Why The Anganwadi Workers’ Strike In Bengaluru Is A Feminist Issue

Posted: March 24, 2017

For most of us in comfortable white collar jobs, the plight of striking anganwadi workers hardly strikes a chord.

Today, the anganwadi workers on strike in Bengaluru called a ‘conditional’ halt, once the state government promised to address their demands after the polling in two constituencies gets over in April.

While most mainstream media have been covering the strike, I find little discussion of it on social media or among people I know. But the anganwadi workers’ problems are very much the problems of working women, and definitely a feminist issue.

First, what was the anganwadi workers’ strike about?

The anganwadi workers have been on strike protesting the unrealistically low wages paid to them by the Karnataka state government. Their current wages are Rs.6000 per month, which, given that their working hours have been hiked to 7 hours is very low; nor does it take into account the fact that aanganwadi workers don’t just manage child care at state-run anganwadis (itself a boon for many working mothers), but also help implement various government health schemes.

The anganwadi workers’ plight is not just about a particular segment of workers; it is a reflection of how work done by women is usually treated as ‘normal’, part of ‘women’s work’ and not requiring any additional skill – and hence can be poorly paid.

Women’s work doesn’t need skill – or payment

Yesterday, a colleague sent me this post about how having separate bank accounts can sometimes be the opposite of independence. The situation described there is as far away as one can get from the anganwadi workers’ strike – it is about comfortably off women in far away Australia, nonetheless leading far poorer lives, simply because they’ve scaled down on their careers to take care of children. With no pay for child care (because that’s just ‘mothers’ work’) and no easy access to the spouse’s earnings, they are now dependant on ‘pocket money’ doled out as seen fit by the husband.

One defiant line from that post stayed with me: Why is it “his” money, but “our” children?

While these women’s lives are very different from that of working class women in India, the underlying truth is the same: work done traditionally by women is devalued and not seen as worthy of being paid well. This applies to homemakers as much as to women in caregiving or ‘supportive’ occupations like anganwadi work, domestic work, or even nursing.

You could argue that anganwadi workers are typically, poorly educated, and hence earn in line with other jobs that require the same level of education. However, this isn’t really true.

The Central Government has actually fixed Rs.246-350 as the minimum daily wage for unskilled workers, although this isn’t evenly applicable across states, with labour laws being a State subject. However, the Finance Minister took pains to clarify that this doesn’t apply to anganwadi staff, saying in the post linked to above, “The nature of such jobs is voluntary and that’s very clear.”

Which begs the question, why?

Because it is largely women doing this work? Because women are not seen as breadwinners who really need the money? Because anganwadi workers run childcare centres and implement child welfare and health schemes, and hence this work is seen as a ‘voluntary’ extension of the unpaid work they do as mothers?

Nor are anganwadi workers the only women to be penalised in this manner. Pourkarmikas who clean the streets of Bengaluru (with little or no sanitation equipment) have repeatedly called out state and municipal authorities on their failure to pay a decent wage or even offer stability of jobs. What’s more, if you look at most pourkarmika teams you’ll notice that the cleaners are all women, but the supervisor (on the rare occasions he’s around) is always a man.

Domestic workers too face similar problems, with poor enforcement of even the limited legal protections available to them.

As long as the mindset is that women’s work – cooking, cleaning, childcare – is ‘easy’ work, we’ll continue to underpay the women who do a lot of the essential work that we as societies need.

As educated, urban women, we need to be talking about this.

Top image is of Anganwadi workers from Odisha, used for representational purposes only. Creative Commons license with credits to Pippa Ranger/UK Department for International Development.

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