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Eat less, work more

Maheen MIRZA

05 / 2010

The entire burden of working, earning and providing food security to the family seems to be on women in urban slums. And yet the nutritional status of women is abysmal. The fourth in our series on food security of the urban poor.

It is a cold winter morning and Kabbi shivers as the sun, bright and warm, suddenly falls on her skin as she stands by the ‘illegal’ tap awaiting her turn to fill water for her household. She is still in her school uniform and came home in the mid-morning break when the mid-day meal was being distributed. This is her daily routine. She may go back if she finishes her work quickly, but if the break time finishes before she gets this work done, she won’t. She doesn’t want to face the wrath of her teacher when she is late. He often says that people “like her” only come to eat the food the school provides. She agrees. “What else do they do?” she shrugs. “The teachers hardly teach anything. They are more interested in scolding, taunting and beating the children.” Kabbi knows her teachers are not interested in whether she learns or not. She sits at the back of her class with a couple of other girls from her community, trying to stay out of trouble.

There are eight members in Kabbi’s family and she is the third child. She went back to school after her youngest brother Hasmukh was old enough to attend school at the age of eight. But he usually runs off with a group of young children who ask for food and money outside the big food shops and hotels. Kabbi also wants to leave school. All the girls her age have already dropped out. Maybe she will get into full-time scrap-picking like her mother and sister, or carry lights in baraats like her other friends. But she probably can’t. Since all her younger siblings are brothers, and her older sister and mother go out to work, it is her responsibility to cook and keep house for all of them.

Like Kabbi, thousands of young girls do household work or paid work from the time they are six or seven years old. In poor urban communities, mobility and income-generating capacity of women is very high and so are their responsibilities. Unlike middle class households, the women’s income here is not an additional income that helps to buy better or more things. It is the primary, and often only, income which provides the food and other basic needs of the entire family. The men are daily wage earners and have erratic incomes. However, irrespective of class, men feel it is their right to control any income that comes into the house even when they are not the ones bringing it in. When they do earn, their contribution to the family’s income is not very high and they spend it mostly on themselves. Thus the entire burden of feeding the family, rearing the children, nursing the ill and looking after older people falls on women.

“Some men think it is below their dignity to pick scrap, while others feel that it is too risky for them to venture out to do that work as the police would round them. Some just don’t work because they know they will be taken care of by the women. Feeling of responsibility among men is very low,” broods Tara from the Gautam Nagar slum in Bhopal, one of two slums studied for this series.

“I know that the moment the money reaches home, it will disappear – either we will return someone’s loan or more likely it will go into alcohol. That is why I buy food for the evening meal as soon as I sell my maal (waste). Otherwise all of us will go hungry,” explains Babita, Kabbi’s older sister.

The city is usually seen as a place that gives women a lot of freedom. Strangely, it has very few examples of equitable gender relationships to offer. Patriarchal structures are merely modified to adapt to the urban context. But they never really change in their intent or form. Wherever women turn, they have to negotiate within these structures and find sustenance for themselves and their children.

Women find it a great relief to have girl children who can share their household work. Ironically, though, the preference for a son is still very high, though gradually women are beginning to realise that having a boy means looking after him for the rest of his life.

“In homes that have girls, there is much relief for the mother,” says Rukmani, a domestic worker from the Indra Nagar basti in Bhopal. Her 12-year-old daughter returns from school, cleans the house, cooks dal and prepares the dough by the time she returns. Then they make rotis together and a subzi if there is one.

Sometimes the men cook – when the woman is very ill or if they get something special like mutton. But even then, they instruct and have to be assisted by the women or children. “It is like a production for them,” sniggers Kalpana, a domestic worker. “And if they cook once they keep reminding us and talking about it for days.”

In the poorer communities that have settled in Bhopal, women make an attempt to add to the food basket of the family and even retain food preferences by gathering edible vegetables that grow in far-off ponds or some forested parts on the outskirts of the city. “I would go to Bhadbada”, a lake about 4 kms from the basti, “and collect a whole basket of sunsunia bhajji. But when there was a flood in 2007, the bhajji roots were washed away. Since then it has not come back,” says Chandrakala who lives in the Ganga Nagar basti.

Some gather leftover vegetables strewn around the markets – cabbage leaves, potatoes, squashed tomatoes. This means scavenging in the market at midnight after the market closes. Though the men look down on the practice, it is a much needed addition to the food of the family.

The quantity of food that women and girls consume is abysmally low. Kalpana, who cooks and cleans in four houses, never gets to eat any of the food that she has cooked. She says she is never offered food and when she is, it’s in a different plate and glass and is often leftover, stale food that the family will not eat. “Better not to eat,” she says.

Most days she eats her first meal in the afternoon after she gets home. She has two rotis along with dal and subzi if there is any. After this she returns to work. Her second meal is at night and this too is the same in quantity. She tries to have chicken meat at least twice a month “so that the children will be strong”. But her children, who go to a private school, have started to refuse meat.

