Aajeevika Bureau began its operations in 2004 with a vision to provide sustainable and lasting solutions to the socio-legal, economic, and other institutional challenges that are faced by migrant workers and their families, as they work and live in precarity to secure their survival.

Q1. When men migrate to cities, women are often left behind to sustain their families. Can you describe the Family Empowerment Program that work to empower such women? What primarily catalysed working with women who remain in source villages?

In the 2014 Rajasthan State’s Migration Profile published by Aajeevika Bureau, it was identified that 56.6% of the households surveyed had at least one male member who is a migrant. As the men migrate, women are triply burdened by the weight of managing finances, household work, and providing care in addition to taking care of any other social/community responsibilities.

The impact on women was not just physical and financial but had a psycho-social dimension as well.

A lot of the literature uses the term ‘left-behind’ when referring to the women at the source. Such language imagines women to be natural companions to men in their migration journeys, having no identity or moorings tying them with the source. With a fervour to challenge this discourse and to foreground women’s identity, the Family Empowerment Program (FEP) mobilised women to initiate conversations about their rights and public entitlements.

As women grappled with their new realities, the FEP provided a space where they could come together and discuss their issues towards a resolution. Creating sense of ownership and inspiring the desire to take control of their lives and livelihoods among the most marginalised section of this community, the women, formed the bedrock of the program’s engagement.

Soon, with increased participation, conversations around violence against women became central and brought out women’s immense vulnerability at home and in the streets. Over time, such women’s groups started to take shape as collectives, at the village or fala and block levels. This was the start of the Ujala Samoohs.

The samoohs were led and mobilised by Ujala Mitras, who are community volunteers. Soon the samoohs began to coordinate with the local trade unions and the workers’ collectives to hold demonstrations, social dialogues with government representatives along with social security linkage camps. At present, there are 625 Ujala Samoohs with a total membership of 16,000 women.

Q2. How did you expand your programming to include (a) women and (b) adolescent girl migrants?

a) The Rajasthan State Migration Profile and the other internal migration mapping studies had pointed toward a significant movement of workers from Rajasthan to Ahmedabad and Surat. This included a large number of women who migrated with their spouses or families to such destinations. Thus, further strategy discussions were focused on expanding our engagement with migrant women, at the source and destinations. In Ahmedabad, our efforts started in 2008 with an initial attempt to mobilise domestic workers. Later, the focus shifted towards the establishment of creches for the safety of children at the worksites. The efforts in Surat began in 2018-19 with an initial focus on topics related to payment of wages, health and social security linkages. At the same, the Pravaasi Mahila Suraksha Sangathan was setup at the source to offer pre- migration counselling support to migrant women and focusing on concerns pertaining to gender based

Over the years, a lot of the team’s efforts at the destinations have been directed toward women’s health given our observations on how poor health coupled with poor access to facilities had a direct impact on migrant women’s income. In Surat, cases of mass hysterectomies among migrant women have also come to the forefront.

Violence against women is another major area of focus that emerged through women’s sharings at the Mahila Shram Shakti Kendras set up for women migrant workers in Ahmedabad and Surat.

b) A 2017 internal survey in the rural blocks of Salumber district was pivotal in shifting our gaze to the world of work occupied by adolescent girls, particularly in the construction sector. The views of the contractors were also crucial as some of them shared that the ‘beauty’ of the adolescent girls dictated their hiring from the labour nakas. The study also revealed some interesting insights on how adolescent girls felt a sense of independence and confidence as they began to work. On the other hand, there remained a constant moral panic among their family members around the sudden freedom that adolescent girls were found to exercise and the possibilities of them entering ‘unwanted’ associations.

The collectivising and mobilising work of women into Ujala Samoohs was also reproduced with the adolescent girls, who are now members of Kishori Samoohs. In our work with adolescent girls, our aim has been to provide a space for them to build confidence and to express themselves, while also addressing important concepts such as sexuality, gender and power through capacity building and training.

As a next step, we aim to discuss the subject of adolescent girls’ rights at their workplaces by addressing safety and hygienic provisions at work, wages, overtime work, etc. These are topics that the Ujala Samoohs currently explore with women at source and women migrants.

Q3. What are the typical demographic and socio- economic characteristics of such women? Can you tell us of some of the challenges that female migrant workers face and what kind of interventions that policymakers should focus on?

Most of Aajeevika Bureau’s work is concentrated in Southern Rajasthan in the rural blocks of districts such as Udaipur, Salumber, Dungarpur, and Banswara among others. Here, migrant men and women are largely members of the Scheduled Tribes, hailing from the Bhil, Garasiya and Meena tribes. At the outset, migration results in breaks in accessing basic facilities such as food, health and education for children. The burden of collecting resources to cook and maintaining continuity in children’s education falls on women. Healthcare remains elusive for women who now grapple with staying and working in extremely unhygienic setups, often continuing to work through ill health and pregnancy. Schemes like insurance and maternity benefits offer no support outside of the source. Additionally, the health workers maintain an extremely discriminatory outlook, treating migrant workers with derision. In cases of emergency, we have found that migrant workers prefer to return to the source than avail of any support at the destinations.

Here, a policy level consideration towards portability of basic entitlements such as insurance schemes, ration and even claims for education becomes crucial. These will not just positively impact women and their families at destinations, but also single male migrants who are unable to avail of benefits under any of the schemes they may have enrolled in at the source. It must also be noted that such a policy vision must be preceded by a data collection activity within states to understand the volume and nature of inter- state as well as intra-state migration.

