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You are here: Home | Agenda | Urban Poverty | The feminisation of urban poverty

The feminisation of urban poverty

By Vibhuti Patel

Economic globalisation rides on the backs of millions of poor urban women, forced into cheap labour in an unregulated and insecure informal sector. The increased visibility of women in the workforce could actually be read as a sign of economic distress, not empowerment

According to the C Rangarajan Committee which released its report in mid-2014, 26.4% of people in urban India live below the poverty line (BPL). Their per capita expenditure was Rs 47 per day, or Rs 1,407 per month, in 2011-12. Among the urban poor, it is women who experience more poverty than their male counterparts as most of them are poorly paid and in irregular jobs. In all the rounds of the National Sample Survey (NSS), the incidence of poverty among women in urban India has been marginally higher than among men. The percentage of women living in poor households was 34% in 1993-94 and 25% in 2013-14, in urban areas. Of the total number of women in urban areas, 25% fall in the poverty groups according to the 68th Round of the NSS.

There has been much debate on the inadequacy of income/expenditure as an indicator of poverty. Within the family, it assumes that the household is a harmonious unit, where the needs of every family member are taken care of judiciously and equally. This measure of gender poverty ignores intra-household inequalities in consumption. Other dimensions of poverty such as food insecurity, malnutrition and health also highlight the greater vulnerability of urban women over their male counterparts. Urban poor women do the cooking, cleaning, caring, collection of water, procurement of food and cooking fuel, besides engaging in full-time or part-time jobs.

Studies have shown that the burden of poverty falls more heavily on urban women than on urban men. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) studies have revealed that inequalities in income and consumption levels between women and men have been accentuated in recent times due to the reduction in social sector spending by the state. This is shown also in a study on health expenditure (Deosthali and Madhiwala, 2005) and data on malnutrition by NFHS 1, 2 and 3.

Women-Headed Households (WWH)

According to Census 2011, 27 million households, constituting 11% of total households in the country, are headed by women. In other words, these women-headed households are supported totally by the income of widows, single unmarried women, deserted or divorced women. They are the poorest of the poor households, socially the most excluded, and vulnerable (Patel, 2009). In disaster-prone areas where caste/communal/ethnic tensions are high, 33% of households are women-headed. A rise in communal and ethnic conflict and displacement by huge development projects sends the percentage of women-headed households up.

In India, lack of access to family property and assets and insufficient micro-credit facilities contribute to the poor economic condition of female-headed households. Several studies have pointed out that intra-household discrimination against girls in education, which leaves them with fewer skills than boys, contributes to fewer economic opportunities for women, and consequently higher poverty rates among female-headed households.

The combined effect on these households of price rises, reduced quotas for PDS, reductions in healthcare and educational facilities, is devastating. Nearly 40% of women-headed households do not possess permanent shelter, around 45% of women-headed households live in one-room premises, and 29% of women-headed households do not possess any assets such as a radio/TV/telephone/bicycle/scooter. In spite of multi-tasking, they do not have enough resources to meet their basic needs.


Shrinking job opportunities in rural areas, which forces poor women to migrate to urban areas with or without their families, means that they are also de-skilled, since their skills in agriculture, horticulture, fisheries, forest-based occupations and artisanal activities become either redundant or poorly-paid. Occupations where poor women are employed include domestic work, caring for children, the elderly and the terminally ill, scavenging, vending and taking up informal sector manufacturing jobs. They get paid for home-based piece-rate work in garment-making, assembling of electronic items, food processing, finishing of plastic products and artificial-jewellery-making. These tasks are irregular, casual in nature and not very remunerative. The women are treated as unskilled workers (Majumdar, 2013).

