I spent a few days a week ago in a set of villages in Northern Tamilnadu. One can see a visible improvement in the life of people there. People have access to, and use, toilets in urban slums and rural areas. Almost all boys and girls go to school. Most people have access to food and basic healthcare. Poorer people get a very basic income from unskilled work including that under Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS).

Those people, who acknowledge the existence of sex-selective abortion (and infanticide) in the past, have noted a drastic decline or disappearance of this practice. It looks that the people of Tamilnadu have addressed the issues of severe underdevelopment. The competitive populism of the two Dravidian parties has ensured the availability of basic goods and services to people at large, though there are issues of corruption and ill-governance.

However the state faces, what can be called, second-generation challenges in terms of development. Though almost all students go to school, the quality of education could be an issue. However, what has caught my attention this time is the attitude towards the employment of girls.

Given that most students go to school, girls are more likely to complete 10th and 12 grades successfully. What do they do afterwards? A significant share of them may go for one or other form of higher education. They may earn a BA or B Com degree from a local college.

Then the focus is on the marriage. Despite having this education, girl’s family may have to mobilise dowry to find a husband to `take care’ of their daughter. For many girls who have earned a degree, this would mean marriage to a boy who may not have (or has just) completed schooling and is working as a construction worker or an auto-driver. Their family may not have the means to `procure’ an educated boy.

Husbands (and their parents) have strong views on wife’s participation in employment. In most cases, girls are expected to be at home and take care of kids. This is true even if the girl is educated. However, these families may not have enough incomes and hence they may face serious financial difficulties a few years down the lane. The excessive consumption of alcohol and other kinds of indiscipline on the part of the husband may add to this burden. Then there would be a compulsion for the wife to work. It is difficult to get a job at that time. Hence one can see girls, who have passed 12th grade in school or B com, working as agricultural workers in areas closer to their marital family (under the watchful eye of the husband or his family).

Some may argue that these girls take up farm work because there are no other job opportunities. One can contest this argument by taking up the situation in Tiruppur – the well-known textile town in Tamilnadu. According to a NGO working on labour issues in this city, there are nearly 50000 job positions in textile factories unfilled on any given day. This job is mainly for girls who have completed certain level of school education. However this job is not picked up by the middle-class and upper-castes.

Girls from poorer families (and mainly those belonging to lower castes) take up this work. They are put in high-walled hostels adjacent to textile factories, since parents are concerned about their chastity – and other qualities necessary to ensure their safe entry into an arranged marriage with a boy from the same caste. (The Dravidian movement, despite its progressive origin and slogans, has failed to address the issue of caste in Tamilnadu, and each caste is concerned about preserving its purity by avoiding possible inter-caste marriages).

These girls work for 3-4 years in these factories and earn some bulk money (which is retained by the company from their wages). It is used to pay dowry to get a husband. Then she has to quit the work, since the husband does not want her to go out and work in a factory. She could have continued the work in the factory. When I interviewed a number of girls of this type (months ago), they mentioned the suspicion of the husband explicitly as the reason for the state of unemployment. Such girls are forced to take up agricultural work or unskilled work when their nuclear families face severe financial difficulties. The reluctance of girls to take up and continue to work in the factories of Tiruppur, may indicate that the lower work-participation of females may not be due to the lack of employment opportunities. Instead it is due to their lower readiness to take up certain kinds of work and that is shaped by regressive gender norms.

Such a reluctance to take up employment, especially among girls who have completed certain level of schooling, can be seen in other states too. A student of Azim Premji University – Anamika Mishra – has done field work in a skill development program in Chhattisgarh recently. This program which is implemented by a well-known NGO in collaboration with the state government, ensures quality training for a number of occupations and the placement of all students who complete the program successfully. However a major challenge faced by the program is the unwillingness of parents to send their grown up children (who have dropped out of school after 8th or 10th grade) for such a training. Social norms and family pressures discourage these trainees from continuing in employment too.

There is a similar situation in Kerala too. The nature of Kerala’s development has aggravated this situation. The political process that has facilitated the improvement of human development in Kerala has not enabled industrial development within the state. The migration of men to other parts of the country and to the Middle-East, has put excessive burden on women in terms of managing households. Unwillingness to take up the work that is available and waiting for the marriage or a job that enables an arranged marriage are common among girls in the state. The work should suit the socially shaped notions on femininity[i]. Or girls are willing to acquire only those skills which are in tune with such a notion of femininity.

However the situation may change a few years after the marriage. By then, there would be two kinds of changes. First, the concern about protecting her `femininity’ to meet social and marital norms may decline. Secondly, there would be an increase in the financial burden of the family. Hence they would be willing to take up jobs, even those which they have shunned years ago. However, by then, there would be an obsoleteness in the education and employment-oriented training that she had acquired, if any, before the marriage.

Hence it may be the unskilled work which is available when these women desire to come back to work. Or their skills and experience would be as good as those of new entrants. This is true even with the employment that is created through Self-Help Groups (SHG) with the support of the state government (under the banner called Kudumbashree). These micro-enterprises may not be able to expand their scale of operation due to the lack of managerial or professional or technical skills among these women. When these women take up paid employment in private enterprises, the jobs that they get would be only those which require no or limited skills. All these affect their incomes.

Girls who were unwilling to take up available jobs in say construction, would come back to employment 3-10 years after the marriage but then they would be taking up jobs such as waste collectors. Or they may become part of a SHG-run microenterprise for salaries in the range of Rupees 2000-5000 per month. This is in a state where a couple of millions of migrant workers (from other Indian states) get a wage of Rupees 500-600 per day for unskilled work. The lower incomes that these women earn are not adequate to give them sufficient back-up to defend themselves in the case of severe harassment or violence within the marriage.

In essence, the excessive focus on marriage (an arranged intra-caste marriage) and the long-run preparation of girls towards it, has serious consequences for their skills, employment and incomes.  When the work participation is mediated through the marriage, a section of those girls with some level of education may end up in distress employment in agricultural and other unskilled work. The potential of education to facilitate the participation in some form of skilled work is wasted here. This can have serious negative implications for the life of women and hence the society.

The situation in Kerala and Tamilnadu show that this issue need not disappear, even with a significant improvement in human development indicators. The reasons behind this could be cultural and some of these are discussed elsewhere. How do we address this issue is important in determining the development trajectory of India.

[i] Acknowledges the discussions with my friend Praveena Kodoth, who is a feminist and gender expert in Kerala.