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When Men Migrate: How Women Saved A Jharkhand Village From Economic Ruin In Lockdown

Due to men moving out, it’s the women who shoulder most of the responsibilities within and outside the house. They also reportedly take charge of carrying out official works and eventually become aware of their social and political rights, which otherwise are perceived as a male-centric domain.

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What happens to women in villages after men migrate? In Koderma, it led to economic empowerment
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It was perhaps the women and their laborious savings that saved the little village of Koderma in Jharkhand when the migrant crisis hit during the first 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

When the lockdown was announced, over six lakh migrants from Jharkhand were reportedly stuck outside the state with no way to return home. 

On the second day, March 26, the Jharkhand government announced a central helpline number for those stranded elsewhere. Although that provided some respite for the men to pull through the onerous journey back home, the depleting resources added to the challenging times.

But in Koderma village, another story was taking shape, one of empowerment. While the men struggled to earn, the women who were "left behind", wives, and relatives of the migrant workers, started taking charge.

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"It was the women who came to the rescue household economy by taking up chores considered to be "male" in the absence of their husbands. Their bits of savings brought some relief to the families and to the village economy as well,” says Mausmi, co-founder of Jharkhand Anti-trafficking Network (JATN).

Social workers across 130 villages in Jharkhand have long observed an accidental wave of women’s liberation with the large-scale migration of men. Due to men moving out, it’s the women who shoulder most of the responsibilities within and outside the house. They also reportedly take charge of carrying out official works and eventually become aware of their social and political rights, which otherwise are perceived as a male-centric domain.

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“Like Koderma, such a situation is rampant across several non-tribal districts of Chatra, Hazaribagh, Deogarh, Giridihi, Godda, and so on,” says Hussain Imam Fatmi, Secretary and state coordinator of JATN. Jharkhand sees a lot of ‘distress’ migration, whereby men have to migrate inter-state or intra-state to find a livelihood. It’s the women and their stories to attain potential that are left behind unnoticed.

Feminisation of agriculture

In Jharkhand, men mostly undertake seasonal migration where they leave between December and January, after harvesting the monsoon crops, for around six to seven months and return before the sowing season. “It is during this time that women begin to tend to indoor and outdoor chores to have everything in place. With their male counterparts away, they also feel a sense of freedom and less restriction to go about their daily chores,” he says.

Jabh un log ghar mein rehte hai, toh thoda bahar jana toh dikkat hoti hai. Par jabh in log bahar jaatey hai, mahilaye aapni tarah se bohot kaam kar paatey hai (When men stay home, it is difficult to step outside. However, with them gone, we have the freedom to work as per our wishes),” Neelam, who is associated with the migrant forum at Serandag village, tells Outlook. Further, she admits that when husbands stay away, women can do the work in a way that is less burdening for them. “It also allows us more freedom to venture outdoor, for as long as we want, and invest our time among women and in women forums.”

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Some money is also sent back home by their husbands and sons, and if that does not suffice, women also take up small-scale businesses such as stitching, handicrafts, and so on. This creates a sense of “financial liberty”, as pointed out by social workers, that is born out of keeping a record of household expenses which are otherwise viewed as ‘men-centric’ affairs.

“Financial power is one of the most important aspects to create women’s liberty. Financial mobility allows women to understand social dynamics and also venture into earning their own income. For families who own land, women also start learning to keep a record of the profit and loss from the harvest,” says Masumi, who adds that such tasks also inadvertently push women into the habit of savings. And these savings are what you can fall back on in times of crisis.

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This has led to a “feminisation of agriculture”, where women in many states in the northern belt are now given a farmer’s card which gives access to several policies given to male farmers. 

With this sense of empowerment, women in these villages also take up initiatives to form assemblies for the welfare of women and children that are left behind, and begin to even attend meetings at an official level. Here, the additional 33 per cent reservation of women representation at the Gram Panchayat and Gram Sabhas has rendered helpful in decision-making processes that demand female participation.

Further, to harbour ‘safe migration’, women also form migrant forums in their respective villages to spread awareness of having migrant cards, issued by the state government. These collectives among other self-help groups (SHGs), with help of NGO networks, work towards realising women’s social and political rights.

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Additionally, social organisations such as SEWA-Bharat undertake multiple initiatives to increase awareness raised around issues concerning the health of women and family planning.

Citing an example of the same in West Bengal’s Murshidabad, SEWA-Bharat state coordinator Sanchita Mitra, says, “When we were doing work around women’s health-related training when men were not there, we saw a shift in mind and health from women’s part in family planning. This change eventually influenced the husbands and they also started taking measures of family planning, which was otherwise unthinkable.”

Sanchita believes that such a shift was only possible because of women coming together to a platform, where they felt empowered being surrounded by knowledge and awareness.

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However, the idea of empowerment is “complex and diverse” and must be approached from different angles.

Empowerment seen as more of a ‘challenge’

Even though the freedom to undertake outdoor activities increases, household chores don’t decrease.

Kaam bahut badh jaati hai. Jab bahar jaatey hai, kheto mein or itti-bhattey mein, bachhey ko sath mein leke jaana hota hai (Work increases a lot. When we venture out to the field or the brickyard, we also need to take the children with us),” tells Ranjana, a Mahila Panchayat Praitinidhi Mukhya (chief), Bagra village.

Ranjana and Neelam add that the onus to bring up children and tend to all domestic chores, in this case, completely falls upon the women while men stay away for months to earn a livelihood. “They know that they will stay at home for a very brief time and hence, they prefer not to bother themselves much with whatever has been going around. So the additional responsibility of outdoor chores, without much support from them, adds to the existing demanding household tasks,” they say.

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Additionally, the sense of financial liberty flowing through women often creates insecurity among men and the tables turn. “There are growing reports of violence every time men migrate back to the villages. When they return, they often have to ask for money from their wives which is a pinch to the male ego. Women stepping outside also becomes a restricted business and all of this leads to abusive behaviour,” tells Mausmi, who cited this situation as a prime example of what happened during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Further, there is an indirect impact on agriculture, on what is being produced and consumed. “Millets are a rich source of vitamins and iron. However, with men migrating out, millet-rich areas often stop producing it due to the arduous process of harvesting. Without the men in the village and the increasing burden of work, women find it difficult to produce the crop. Hence, migration of men has an indirect impact on food and health of women and children,” says Sanchita.

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Most of the time, when mothers have to undertake migration, children are left behind with their grandparents. Social workers observe that a lack of parental guidance often makes the situation vulnerable for these young girls and boys, which leads to stunted emotional growth, child marriage, and several crimes including human trafficking.

When men leave, women’s identity as a worker comes under a crisis. So, besides picking up the work left behind by men and earmarked for them, what is truly needed is, as believed by social workers, “a separate solidarity movement that must be undertaken by various social organisers to make women the leaders”.

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