In the urban world, the unpaid labour that women perform in taking care of family members and doing household chores is considered far less worthy (at least economically) than positions that require formal education or training. Poor women's jobs away from home are more likely to be informal employment in small unregistered enterprises unprotected by government regulation. Market segmentation associates them with specific kinds of work, in a way an extension of housework such as teaching, caring for children and the elderly, domestic service, etc. These kinds of jobs lack stability and security and the possibility of earning a higher salary. The Arjun Sengupta Committee Report 2006 revealed that the lack of opportunities to upgrade skills and education subjects women to inequalities in wages and benefits. It is a shocking reality that 79% of the nearly 8 crore home-based women workers in the unorganised labour sector don’t get the minimum government wage. They also don’t have any property rights in their parental or matrimonial homes, and are prone to occupational hazards and harassment in the workplace.

Clearly then, the feminisation of poverty is not only a consequence of lack of income, it is also the result of deprivation of opportunities and gender biases in society, the labour market, and governance.


A section of urban women are employed in the manufacturing sector, in small and medium-scale industries. This is not a positive development, as women tend to be concentrated in declining industries with low productivity, belying the assumption that economic reforms are spurring employment opportunities in new economic sectors, as expected by the Arjun Sengupta Committee Report ‘Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector’, 2006. In fact, in a fast-changing and technologically-advancing economy, the burden of supporting the family falls increasingly on women, as men who are poor become involuntarily or voluntarily unemployed. Thus the increased visibility/participation of women in the workforce that is reported in the official data system, when viewed together with gender segregation and unfair production relations, can actually be read as a sign of economic distress and sheer helplessness rather than self-fulfilling employment opportunities (Hasan and Hasan, 2013).

Service sector work

Marked features of women’s employment in the service sector are employment discrimination at the point of entry and gender wage differentials once they get work. Due to a burgeoning middle class and thriving upper class that has enjoyed the fruits of the iniquitous economic growth following liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, the demand for paid domestic workers has risen. Among women and girl migrant workers, paid domestic workers are the most disadvantaged, spending a significantly higher portion of their day on unpaid care work in the family and poorly-paid work as domestic help. The amount of unpaid work done by women depends on, inter alia, the presence of children, sick, and the elderly at home. The expansion of service sector employment among women could be considered an extension of the unpaid care work in the market.

Women in the informal sector

For women and girls belonging to the economically weaker sections, it’s an exhausting daily grind. The grim reality of 92% of women who work in the informal sector has been documented extensively by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi, and the Human Development Reports of Mumbai (2009) and Delhi (2010). In export-oriented industries, and in the production of leather goods, toys, food products, garments, diamond and jewellery, piece-rate female labour is employed. Here, women work from sweatshops or from home or from stigmatised labour markets in Dharavi, Behrampada, Andheri-Kurla, Jogeshwari or Mohammed Ali Road in Mumbai, or in industrial areas of Delhi, Faridabad, Gurgaon, or in the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Home-based women workers are used as cheap labour by capitalism globally. The relationship between the formal sector and the decentralised sector is a dependent relationship where the formal sector has control over capital and markets and the 'informal' sector works as an ancillary providing cheap labour. Economic globalisation rides on the backs of millions of poor urban women and child workers at the margins of the economy. Women workers in the decentralised sector have a high degree of labour redundancy and obsolescence. These women have less control over their work and no chances of upward mobility because of the temporary, routine and monotonous work they do.

The link between economic reforms and the push towards the informal sector is illustrated by data from the 56th, 59th, 60th, 61st and 68th Rounds of the National Sample Surveys conducted between 2000 and 2012. Economic reforms have reinforced the trend of informalisation of the female workforce, as the formation of a 'flexible' labour force ready to multi-task is its key concept. The shift from a stable/organised labour force to a flexible workforce has meant hiring women on a part-time basis and the substitution of higher-paid male labour by cheap female labour. Poor women in urban India are thrown into an unregulated, erratic and insecure labour market that is becoming increasingly unequal. Congenial state support has been provided to large corporate houses which are closing down their units in big cities and using ancillaries in Tier II and III urban centres that employ unmarried girls (without responsibilities for families and children) on a piece-rate basis. These ‘urban labour camps’ have no safe environment, occupational health and safety standards, social security or robust self-help groups. The government of Tamil Nadu, for instance, proactively inducts young girls as workers for its SEZ manufacturing units in the name of the Sumangali Scheme, in which workers are treated as little more than bonded labour.

