Renana Jhabvala: I have many studies to show that our statistics really underestimate them (migrant women) so that they, in most ways in the country, do not exist. They exist, but they do not exist for any decision maker.
Sonalde Desai: Of the 45 million migrants recorded in the 2011 census, 31 million are women; which means that 67% of migrants are women. There are approximately 21 million marriage migrants. While women who migrate with their families make up about 11% or four crores; single migrant working women make up about three percent or 73 lakh. But the most important group for which we have almost no statistics is those whose husbands migrate for work. Our 2004 Human Development Survey found that three percent of women whose husbands migrated were left behind in their places of origin. This number rose to 8% in 2011.
Dipa Sinha: There is also the broader context of the invisibility of women and children, not just migrants. And when they are migrants, they become even more vulnerable. There is not a single representative migrant woman. It is an extremely heterogeneous group, there are women who migrate from one village to another because of marriage or to work with the family. We need to design programs specifically and ensure that migrant women are included in the design and how to address this would probably not be the same for each migrant format.
On issues affecting migrant women
Jhabvala: When work stopped (during Covid-19), power problems appeared. Many did not have ration cards or the ration cards were in their villages. They were not transferable so they could not access the food later. Some governments have done universal food distribution, but much of that has been through online registrations, and many of them didn’t have cellphones, or their accounts weren’t not linked to their phone numbers.
Sinha: Although, as a citizen of this country, a migrant woman is entitled to government programs, she is excluded by the fact that she is a migrant. For example, when a woman is married outside her village, but returns to her native village to give birth for five or six months, often during those most important months, she does not get these services because her residence seems be elsewhere; all our schemes remain linked to the place of residence. This particularly alienates women from anganwadi services and the PDS. Thus, the universality of services loses its meaning if there is no portability attached to it.
Considering the fact that they are denied these rights simply because they have moved for some reason, we can develop decentralized policies.
Jhabvala: Migrant women have no identity as workers, which means they have no access to health care or work during the lockdown. There is also a problem of bank accounts. Perhaps the biggest burden was the rent. A domestic worker in Delhi lived with three girls and a boy. Her husband had died during Covid-19. Seeing a vulnerable woman, the landlord harassed her for rent, and wanted to have sex with the 15-year-old girl. And it’s not uncommon.
Desai: Marriage migration in northern India, where a girl cannot marry in her own village, has led to a cultural tradition of devaluing girls. These are the areas in which very unfavorable sex ratios are observed. This marriage of girls outside the village devalues the importance of girls to parents. The women’s movement fought hard for women’s land rights and inheritance rights. But girls who married elsewhere found it very difficult to exercise these rights and retain control of the land.
Rajeshwari B: Migrant workers live and work in very unsanitary conditions. In brick kilns, we have seen that the living area is poorly made. Just to save money, contractors make very improvised shelters for them. Migrant women are vulnerable to sexual assault on these sites. We need to understand how they work and how we can make sure people don’t take advantage of these vulnerable communities.
Jhabvala: There is a law on sexual harassment in the workplace and it includes informal workers. But these systems for informal workers have not been put in place. And they can also be set up with the help of civil society, especially in places where women work on the site.
On child rearing issues
Jhabvala: Education has always been a major issue for the children of migrants, even in normal times. In a study we conducted in brick kilns, we found that 85% of children (of seasonal migrants) had never been enrolled in a school, compared to 10% of local children. We have come across cases where girls were married off at 15 or 16 because they had no chance of going to school due to the pandemic.
Rajeshwari B: Barely 30% of people have access to the Internet on their smartphone. How many children can actually hold a smartphone in their hands and have access to the digital classroom that the government system gives them? In rural areas, a family usually owns a telephone and often not even a smartphone.
On Diet Awareness
Borhad: There is a serious lack of awareness about the type of programs that are available to them (migrant women) when they migrate. There are some programs, especially for maternal and child health, such as integrated child development services or the Janani Suraksha Yojana. Another important aspect is that the financial inclusion of migrant women is needed on a very large scale, especially with regard to the opening of bank accounts, which is linked to various social protection programs.