Formed in 1991, The Indian Academy of Self-Employed Women (IASEW) serves as the umbrella under which the Self-Employed Women’s Association — a union of poor, self-employed women workers — builds the capacity of its members and of other groups.
Today, IASEW is an integral part of SEWA as a whole and serves as the focal point for all of SEWA’s training, capacity building, research, and communication efforts.
Poor women are not a homogenous group. They are divided on various grounds like caste, class, and employment activity. What they have in common is deprivation and discrimination. They have poorer access to development. They are discriminated against in the family itself in terms of distribution of income consumption and assets. Consequently, poverty affects women with lower consumption levels, poorer health, and lower education. Women-headed households particularly have a higher incidence of poverty.
The vast majority of rural women in the unorganised sector is landless; they work in the fields, they look after the animals, and they are actively involved in food production, food processing, forestry and rural industry. They also participate in construction work, labour in the factories, work in mines, and engage in trade and vending. In addition, they have the burden of bearing and rearing children, collecting and fetching water, gathering firewood, and cooking and cleaning activities. Deforestation, famine, drought, and other calamities affect women much more adversely than men.
Although women work for longer hours and contribute substantially to the family income, they are not perceived as workers by either the women themselves or the data collecting agencies and the government — none recognising the multidimensional functions of women’s work, which include productive and reproductive labour. Women, quite often, are the major earners for their families. This also goes unrecognised.
The labour market favours men against women in almost all sectors. The division of labour itself is highly sex biased; in rice cultivation, for example, seeding, transplanting, weeding, and threshing operations are women’s jobs while ploughing is done by men. In the textile industry, in most areas, weaving is essentially done by men while women do spinning and other operations. Similarly, in construction work, men do the skilled jobs of brick laying while women mix mortar and carry headloads of earth and bricks.
The discrimination is further manifested in male and female earnings. Micro-studies reveal that men dominate jobs with higher wages while women are confined to arduous, low-wage work. The same is the case in industries like bidi-making, construction work, cashew cultivation, and the coir industry. Here, women are assigned unskilled work, but women are paid less even in skilled operations.
In the urban informal sector, some of the lowest paid occupations have a disproportionately high percentage of women. In the organised sector, 90 per cent of the women are found in unskilled and semi-skilled lobs. There are a large number of marginal female workers, and they face strong “discouraged worker effect” in the slack season.
Gender inequality is also marked in education and vocational skill training. Despite the impressive increase in total numbers of literate women, the male-female gaps remain large, and a slow rate of progress of women’s education is noted with a virtual stagnation in the area of technical education. The male-female gaps in enrolment tend to increase with successive higher levels of education. The rural-urban differences in literacy rates continue to be much larger for women. Amongst children between 6 to 11 years, one out of every three girls is outside the schools while the enrolment of boys is reported to be 100 per cent. The drop-out rate of girls is very high compared to boys.
A major shortcoming of the education strategy has been that workers in poverty-stricken groups of landless farmers, marginal workers in unorganised sectors, urban slum dwellers, workers, and migrant workers have not been reached. Since women have less access to education and skill training, they are unable to exploit the instruments through which women can attain equality. The present situation of illiteracy amongst women, which is negatively related to fertility rates and infant child mortality rates, further perpetuate gender inequalities.