50 % of girls, but 61% of boys are immunized; boys are twice as likely as girls to get healthcare; families spend 2-3 times as much on boys' healthcare as they do on girls'. Those girls who survive to the teenage years face both the cumulative insults that they have experienced in their childhood, including severe and moderate malnutrition. Most rural girls are married well before the age of 18 to older sexually experienced men. They enter marriage with no sexuality education, no contraception and certainly no power. They face extreme pressure to become pregnant immediately, and in that pregnancy and subsequent ones, to produce a son. They are physically immature and as I mentioned very severely or moderately malnourished, and they thus face very high risks of complications and death due to pregnancy. It is estimated in rural India that at least of every 100,000 live births, 440 women will die. This is by contrast to the rate of maternal death in the United States which is 11 women out of 100,000 live births. Further, because their husbands are older and commonly have had sexually experiences, both with other men and with women before marriage, these young brides are exposed very early to sexually transmitted infections which are devastating. Many of them cause infertility, and of course we now know that such infections facilitate the transmission of HIV-AIDS.

From a young age, as Sainath's photographs so clearly document, even five-year old girls and even women when they are pregnant, are expected to take care of the siblings, to do all of the household work, to provide healthcare to family members and also to undertake productive even if unremunerated outside the home, typically in very dangerous conditions-and certainly the photographs that Sainath has provided demonstrate this in ways that no words could fully convey. So is it not a wonder that over the years, when I spent a great deal of time in rural areas of South Asia and also in urban slums asking women and young girls (in the evening when all the work was done), "what are your main health concerns?" or "what makes you not feel good?" that the most common answers were "backache" and "white discharge" (white discharge being a symptom of reproductive tract infection). Neither of these problems has anywhere been recognized-by governments, by the World Health Organization, by donors and others-as a matter of any concern in public health.

Now looking at the centrality of girls' and women's sexuality to their lives-sexuality in the circumstances that I have described, and certainly in the conditions of wide-spread violence that Smita described, and under the conditions of work that Sainath's photographs document-there is no way that a woman in rural India (or elsewhere) can be healthy unless she is able to control her own body and her sexuality. Furthermore, for women and girls, unlike for men, the exercise of other fundamental human rights is not possible if a woman cannot control her own body. But across the subcontinent, in all the hundreds of cultures and traditions that exist there, a woman's sexuality is entirely controlled by the men in her life. Before she marries, while she is in her parental home, her sexuality is controlled by her male relatives-her father, brothers, uncles and cousins-and what has come to light over the last couple of decades, that was not nearly as well-known thirty years ago when I started to work in the subcontinent, is the amount of violence, sexual violence, that occurs against girls in their families by male relatives. You have heard from Smita about the violence that occurs outside the household against girls and women.

After marriage a woman's sexuality is her husband's proprietary right both under law and in social practice. She is blamed by her husband, and by the entire family, if she and her husband fail to produce a child. It is highly likely in the circumstances of the subcontinent, that in at least half of the cases infertility is probably on the side of the man, not necessarily on the side of the woman. But it is inevitably the woman who is blamed and the consequence will be violence, divorce, expulsion from the household, torture-even though it may not be her fault. But an even worse example of this is that if she, the woman, does not produce a son, or more than one son preferably, she is also blamed for that. And most women that I have worked with India still do not know that it is the male sperm that determines the sex of the child. That one piece of information for women across the subcontinent could make an enormous difference in their lives. I cannot tell you the numbers of women that I have met and talked with over the years who blame themselves alone for failing to bear a son for their husband and in-laws.

As Smita pointed out very vividly, not only for Dali women but also for poor women across the subcontinent, there is no social or legal protection in fact. And furthermore, women's and girls' access to healthcare is extremely limited. Some of you may be aware of the history of family planning in the subcontinent, which in many instances unfortunately has been abusive of women's rights. And yet contraceptives are a fundamental tool that women need in order to control their bodies and their lives. While the rates vary within India (and certainly between India and Bangladesh and Nepal) the fact is that most poor women, especially in rural areas, still bear children…they deliver, they give birth at home, usually at best attended by a traditional birth attendant or family member who is entirely untrained even in normal delivery yet alone in situations of prolonged obstructed labor (which is very common in India due to the young age and physical immaturity of the mothers). Further, women have a large number of pregnancies and they may go through one or more abortions which are often unsafe even though abortion is legal in India. For those of you who have traveled at all in the subcontinent's rural areas you may have seen the consequences of the lack of care during pregnancy which are hugely damaging to the women's body and cause her to be outcast from her family and from society. A prolonged obstructed labor, which need not happen and which a simple cesarean section could take care of, often results in what are called fistular or holes in the bladder and in the intestines, such that she has no control over either urine or waste. It is a rather easily repaired damage, but again for those women who suffer this consequence there is no health service. Further more it is very common to have uterine prolapse in South Asia. And this is where literally the uterus falls outside of the woman's body. And it is not an uncommon phenomenon to see a woman (as I did) on the side of a road holding her uterus in her hands.

