Landless women workers take the lead in battle for equal wages

Women, who form a major chunk of the total landless farm workers, are generally paid much less than their male counterparts for almost equal amount of work. Yet, their problems suffer great neglect.

But a refreshingly different view emerged in Sultanpur Chilkana village of Saharanpur district in western Uttar Pradesh where farm workers struck work demanding equal wages for equal work. Women farm workers here had attended a legal training camp by voluntary organisation Disha where they learnt that the law provides equal wages for women workers when they were actually getting less than half of what male workers got. Supported by several male workers the women workers went on a strike. When landowners tried to bring workers from outside, the women stood as guards in the fields and pleaded with outsiders not to break their unity. Despite being threatened with violence, they remained firm.

An interesting initiative they took was to tell small peasants that they were willing to work for them at a lower wage as their paying capacity was less. But the bigger, richer landowners should pay a higher wage. This helped to establish broader unity of landless workers and small, marginal peasants. The big landowners, of course, felt increasingly isolated. The harvest season was approaching and they didn't want to risk loss of crops. They accepted the demand of raising the wage rate of women to nearly equal to that of male workers.

To stabilise this gain, the women formed the ‘Front for Women, Workers and Small Farmers' (briefly called Morcha at the local level). Over ten thousand people gathered at a short notice where the formation of the new organisation was announced. The organisation now has units in about 80 villages.

The importance of women leading the movement became even more clear when they took on the liquor mafia in the face of increasing liquor vends in the region. Though the women suffered in the hands of the police, their determination became state-level news. Finally, the administration was forced to remove the liquor vends.

During the emergency the government had given cultivation land to those landless workers who underwent sterilisation. After several years, the administration suddenly declared that this was only a temporary measure and this land will now be taken back. The Morcha protested and in collaboration with Disha managed to obtain a stay order from the High Court.

Women members of Morcha and Disha started going to remote villages to investigate cases of atrocities against women and managed to secure justice in several such cases. This also opened up opportunities for several women who had faced oppression in their own life to now assume an activist role. In particular, this mobilisation effort opened up a brave new world for some Muslim women. Jahooran, from a very poor family, played a useful role in Disha's health programme and later a very courageous role in the anti-liquor agitation. Her daughter Shahnaaz suffered even more poverty and neglect but she too could rise above these problems to get trained as a midwife. Naseema too overcame several adverse circumstances to start self-help groups in backward and neglected villages of Dehradun district. Mukesh left behind memories of physical assault suffered earlier by her to win panchayat elections and organise self-help groups. Says Naseema, “When oppressed women get a chance to get out of their narrow confines, they want to turn the earth around; they want to fly like butterflies and touch the sky.”

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