This reduction in meat consumption is notable especially among those communities that have a regular and stable source of income. When there is interaction between non meat-eating communities, who are usually of a higher socio-economic status, and children from lower socio-economic strata, the latter start finding many of their own practices unclean and one of them is eating meat. They hide the fact that they eat meat or stop eating it altogether to be like their richer counterparts. This is particularly noticeable among girls, but it has not been replaced by any substantial food. There has thus been a systematic decrease in the quantity, quality and content of food in the girls’ plates among the urban poor.

The interaction between the poor and the well-off that often occurs in cities has another odd consequence for women. Women who work as domestics observe that on particular days their better-off women employers keep religious fasts. According to one domestic worker they eat so much fruit and phalahaar on these days that they end up eating better than on other days. Unfortunately, this trend of keeping fasts is steadily increasing among women in poorer communities. While the aspiration is to grow ‘purer’ and become like the people they serve, for poorer women it means not eating and continuing to work hard. For middle class women fasts mean a change in the kind and pattern of diet but for women from poorer communities it means a direct reduction in the quantity and content of food. Their meal is not substituted by any other kind of food like fruits. This directly impacts their health.

Rinku is a scrap-picker. She eats one home-cooked meal a day which consists of one roti and some rice along with a broth made from chicken remains (intestines and skin). Besides this she eats a samosa and tea when she returns from her first round of scrap-picking at about eight in the morning. Rinku is painfully thin as are most women in her basti. It is a miracle that they can still lift their waste-filled bags. The meagre diet depletes the body’s resources and even a single illness takes its toll.

Falling ill for these women is a major disaster. Not only does it mean loss of income but also of food for the family. So they take an injection or a glucose drip and go back to work. Trying to fight disease and illness through adequate nutrition and special foods is not an option even though it would actually turn out to be cheaper, or the same, as the private medical intervention they resort to. In fact, it is not unusual to find that sometimes when women are ill they try to eat even less. Fruits are considered a luxury and are very rarely bought.

This lack of nutrition puts pregnant women at greater risk. The life cycle of women is far more demanding than that of men, involving as it does reproduction and secondary status in families which require them to work just as hard as men on less food. More women than men therefore suffer from anaemia in their reproductive years. According to the National Family Health Survey of 2005-06, more than 48% of women and about 16% of men between the ages of 15 and 49 are anaemic in urban Madhya Pradesh.

The lack of adequate nourishment and rest during pregnancy means difficult deliveries and malnourished babies. Almost all the children in the Gautam Nagar basti are underweight. The incidence of children dying due to lack of adequate nourishment is also very high. This basti loses at least two to three children to hunger every year.

No government service reaches the people here (as the bastiis on private land), nor do they have any means of accessing information or services that would help manage malnutrition. Poor women return to work soon after delivery which means they don’t get the rest they need and have little time to devote to the well-being of the newborn. In unorganised work, there is no paid leave so staying away from work could mean a loss of income or even loss of the job.

Priority spending is never on food but on education and healthcare which should be provided by the government but isn’t. In fact, when people need to access healthcare or any other emergency service, it is the money from the food budget that is utilised for medicines that enables them to get back to work quickly. Rest and nutritious food would be better, but this is not an option for women.

Though women are an integral part of food procurement and decision-making about food for the family, they have no say in the larger policies and programmes affecting food consumption and security.

Ration cards, for example, require the photograph of the head of the family who is assumed to be a man; women are almost always considered dependents. Women know more about the public distribution system than their menfolk and have an opinion on how it should work. They would, for example, prefer to get their subsidised rations in smaller quantities instead of all of it at one go as it’s more affordable to pay in smaller amounts. Also, if the entire ration comes at one time, the men tend to sell it for money, forcing women to buy more expensive food from the market.

Recently there has been talk of issuing new ration cards. The men in the community were asked to submit their old ration cards and take the new ones. Most of the men agreed, but the women are very suspicious. They want the new ration cards to be issued first before the old ones are cancelled. They are also worried that the quantity of rations may be reduced. “Who does the government ask before doing this? How do they know how much food is enough for us?” questions an old lady, who spent more than a year getting her ration card separated from her son’s. “You think these drunkard men will be able to tell them? If you ask them, they will want alcohol to be given on the ration card, not food.”

“Last week for the nagarpalika (local self government body) and mayor’s election, they [political parties] brought rivers of alcohol into the basti, along with cash. The whole basti was drunk by afternoon,” says one woman. When they came the next time the women asked them why they didn’t give money to women. And if they had to give something, why they didn’t give wheat and dal? They had no answer. “They kept telling us to ask the men. We kept telling them that they should come directly to us. You won’t come to vote, they said. If you give us atta, dal we will come, we said. But who is listening?”

Palabras claves

barrio de chabolas, malnutrición, alimentación, marginación social y salud, pobreza, mujer

, India


Urban poverty and malnutrition in Bhopal


This is the fourth in Maheen Mirza’s series on nutrition among the urban poor in Bhopal, which has been researched on the Infochange Media Fellowship 2009.

Read the other parts:


Artículos y dossiers

Maheen MIRZA, Eat less, work more, in InfoChange, May 2010

InfoChange (News and analysis on social justice and development issues in India) - Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) C/12, Gera Greens, NIBM Road, Kondhwa, Pune-411 048, INDIA - India - - infochangeindia (@)

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