I mentioned that sexually transmitted diseases are dramatically increasing in India and that this is also increasing women's vulnerability to HIV-AIDS. And we have heard already about violence. There are no health services for women in India for either sexually transmitted diseases or violence. You will see on the rural roads in India and Bangladesh, not so much in Pakistan, signs painted on the sides of buildings advertising STD clinics or venereal disease clinics. These are virtually entirely for men; they are in the private sector; and generally they are run by quacks who do more harm than good. And as low as women's access to health services is, the utilization of services to women who do have access is very, very low as well-for reasons hinted at in Smita's presentation and in Sainath's photographs: desperate poverty, they do not have the cash and the ability to pay for services; social constraints including the burdens of caring for their children and husbands, or when they are younger, their siblings in the family; caste restrictions; and the fact that many women justifiably fear going to public health services because they are treated so badly, and because even hospitals have become places where you go to die not where you go to get well. So for all the reasons that I have described and more, across India rural girls and women face a dramatically increasing risk of HIV-AIDS. Unless national governments in the subcontinent and civil society as well as internationally agencies and donors act now, in unprecedented ways in South Asia, to right the wrongs against girls and women that we are discussing tonight we will see an unprecedented catastrophe. It will far, far outweigh the terrible catastrophe we are already witnessing in sub-Saharan Africa. So I cannot emphasize to you enough tonight how desperately important it is for all of us who are in a position to do so to encourage the development of basic health systems and basic healthcare across India, together with the empowerment of women and support to ensure their basic human rights.

Until January 2001, the U.S. government was a key contributor to ensuring girls' and women's health in the subcontinent. Among other things, the U.S. helped to establish in the United Nations global agreements on women's and adolescents' health and rights which all governments in South Asia have endorsed. The U.S. has also for years been the largest donor to reproductive health services and to programs for women's rights in the subcontinent. But the Bush administration has de-funded the primary U.N. agency that provides technical and financial support for reproductive health in the countries of South Asia, the UNFPA. The U.S., the Bush administration, has frozen funds to the World Health Organization program on human reproduction which does both social and biomedical research essential for the health of women and girls in South Asia. The U.S. government is now threatening other agencies and programs that will provide comprehensive sexuality education and health services for adolescents, as well as legal education and support for women's rights-not only in the subcontinent but across the developing world. While India has the resources to withstand the Bush administration assault on these programs and services, the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal do not. They are dependent on the finance and the policies of the U.S. government. So if you agree that the Bush administration's position is wrong, it is vitally important for you to say so, to inform others, and to engage them in protest against what the Bush administration is doing. The lives of billions of girls and women, to say nothing of boys and men, are at stake across Asia.


Well much of what I have to say is actually up on the panels. It is an exhibition with a lot of text. I will just give you a little lead-in to the exhibition and the kind of people you are seeing in it. I would like to say that all the pictures in this exhibit were taken with the consent of the women in those photographs. The exhibit has gone to the villages of those women and has been hosted by the women in their own villages, so it is also their property. This exhibition was made for the largest Indian women's organization, the All India Democratic Women's Association, and it was done for their national conference. Four of the landless agricultural laborers in those photographs inaugurated the exhibition with a song from the harvest fields. The women see the exhibition as their own and they have control over the sets that are touring India because they have the right to demand. It is a non-gallery set-up as you can see-it is meant to go to where people are. So it has been shown at college cafeterias; it has been shown at factory gates; it has been shown at school and college grounds. The last venue it which it was held in India was a railway station. At the point where it was inaugurated, 25,000 women of the class you will see in the photographs came out in a mass rally because they were having their own national conference for landless laborers. And these women then went through the exhibition themselves.

I would also like to say something about who these people are, and I would like to locate them in their special socio-economic context in other respects as well. I am saved a lot of that by the kind of input you have already heard from Smita and Adrienne. If you are looking at who are the Indian poor-who are they?-40% are landless agricultural laborers, 45% are small and marginal farmers (people who own two acres or less), 7.5% are rural artisans and all the others, whom economists glob in the column called "others" including the urban poor, make up the remaining 7.5%. So if you look at it, in that first 40%, the most vulnerable, the overwhelming number of them are women-the landless. And if you look more closely, you will see that those in the first two categories (85% of the poor in India) are in a problematic situation directly related to land, a lack of it or an insufficiency of it. Women in India are landless because, in practice, they have no land rights. And the caste dimension that Smita talked about is extremely important. 67% of all female agricultural laborers are indeed Dalits.

These are not the pictures of a professional photographer. These are the pictures of a reporter taken to tell his story. So please view them in that light…all of them are pictures that are trying to tell stories. Thank you.