Female Labour, India - A Photo Essay


A woman is carrying goods on her head in Delhi, India.

Although most women in India work and contribute to the economy in one form or another, cultural practices vary from region to region and much of their work is not documented or accounted for in official statistics the photographer Kristian Bertel tells in this story. Agriculture is still the sector that female labourers mostly work in India and women workers in India are predominantly employed in agriculture and traditional rural industries or the service sector.

The meaning of work and labour

Work or labour is intentional activity people perform to support themselves, others or the needs and wants of a wider community. Alternatively, work can be viewed as the human activity that contributes along with other factors of production towards the goods and services within an economy. Work is fundamental to all societies, but can vary widely within and between them, from gathering in natural resources by hand, to operating complex technologies that substitute for physical or even mental effort by many human beings. All but the simplest tasks also require specific skills, equipment or tools and other resources such as material for manufacturing goods. Cultures and individuals across history have expressed a wide range of attitudes towards work. Outside of any specific process or industry, humanity has developed a variety of institutions for situating work in society.

Besides objective differences, one culture may organize or attach social status to work roles differently from another. Throughout history, work has been intimately connected with other aspects of society and politics, such as power, class, tradition, rights and privileges. Accordingly, the division of labour is a prominent topic across the social sciences, as both an abstract concept and a characteristic of individual cultures. Work can take many different forms, as various as the environments, tools, skills, goals and institutions around a worker.

Many human activities in India

Because sustained effort is a necessary part of many human activities, what qualifies as work is often a matter of context. Specialization is one common feature that distinguishes work from other activities. This archive story provides a comparative analysis of the social, economic, industrial and migration dynamics that structure women’s paid work and unpaid care work experience in the India region. Each photograph examines the formal and informal ways in which work and care are managed, the changing institutional landscape, gender relations and fertility concerns, employer and trade union responses and the challenges policy makers face and the consequences of their decisions for working women. The Photographer contributes and debates with his photographs about the barriers to women’s participation in the workforce, the valuation of unpaid care, the gender wage gap, social protection and labour regulation for migrant workers and gender relations in developing India.

"Women and work are an important dimension of the ongoing debate on gender parity and this archive story is telling about the traditional perceptions of women's work juxtaposed with recent feminist writings on women's space in India's labour force"

The photographer highlights the points and counterpoints of the ongoing debate on the nature, quantification and monetary valuation of women's work. Photographing the theme of women and work and going on to historically plot women's agency in labour processes, this photograph seeks to provide a panoramic survey of women and work in precolonial India. It is an endeavour to salvage the available data on women's work both paid and unpaid as well as visible and less visible in order to highlight their contribution and indicate the changes in women's labour history.

Workforce participation

Contrary to common perception, a large percentage of women in India are actively engaged in traditional and non-traditional work. National data collection agencies accept that statistics seriously understate women's contribution as workers. However, there are far fewer women than men in the paid workforce. In urban India, women participate in the workforce in impressive numbers. For instance, in the software industry 30 percent of the workforce is female. In rural India in the agriculture and allied industrial sectors, women account for as much as almost 90 percent of the labour force. In overall farm production, women's average contribution is estimated at 55 percent to 66 percent of the total labour. According to a report, women accounted for 94 percent of total employment in dairy production in India.

Women constitute 51 percent of the total employed in forest-based small-scale enterprises. India is ahead of the world average on women in senior management. In most Indian families, women do not own any property in their own names and do not get a share of parental property. Due to weak enforcement of laws protecting them, women continue to have little access to land and property. In India, women's property rights vary depending on religion and tribe and are subject to a complex mix of law and custom, but in principle the move has been towards granting women equal legal rights.

Women are responsible

Women plow fields and harvest crops while working on farms, women weave and make handicrafts while working in household industries, women sell food and gather wood while working in the informal sector. Additionally, women are traditionally responsible for the daily household chores for instance cooking, fetching water and looking after children. Since Indian culture hinders women's access to jobs in stores, factories and the public sector, the informal sector is particularly important for women. There are estimates that over 90 percent of working women are involved in the informal sector. Female labour sectors and conditions the informal sector includes jobs such as domestic servant, small trader, artisan or field laborer on a family farm in Rural areas of India. Most of these jobs are unskilled and low paying and do not provide benefits to the worker.

Working women in India

More importantly, however, cultural practices vary from region to region. Though it is a broad generalization, North India tends to be more patriarchal and feudal than South India. Women in northern India have more restrictions placed on their behavior, thereby restricting their access to work. Southern India tends to be more egalitarian, women have relatively more freedom and women have a more prominent presence in society. Cultural restrictions however are changing and women are freer to participate in the formal economy, though the shortage of jobs throughout the country contributes to low female employment. But in the recent years, conditions of working women in India have improved considerably.

"More and more women find themselves in positions of respect and prestige, more and more workplaces are now populated with women who work on equal terms as men"

Self worth and growth

Working is no longer an adjustment, a mere necessity, but a means to self worth and growth. Injustice construction workers are unskilled and illiterate workers, which make them very vulnerable to exploitation. Being part of an unorganized and fragmented sector their bargaining power is low and they cannot easily fight against injustice. Labourers are often not paid minimum wages and even the agreed wages are not paid in time. Throughout human history, traditional gender roles have often defined and limited women's activities and opportunities and many religious doctrines stipulate certain rules for women. With restrictions loosening during the twentieth century in many societies, women have gained access to careers beyond the traditional homemaker and the ability to pursue higher education.

What percentage of urban women work in India?

The employment rate of urban Indian women was about 5 percent and the reason for why women's jobs are decreasing in India? First, the mechanisation of agriculture including seed drills, threshers etc have reduced manual jobs that were mostly performed by women. Second, India's manufacturing sector has not created labour intensive jobs that could be taken up by women who have been displaced from agriculture.

About the author

Kristian Bertel is a photographer who currently has his residence in Denmark and he has traveled in India to photograph. Many of his photographs have a focus on the life conditions and the scenes of people in India are often pictured in humanitarian portraits by the photographer in cities and in the countryside of India.

More about the author

Kristian Bertel's website

Kristian Bertel | Photography on Facebook

Kristian Bertel on Twitter

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