A ‘Quiet Gender Revolution’?

Women in Informal Economy

Harashankar Adhikari

The informal economy is one of newly emerged features in world economy. It is considered as 'the other path' because it is the "promise of new income generating activities to helping the poor, 'without any major threat' to the rich". From optimistic perspective, the informal economy is concerned with 'less capital intensive and less dependent on foreign exchange and technology than the formal economy'. But at the same time, it is considered as 'unhealthy, exploitative, repressive, bordering on illegality, and as habouring criminals'. It causes the informal for exploitative and of subsidizing big capitalists of the mainstream economy; as a source of cheap goods and services for their labour force it allows them to pay extremely low wages. Some of the economists criticize it as a 'sinkhole of exploitation' that 'perpetuates underdevelopment'. It is known "variously as 'underground', 'parallel', 'unrecorded', 'second', 'hidden', 'shadow', 'endogenous', 'irregular', 'alternative', 'unofficial' or 'black economy' exists alongside official economic activities in most countries in the world". However, in spite of its various negative images and effects, the informal sector has immensely enhanced the human security, contributed to narrowing gender inequalities, and stimulated economic growth and development.

Today the informal sector is the fastest growing sector of India's economy. As per NSS Survey 1999-2000, about 370 million workers constituting 92% of the total workforce were employed in the unorganized sector or informal economic sector.

It opens different avenues of employment for women having less education comparatively where their beauty, soft skill and competences are basic assets whether "Is This Matter of Women Getting Bad?" Women in urban or semi-urban area are employed in different services sector as sales executives, receptionist and so forth. "This sector enhances human security, increased financial dependence, and more political power and things seem to be getting better among women. The things are getting worse, as patriarchal stereotypes and the worst excesses of capitalism are reproduced in the informal economy. The 'matter' seems to be getting better for a number of reasons". First, one finds that a significant proportion of women are now active in the informal economy. It is a revolution in itself, for in the past women were looked after by their male in various relations (father, brother, husband, son and so forth). Second, incomes from the informal sector have improved the human security and welfare of their families. Women in the informal sector are using their income to buy food and clothes, pay rent, school fees, tuition and pay for leisure. Even some of these women bear cost of education of their children at university level. Third, increased access to income has reduced the risks of dependency on men, and has given them some financial autonomy. Not dependent on men for their basic needs, some women are now more in control of their lives and incomes. Fourth, access to income has helped women increase their decision making powers within their households, and to reverse some traditional gender roles. This is a radical departure from traditional patriarchal practices, which made it men's prerogative to make decisions on such important household matters. Thus women are supporting their husbands with their incomes. This new economic opportunity has helped them forge new social identities which centre around work, fashion and leisure, and which are based on class and western cultures. Reflecting the new autonomous identities, young women spend a significant proportion of their incomes on cosmetics, fashionable clothes and pleasure. In short, as women responded to their situation not as passive victims but as active agents of change, there has been a remarkable improvement in their position vis-a-vis men. In particular, the informal economy has helped liberalize gender relations by forcing men, formerly the sole breadwinners and household heads, to let go and allow women to be bread winners and house-hold heads too. Emboldened by their new incomes, women are becoming more assertive in demanding equal rights and in redefining their identity. Such radical changes which empower women and enhance gender equality constitute a 'quiet gender revolution'.

Yet, at the same time, especially through the acceleration of social differentiation, divisions among women, and the reproduction of some traditional gender stereotypes, women are being disempowered. The informal economy, while offering promises of emancipation for women, has also disempowered them by accelerating (1) social differentiation and divisions among women, (2) life style and life choices and (3) disharmony and conflicting situation in daily life. Their economy self-dependence has led to the emergence of new small strata. This small but growing group is comprised of women informal traders in the more lucrative businesses such as, dressmaking, confectioneries, hairdressing, and food where their soft skill, competences and beauty are tactfully encashed. Their employment and economic dependence has changed their life style and life choices through driving posh cars, and spending time and money in leisure activities—eating out, drinking, partying and so forth. Such pretentious enjoyment of the good life should not blind to the glaring gender inequalities in the larger society. While rich women dine, wine and party, poor women eke out a marginal existence. Although sharing the same geographical space, 'the life styles, tastes and habits of the upper class women are worlds apart from those of their poorer compatriots who live in squalor'. To this extent, the informal economy has contributed to dividing and disempowering women along class lines. Women share sex-linked biological characteristics with one another does not mean that they embrace a single understanding of gender equality, nor does it mean that they possess a group identity or group consciousness as women in a way that easily translates into political action. The informal economy, by offering some increased incomes and prosperity, while offering others low and falling incomes, has contributed to the amplification of class divisions among women.

Their changing pattern of life style pushes them to enter into love victims, physical and sexual torture, marital conflict and divorce, etc. Their family life is in crises. When they become mothers, they are exploiting their off-spring due to their part time involvement in mothering. Their inappropriate care and attention fosters an inappropriate control and strategies for their children are grown up. The children are suffering from behavioural problems, lack in academic competences and other. Last of all, everybody should alert to choose and welcome the informal economy for a better future. There should not be placed of 'media bound cultural syndrome' in daily life.

Vol. 50, No.4, Jul 30 - Aug 5, 2017