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Steel and Social Change: Redefining Women’s Work in Rural India

In rural India, women face a host of social barriers to work, including ingrained notions of what women can do. One project brings together NGOs, corporations and the government to help women smash gender biases and join the workforce.

Written by Sutirtha Sahariah Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Before joining up with the Disha project, the JSL steel factory had only one female employee – now it hires around 100 women across the production process.Sutirtha Sahariah

NEW DELHI – After she got her polytechnic degree from a local college in the northern Indian state of Haryana in 2015, Komal Kaushik was excited to start her career in electronics. But nobody would hire her.

“I was unemployed for a year, I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “As a girl, my options were very limited, and my parents wanted to marry me off.”

Then in early 2016, Kaushik, now 22, had the opportunity to get a job. There was just one problem: It was in a steel factory, the kind of work normally only done by men.

The job was being offered through the newly launched Disha project, a partnership between the India Development Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), supported by the IKEA Foundation.

Disha aims “to make women economically self-sufficient,” says Clement Chauvet, head of skills and business development at UNDP. They do this not by teaching women to become seamstresses or giving them money to start artisanal food businesses, but by finding jobs that need to be filled and then training women in the skills they need – including life skills such as driving – to allow them to step into those jobs.

“We work with the industry to create an enabling environment so that a greater number of women can join India’s workforce,” Chauvet says. Disha, which translates as “direction” in Hindi, aims to reach 1 million women across various industries in five Indian states by December 2018.

An Opportunity to Move Forward

When Kaushik attended one of the project’s career counseling sessions in her village, she was told she could join a four-month apprenticeship program at a stainless-steel utensils factory belonging to Jindal Lifestyle Limited (JSL), 6 miles (10km) away in Rohad district. If she successfully completed her training, she would be offered a job.

The offer, while promising, was met with skepticism. “Our first interaction was disappointing. The girls listened but no one was ready. But we didn’t give up,” says Kanta Singh, UNDP’s State Project Head in New Delhi.

“We talked to them at length about the benefits of being economically independent, the importance of delaying marriage, and encouraged them to think more broadly about their own potential.

“For the girls in rural India, the whole prospect of women working in factories and doing jobs traditionally done by men just sounded bewildering. It was also socially unacceptable.”

By May 2016, Singh had encouraged 25 women to sign up for the program. At first, Kaushik’s family was against her applying.

“My family members were not all comfortable. They said women don’t really work in steel factories,” she says.

“But I was very persistent and said I could be first one. As the eldest, I am like a son for my family, I wanted to help my dad and increase the family income. It was an opportunity to move forward in life.”

Her family was finally convinced when they found out JSL would provide transport to and from the factory, and the UNDP assured them the women employees would be safe at work. There was a big celebration in her family when she got the letter offering her a place on the factory’s production line.

“My neighbors, too, wanted to send their daughters. I encouraged them by saying that to get anything for the first time in life, you have to struggle, so go for it,” she says.

‘A Wonderful Resource’

Despite being one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India’s latest economic survey found that only 24 percent of Indian women are in work, one of the lowest rates of women’s labor participation in the world.

A 2017 World Bank study says the number of women in India’s workforce has been trending down in recent years: An analysis of data between 2004 and 2012 showed that 19.6 million women withdrew from the workforce, more than 50 percent of them in rural India, as a result of early school dropout, having children and stability in a spouse’s income.

At first, Komal Kaushik’s family didn’t want her to apply for an apprenticeship at the JSL steel factory, saying it was men’s work. In under two years, she has moved from the production line to a role as logistics supervisor. (Sutirtha Sahariah)

In an industrial region like Haryana, traditionally male factory jobs offer opportunities to get more women into the workforce. But industry observers say there are various challenges that deter factories from hiring women, such as the need for further investment in additional security, CCTV and basic facilities like women’s toilets.

Then there is the potential backlash from male employees, as by law women can only do factory work between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., leaving the men to pick up all the nightshifts. Instead of adapting and working to change these attitudes, employers often find it easier to simply hire fewer women, Singh says.

To address these potential issues, Disha helped JSL make a number of structural changes both at policy and infrastructure levels. “We put a stringent security system in place; health and safety measures were revised; and a woman welfare officer was appointed.”

“Separate toilets, a creche facility, dining and recreational areas were built for the women employees,” says Rajiv Williams, corporate head of corporate social responsibility at JSL.

“The other challenge was to get men used to working alongside women. We adopted a zero-tolerance policy against indecent or abusive language.

“We observed over time that the men behaved more soberly in the presence of women colleagues.”

As word spread, the training program quickly became popular and, within months of its launch, the factory was inundated with new applications. “When the women from the first couple of batches started earning an income, even male employees wanted their female relatives to join,” Williams says.

The JSL factory, which until recently had just one female employee, now has around 100 skilled women working in various stages of the production process. “The women have been a wonderful resource,” HR manager Rakesh Kaushik (no relation to Komal Kaushik) says. “They work with absolute dedication and ensure that the products meet high quality standards.”

Since starting at the factory in August 2016, Komal Kaushik has risen through the ranks and learned new I.T. skills – and is now the factory’s logistics supervisor.

“Girls are mostly confined to kitchen work. We do not have an identity,” she says. “A girl’s value increases manyfold if she is working.”

This story has been updated to identify Kanta Singh of UNDP.

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