Migrant women workers often live in open spaces and at worksites, among large groups of men. They are highly vulnerable to violence not just at the hands of those immediately around them but also at the hands of police and the larger establishment that leaves no opportunity to criminalise migrant workers.

Amidst insecurity and violence, the fear of displacement also looms large. Creating housing possibilities in the form of hostels and/or shelter homes is one way to proceed. Another way would be to look at giving legal recognition as slums to the open spaces that workers live in. This could be one way for basic facilities such as functional toilets, regular water, electricity, Anganwadi centres, and public/community health centres among others to become accessible.

A sensitisation exercise and consistent engagement with the police and local administration at the destinations and various other source locations must be initiated on priority. In partnership with the Rajasthan police, the FEP Team has been successfully able to operationalise a more gender-responsive Community Policing Program. Under this program, Mahila Help Desks have been set up by women volunteers from the local community at five police stations across three blocks of Banswara District. This motivated women at the source and returnee migrant women to actively bring forth cases on a range of issues from trafficking, domestic violence, and workplace harassment to other forms of gender-based violence.

Q4. What are the similarities and differences with respect to working with these different groups – women whose family members/spouses have migrated out, and women and adolescent girls who are themselves migrants?

There are three groups of women that the FEP closely works with.

They, thus, seek work in jodis, i.e., as part of a couple with their husbands. This is mostly true of the construction sector. Women are not acknowledged as workers irrespective of their level of skilling. They are, then, relegated to menial tasks of cleaning or coolie work that is often derogatorily categorised as ‘light work’. They also return to their residence only to perform more reproductive labour such as cooking, child rearing, cleaning etc. Housing is another big challenge for these women as safety becomes a primary concern. At the destinations, women struggle to avail basic minimum facilities such as cooking fuel/firewood, healthcare or even a community to support during emergencies or pregnancy, all of which they may have received back in their villages. This increases their workload manifold.

While the level of vulnerability, workload and degree of access to some entitlements such as housing, health and food may differ for these three groups, some characteristics that are typical to the group members’ identity as women remain similar.

At the outset, women’s incomes and work in all three settings are considered secondary to that of men, despite their role in economically and socially sustaining the household at the source and destination, they are never considered to be the primary earners. There is a constant attempt to discredit women’s identity as workers. Further, at the workplace, there is no remuneration for equal work and employers/contractors tend to hire women to save costs.

Despite having an economic share and contributing to household labour, all three categories of women possess no decision-making power at home. As de-facto heads, they return to a ‘secondary position’ the moment the male returns from their migration.

Undoing these very notions lies at the heart of FEP’s interventions and considerations when mobilising women and adolescent girls. For women to build a voice and believe that they have an equal stake as members of their communities, as workers and as citizens is our goal.

Q5. What are some of the challenges you’ve come across in your work in these areas? What were the solutions?

One of the first challenges that is common to any such mobilisation work is building trust and rapport. Extended working hours of women workers at the source and destinations, leave them with no time to speak or interact. The team visits the women multiple times and attempts to engage with a few light group activities, discussions and even games. Among the groups, speaking to adolescent girls and getting those who are part of our samoohs to speak has been a big challenge. Adolescent girls are often found supporting household work, engaging in wage work and sometimes also keeping up with school/college work simultaneously. They often do not want to speak about or reveal any information about their age or even their working conditions which could potentially cause more trouble for them. The FEP Team visits the homes of the adolescent girls’ multiple times, attempting to equally engage with their parents and family members. The police and the political establishment, especially at the local levels, are extremely sceptical of such women’s groups and collectives. Our attempt is to not only sensitise the establishment through capacity building or training programs, but we also actively invite them to any events organised on International Labour Day and International Women’s Day. Bridging the gap between the democratic establishment that is designed by and for the people, encouraging women’s participation and inculcating the values of citizenship are at the core of the samooh’s mandate.

Q6. What are Aajeevika’s future steps in working with women migrants and those who remain behind?

Aajeevika Bureau aims to focus more on solidifying its interventions at destinations such as Gujarat and Maharashtra. The idea is to create a strong connection between the source and the destination at the institutional (police and state administration level) and at the field level (among trade unions and sangathans) to ensure that women’s cases whether pertaining to payment of wages, experiences of violence among others are transferred with ease and addressed uniformly at the source and destination.

Our Mahila Help Desks at police stations and sensitisation trainings with the police personnel in Rajasthan have set a strong example that can be followed at the destinations. We also aim to introduce and pilot similar trainings within the grievance redressal system, i.e., with the labour helpline and women’s helpline callers. Helpline callers, being the first responders to any urgent situations, are often ill-equipped to support migrant workers speaking in different languages. The objective is to sensitise the helpline callers and enable them to at least support migrant workers by directing them to resources that are in the latter’s native languages.

On the collectivisation front, we aim to solidify the foundations of our existing sangathans by proceeding to the next level and registering them as formal unions. Historically, women have been excluded from trade unions owing to the same reasons that prevented them from being acknowledged as workers. Formalising our sangathans into unions would be a primary step towards making the joint vision of worker dignity, gender just and inclusive. We visualise a future where our learnings from such mobilisation can be disseminated and could serve as models for other worker collectives to take up nationally.


Manju Rajput leads the Family Empowerment Programme at Aajeevika Bureau. She specialises in  conducting  training  on women’s rights and extends technical support to partner  organisations. Manju has been with Aajeevika since 2012.  She holds an MA and MPhil in Sociology from Mohanlal Sukhadiya University (Udaipur) and Rajasthan Vidyapeeth (Udaipur) respectively.

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