Bengaluru: More and more women are talking back across Kerala, winning new battles in a state that tops India in gender empowerment.
Over 200,000 nurses, almost all of them women, took to the streets in a month-long agitation as a long-pending demand for pay rise came to head in July. The government was forced to intervene and the minimum wage for nurses was raised from around Rs12,000 to Rs20,000 in most hospitals.
Also in July, three women filed complaints against three high profile public figures—a top actor, a legislator and a news anchor—leading to their arrests in separate cases of alleged sexual harassment.
There are more similar incidents from the recent past: Take the month-long strike by female law students in January that saw the principal of the Kerala Law Academy in Thiruvananthapuram district removed because of alleged harassments.
Or the uprising by women tea plantation workers in Idukki, which forced a powerful minister to publicly apologize for making disparaging remarks against them.
These incidents show the divergence between two aspects of gender empowerment in Kerala.
On the one hand, this southern state has long out-performed other Indian states in gender empowerment. In an achievement unparalleled in the rest of the country, women in Kerala almost equal the achievements of women in the developed world—literacy rates, to low infant mortality, other health indicators and favourable sex ratio.
On the other hand, this relatively recent rise of the angry young women of Kerala shows that below the surface of achievements, gender imbalance continues to characterise various walks of life, especially in the workplace, say experts.
“On the one side, given the favourable sex ratio and high rates of education, the participation of women in Kerala’s economy and society is increasing. However, the society is still unwilling to take them seriously and their exploitation continues,” said Jayan Jose, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, who works on labour market relations in Kerala.
The nurses’ agitation is a classic case. Women make up 22.1% and 19.1% respectively of Kerala’s rural and urban workforce, as per the latest data from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 2011. These figures are marginally better than the Indian averages.
The state shines when it comes to wages for women—in both rural and urban casual labour, Kerala’s female wages are at least 40% higher than those of their counterparts in the rest of the country going by the 2011 NSSO. But the same data shows male-female wage gap in Kerala to be one of the highest in India, said Jose.
Women in Kerala either work in low-paid jobs like in tea plantations or domestic services, or are severely underpaid compared to their male colleagues in other areas of work such as nursing or textiles, says J. Devika, a writer and associate professor of gender at a Thiruvananthapuram-based think tank, Centre for Development Studies.
“There is a trade-off between respectability and low wages in Kerala. In return for the visibility and so-called respectable jobs, women were asked to work under less pay,” she said.
One of the reasons this has come to a head now in sectors like nursing could be the squeeze on upward mobility by the emigration route—something Kerala is well-known for—that has followed the recent decline in oil prices.
The Kerala job market is categorized by a demand-supply mismatch. There’s an oversupply of skilled workers but few good jobs, forcing a third of the population to find employment outside the state, including the Gulf countries of West Asia.
The oil price crisis and the resultant nationalization of jobs in Gulf countries have changed those dynamics; fewer Malayalees migrated abroad in 2016—a first in nearly half a century of migration, Mint reported in June.
Rasmi P., a nurse and the vice-president of the United Nurses Association that led the July agitation, said many of the nurses from Kerala used to migrate abroad after a mandatory requirement of three years of work experience in India, but this trend has been declining for a year or two, coinciding with the oil prices crisis. “The job options there have shrunk, and we cannot tolerate the low wages anymore,” she said.
Similarly, women are increasingly standing up for their sexual and sexuality rights.
Devika said the rise in high-profile sexual assault complaints are led by a new class of women—long literate and aware of the laws, they are slowly putting them to use now. Like the female actor, whose complaint against her alleged abduction and sexual assault in a moving car has not only led to the arrest of Malayalam top movie star Dileep, but is also creating fissures in the Malayalam film industry.
It has spawned a new group of women actors to agitate against discrimination in tinsel town under the banner of ‘Women in Cinema Collective’.
This trend has to be viewed in the backdrop of a more than threefold rise in reports filed on rapes in Kerala in the last decade—from 500 in 2007 to 1,644 in 2016. These in turn often lead to a public outcry, such as the one over the rape and murder of a young Dalit woman named Jisha last year. “The backlash is coming from women who are educated, empowered by their own achievements and don’t consider themselves as second-class citizens. They are not bothered by an orthodox society connecting sex crime cases and honour. And most importantly, these women will not settle for a private apology,” said Devika.
Intensely individuated young women in Kerala are taking on their structural worthlessness or instrumental status, and their exclusion from opportunities for income and mobility—this, I think, is the very environment in which the angry young woman is being born, she said.