Home-based work by women and girls is easily legitimised in the context of increasing violence and insecurity in community life, unsafe streets and workplaces, riots and massive displacement and relocation.

In 2000, the National Alliance of Street Vendors in India (NASVI) undertook a study of seven cities. The study revealed that most female street vendors belong to households in which male members were once employed in better paid and secure jobs in the organised and formal sector. They became unemployed due to closure, lockout of their units, or retrenchment. Male unemployment forced wives, daughters and sisters to take to street vending to make ends meet. These women constitute 30% of the total female population in the informal sector. Women vendors operate on a small scale due to limited access to credit, extension services and input subsidies. They are not unionised (Bhowmik, 2007).

Even in municipal corporation/municipal council-controlled markets, female petty traders cannot get shops on rent. Commuting with luggage in overcrowded buses and trains adds to the hazards of their daily activities. After sustained struggle, they managed a separate compartment in Mumbai's suburban trains. Time and again, these women have demanded special buses where vendors with large, heavy luggage can be accommodated.

Urban areas add thousands of tonnes of solid and liquid waste, the growing affluence of these areas only increasing the volume of waste. In Mumbai, there are 50,000-60,000 street and dumpsite ragpickers, of whom 60% are women and 20% are children, both boys and girls (Palnitkar, 2007). Even among the 100,000 door-to-door waste collectors and recyclers in Greater Mumbai, 50% are women. Pune’s profile is more or less the same (Chikermane and Narayan, 2009).

Occupational health and safety

Multinational corporations operating in India’s Free Trade Zones (FTZs), Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Export Processing Zones (EPZs) employ urban girls in their production units or hire them on a piece-rate basis for home-based work (Contractor, Madhiwala and Gopal, 2006). High production quotas cause mental and physical stress among workers. Chemical hazards, improper ventilation and lack of health and safety provisions in EPZs make the women prone to respiratory ailments, burns, ulcers, and deteriorating eyesight. Of special interest to MNCs and TNCs are young unmarried girls who will not fight for their rights because of family pressure to earn. Corporate houses follow the same practice. Many of them have closed down their large units in industrial towns and cities, using home-based workers on a piece-rate basis instead.

The recent spate of attacks and killings of women workers and employees has brought the issue of workplace safety centrestage. According to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, all workplaces are required to have an appropriate complaints mechanism with a complaints committee, a special counsellor and other support services. The state must demand employer recognition of sexual harassment as a serious offence; it is the responsibility of the company/factory/workplace to prevent and deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are not necessarily insulated from that liability just because they are unaware of sexual harassment by the staff. An increasing number of employers in the private and public sectors are formulating anti-sexual harassment policies that include freedom from sexual harassment as a condition of work that an employee is entitled to expect. Women’s rights in the workplace are human rights.

Quality of life

Social policy on food, nutrition, health and education of poor women has been piecemeal and haphazard. Moreover, in the post-liberalisation period there has been a withdrawal of the state in terms of expenditure on social services, while the private sector charges exorbitant ‘user fees’ for education and health facilities. Social policy also displays a complete lack of understanding of the burden of care work and women’s disproportionate role in performing it. The absence of social protection has resulted in the emergence of care deficits in their households with the attendant implications on nutrition, health, education and wellbeing of members of the household.

According to Census 2011, 20% of urban women are poor and illiterate. NFHS 3 (2006) reports that one-third of those enrolled in school from urban poor households drop out by the time they complete primary school. More than half drop out after finishing the 7th grade, becoming child/adolescent workers. Nearly one-third of slum communities belong to the scheduled castes and tribes. Lack of access to healthcare, nutrition and poor environmental conditions all contribute to high infant and child mortality in the slums. Nearly 100,000 babies die before reaching their fifth birthday in urban slums. Only 40% of children from urban poor households receive all the recommended vaccinations (NFHS 3, 2006).

