LAWRENCE — Growing up in her native India, Mahasweta Banerjee saw firsthand the differences in opportunities for men and women in education, employment and the chance to lift oneself out of poverty.
As part of a Fulbright Research Award, the University of Kansas professor spent a year in India interviewing residents about their capabilities — abilities, skills, resources and opportunities at personal, interpersonal and structural levels — that enhance/impede work and income. She found that while millions still live in poverty, the country is making strides in helping people, including women, build better lives for themselves and their families.
Banerjee, professor of social welfare, visited the state of West Bengal, focusing on work capabilities. She viewed those through the lens of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, a welfare economist and philosopher who views capability as freedom to be and do. Given the gender differences in Indian society, Banerjee wanted to see not only how men and women viewed themselves but also how programs are working to help people improve their economic lot.
“I didn’t just want data, I wanted real stories,” Banerjee said. “Many people told me that poverty is so high, no one will give them loans because they would use it on food, not for business. Women participate much less in the formal work sector. This does not mean women don’t work. Whatever work women do is considered supplementary, even though in reality it is often primary.”
Banerjee interviewed 783 Indian citizens in Bengali, a local language. For her study, published in Affilia, Journal of Women and Social Work, she focused on a subset of 92 individuals:
- Seventy-three percent were female.
- The majority of participants were Hindu.
- Most were younger than 40.
- Forty-one percent were Dalit (low caste), and 29 percent were forward caste (higher castes or social class system).
Respondents identified 17 types of work abilities and found significant gender differences in areas such as pride, courage, self-confidence and high aspirations.
In terms of work skills, 95 percent of respondents reported they had some trade or job skills, and there was no difference between men and women. The finding was surprising, but explainable: While men have much greater opportunity in Indian society, women commonly learn skills and trades from family members.
“I think that explains the lack of difference in skills, but it doesn’t mean it’s good news because many people stay below the poverty line even if they are skilled workers,” Banerjee said. “The ones who have made it out of poverty and into the middle class offer the most lessons to learn.”
And those who have been economically successful did indeed share their lessons. Many had taken part in the Self Help Group program operated both by the government and NGOs that offer opportunities for saving, loans and skills training to start small businesses, enhance literacy and learn new job skills. Several women shared stories of spending the day raising children, cooking, keeping house and spending available time on jute work (weaving) and selling their wares at fairs and festivals. While jobs can be hard to find for many in India — some in the study compared them to “a false dream” — men are given more opportunities to network and get access to work.
Women also have societal expectations that discourage many from working outside the home. Those who reported they were able to overcome, or at least get around, societal gender expectations had the most success. Women working outside the home are often considered shameful for the family, or a poor reflection on a man who is not able to provide for his family.
“When they were able to convince their husbands to let them be able to work outside the home and that getting training was not shaming the family, but in fact helping the family by bringing in income, they were most successful,” Banerjee said. “A good spousal relationship was very important. Once their husbands believed in them, their lives became easier.”
Banerjee developed a scale to measure work capabilities of her participants. It ranged from zero to 50, with the latter being extremely capable. The findings:
- Women’s work capability ranged from zero to 26 with a mean of 8.94, while men’s work capability ranged from four to 28 with a mean of 13.56.
- There was a significant gender difference in work capabilities. Forty-one percent of respondents were wage employees, 35 percent were self-employed, and 16 percent were a mix.
- As expected, men were higher paid and had more ready access to resources. While women’s work capability differed by type of work, this was not true for men. In other words, irrespective of level of work capability men could be found in wage or self-employment and mixed work.
- Women’s work capability influenced their income more than it did for men, which means that women with lower levels of capability for work earned less than women with medium or high work capability.
Overall, the findings indicated, however, that the government’s Self Help Group program is making a difference in helping lift some women out of poverty through opportunity for savings, loans, financial education, skills training, networking and marketing, as the nation’s poverty level has dropped to 22 percent.
Ninety-eight percent of respondents reported that they had access to some sort of structural opportunities such as income-generating work, on-the-job training, group-based work, personal and business loans and educational scholarships. The only one that showed a gender difference was educational scholarships, where men had more access to scholarships than women.