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Dalit women labourers in Punjab battle sex abuse

May 11, 2019 06:39 AM

COURTESY TIMES OF INDIA MAY 11Dalit women labourers in Punjab battle sex abuse
IP Singh, Neel Kamal & Manish Sirhindi


In the wide expanse of a green field, Shabbo is busy digging up potatoes and gathering them in a sack. At the end of seven days she will get Rs 1000 for the work. Then she will start looking for employment all over again.

Illiterate and still in her early teens, Shabbo doesn’t even know how old she is. Asked about her age, she blushes and looks to her mother, Dheero, for an answer. The older woman, a widow, isn’t sure either. Her guess is that Shabbo, from Sarang Dev village in Amritsar, should be about 14.

Uneducated and dirt poor, thousands of women labourers are employed in farms across Punjab. But the lush green fields that provide sustenance to a substantial population of the country hide tales of exploitation, sexual and otherwise, discussed only behind closed doors.

An overwhelming 92% of the women are Dalits and are often forced to work under exploitative conditions, say researchers from Punjabi University, a top state varsity in Patiala. According to some estimates, there are in all about 15 lakh agricultural labourers in Punjab.

Professor Gian Singh, expert on rural and agriculture economics, and his team collected primary data from 1,017 households across 12 districts of Punjab. Their study, released in April 2019, found that 70% of the women admitted to facing sexual exploitation but had kept quiet about it. Many were victims of caste discrimination.

Compounding the situation is their social and financial condition. Almost all of them in debt, most are too scared to protest as they fear losing precious days of wages, even if the money is often below what can be considered minimum.

“We have to face various types of abuse and often sexual advances. If we speak up, who will hire us?” Rajbir Kaur from Khunde Halal village in Muktsar district said.

According to Gian Singh, an average rural woman labourer in Punjab earns Rs 77,198 annually. The amount is too low to meet even basic needs and ends up pushing the families into deep debt.

Singh added that usually the amount of loan taken is not too high but moneylenders charge steep interest rates, making it difficult for borrowers to repay. He said that 93.71% of women labourers who were part of the study were reeling under debt and the average amount was Rs 53,916 per household. A little over 81% of the loans had been taken from non-institutional (local) lenders.

About 90% of the study respondents were not aware that they were entitled to standard working hours and minimum wages. Over 36% of them were not paid equal wages compared with men.

“Work starts at 8am and there are no breaks until lunch. Most of us try to finish as much as possible since we are paid to complete a certain task and not on a per day basis,” said Dheero.

The debts have grown in the last decade as agriculture becomes highly mechanised, eating into the odd jobs that employed the women workforce. Economic deprivation due to lower employment rates has had another fallout. The families now migrate to wherever they can find jobs, which keeps children from getting an education. Dheero said that both Shabbo and her son Nanak have never been to school.


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