Maria Mies in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, explains the role of non-wage labour of women and other non-wage labourers upon which capitalist labour is built, and subsequently exploited. In the second chapter, Social Origins of the Sexual Division of Labour, she highlights the patriarchal systematic marginalisation and eradication of midwives.
She elaborates on the systematic approach of the witch hunt, to curb the productive activities of women in general and midwives in specific. These midwives and healers were labelled as witches, to perpetuate the professionalisation of male doctors and create a hierarchy of male productivity over female productivity. Their participation in the economic sphere and right to judgement over procreation was unacceptable in this patriarchal society. The attempt to place male productivity over female productivity, subjugate a woman’s autonomy, increase her economic dependency on the male members of society and essentially curb a woman’s chores to household labour, led to labelling these midwives as witches.
Household labour and the working force were separated, to perpetuate the illusion of the man as the ‘breadwinner’, and women were systematically eliminated from the working force. The duties of midwives were performed by ‘professional’ male doctors. These male doctors were now the decision-makers in relation to procreation and this economic sector was taken over by the male members of society.
Household labour was essentially, non-wage labour and not considered ‘actual work’. These distinctions were drawn and women were ostracised from the working force to feed the illusion of males being the ‘breadwinners’ and increase female dependency on the men.
The work performed by women; during childbirth, and nurturing the child were characterised as her ‘nature’ and the work performed by men was labelled as productive, through the concept of biological determinism. Biological determinism refers to understanding that women are more suited for nurturing roles, like that of a housewife, as it is a part of their innate nature since they can reproduce. A man on the other hand is suited for more ‘productive’ profiles. It fails to consider the systematic ostracization of women from the workforce as elaborated above and aims to supersede this scientific basis over all others to explain the hierarchies in the workforce. It aims to display biological differences as the entire explanation behind unjust patriarchal systems in the economic sphere.
The work of women, such as midwives, was not seen as work and when it threatened men in society these women became victims of the witch hunt. With their eradication male productivity was given precedence over female productivity. The capitalist class was established on the systematic eradication and marginalisation of women from the workforce.
This outlook towards midwives and the prioritisation of male productivity over female productivity can be seen in similarity to the treatment of Anganwadi workers in times as recent as the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Being frontline workers, we were given a 12-hour notice to leave our rented rooms as the landowners grew wary of the new disease.”, says Preeti, an Anganwadi worker, “We had to pack everything in a suitcase and move out overnight.”
Even though these women face immense hardships as frontline workers and were the light at the end of the tunnel concerning the Covid-19 pandemic, they are still underpaid and unrecognised. These unsung warriors are at best the faceless numbers that form the primary units of the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS).
As responsibilities increase with reference to the pandemic, their salaries have had an inverse effect. “The government has failed us, we asked for a raise in our salaries but forget meeting our demands for dignity and decent livelihoods, the government has not even paid us our owed salary for 6 months,” says Manu, an Anganwadi worker.
Anganwadi workers are paid an average of Rs. 4760 per month, which is not even half of India's average monthly salary of Rs. 10,360. This reflects the outlook that work done by women can be poorly paid and that it is a ‘normal’ part of ‘work done by women’ and does not require additional skills. This outlook subscribes to the societal understanding of women’s labour as non-wage labour as explained by Maria Mies.
These women are tasked with providing assistance to 88 million beneficiaries, most of who are pregnant and lactating mothers and children under the age of 6. They are the main perpetuators of new government healthcare schemes in the rural areas, provide education on health and nutrition for breastfeeding and pregnant women, weigh babies and maintain records etc.
The pandemic has not only increased the risk they face but also the responsibilities. Health care workers are the most vulnerable section of society with reference to the pandemic, more than 12% of the infected population are frontline workers and 70% of them are women.
These women are now also responsible for informing families about COVID, observing the migrant workers who return to their villages after the disappearance of their urban livelihoods, patrolling containment zones, delivering groceries to quarantined families etc.
These female workers are paid honorariums and their payment is performance-based. This poses many challenges like delays in payment, lack of clarity in the payment process and lack of transparency etc. Their dissent is portrayed in nationwide protests ranging from the Northern states of Punjab and Delhi to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south.
The umbrella ICDS scheme, the Saksham scheme, in the covid year's budget, highlights how the government has failed to meet its promised expenditure in this sector of women & child development.
Not only has the government failed to meet their estimated expenditure budget in this sector, but the 2020-21 expenditure is also falling short of the previous year's expenditure (2019-2020). During the pandemic, the government is cutting back on the expenditure for women’s work and in the process labelling their work as non-essential.
How is it possible that the expenditure for one of the most crucial frontline forces has not been met, amid a pandemic? This has been done at the expense of these workers and points at the government's grave institutional prejudice towards women workers.
These women are in debt and unable to support their families with the income they bring in. They are being viewed as non-essential workers and being systematically discriminated against. Maria Mies’s explanation of eradication of midwives through a systematic process bares similarity to how these women are being forced to conform to the duties of a housewife as opposed to participating in the economy. The distinction between household labour and the workforce and the characterisation of the former as non-wage labour, made women dependant on men then and is still causing the same result.