Less than one-fifth of slum households have access to piped water supply at home. And less than half the urban poor have access to toilets. Poor water and sanitation contribute to higher morbidity in slums. It also results in reproductive morbidity among women and girls and also enhanced vulnerability to sexual assault as they are forced to defecate in the open, in the dark (before sunrise and after sunset). A smaller percentage of households (16.8%) do not share toilets with other households.

Nearly half of urban poor children are underweight for their age. This is worse than even rural areas. Poor availability and access to health services among the urban poor is further reflected in the proportion of pregnant women receiving the recommended antenatal visits. Only about half of urban poor mothers receive three or more visits despite their proximity to world-class super specialty hospitals. Less than half of slum children are born in health facilities, according to NFHS 3. This contributes to high neonatal and maternal mortality among the urban poor. Nearly 60% of urban poor women aged 15-49 years are anaemic, increasing the likelihood of maternal and infant death, premature birth, and low weight babies(Dani, 2007).

Mumbai-based studies on intra-household distribution of resources show that among poorer households, gross malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies among girls and women was 25% more than among men. Spiralling inflation leading to high prices of pulses, cereals and vegetables and poor access to safe drinking water among the poor have proved extremely detrimental to women’s health. For every three men using healthcare facilities in Mumbai, only one woman does so. In the 0-19 age-group, the death rate among girls is higher than among boys (Deosthali and Madhiwala, 2005).

Elderly and poor

Elderly women constitute 8.4% of the total population, while men make up 7.7% (Census 2011). According to the Institute of Public Administration’s working paper ‘Chronic Poverty Among Indian Elderly’ (2009), in urban areas the most vulnerable group comprises elderly women; 64% of them are dependent on others for food, clothing and healthcare. This is one of the reasons why poor elderly women continue to work despite their failing health. They also have fewer opportunities to save over the course of their productive lifetimes, having spent more time than men as caregivers and engaged in household labour, and subject to limited labour market access and wage discrimination.Women also tend to benefit less from pension and social security schemes which were built to reflect formal wage labour, not household labour or activity in the informal economy where a higher proportion of women than men are employed. In the developing world, pension systems generally cover only a minority of women. Homelessness of elderly women in urban areas is a huge problem left unattended by the state.

(Vibhuti Patel has a PhD in Economics and is Head of the Department of Economics, SNDT Women's University, Mumbai)

Bhowmik, Sharit (2007). ‘Street Vendors in Asia: A Review’, in Faces of Urban Poverty, RCUES, AIILSG, Mumbai

Contractor, Qudsiya, Neha Madhiwala and Meena Gopal (2006). Uprooted Homes, Uprooted Lives -- A Study of the Impact of Involuntary Resettlement of a Slum Community in Mumbai, CEHAT

Dani, Anna (2007). ‘Urban Poverty and Impact on Health Indicators for Women and Children’, in Facets of Urban Poverty, RCUES, AIILSG, Mumbai

Deosthali, Padma and Neha Madhiwala (2005) in Swaminathan Padmini (ed), Trapped Into Living: Women's Work Environment and their Perceptions of Health, March

Dhamija, N and Bhide, S (2009). ‘Dynamics of Chronic Poverty: Variations in Factors Influencing Entry and Exit of the Chronic Poor’, IIPA Working Paper, 2009

NFHS (2006). National Family Health Survey 3, International Institute of Population Studies, Mumbai

Majumdar, Indrani (2013). ‘Migration and Gender in India’, Mumbai: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVIII, No 10, March 09

Mushirul Hasan and Zoya Hasan (eds) (2013). India: Social Development Report 2012: Minorities at the Margins. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Patel, Vibhuti (2009). Discourse on Women and Empowerment. Delhi: The Women Press, October 2014


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