Kalaiselvi, a Kerala tea workerMUNNAR, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Kalaiselvi has spent more than three decades working on a tea plantation in Munnar, a verdant, river-ringed town in a mountainous region called the Western Ghats.

Each morning after dawn breaks, she and a group of other female tea pickers don headscarves and protective vests and troop single file from their simple, one-story homes to the hillside tea fields. They pluck oblong tea leaves with lightning-quick fingers, filling their baskets and bags while chatting and laughing as the sun rises.

"We harvest tea as a group of 40 to 60 women, and that’s what makes it enjoyable," said Kalaiselvi, who spoke to Women’s eNews through an interpreter. "Still, I’m glad my daughter is in school and not in the fields with me. Because she was able to get a better education, she is attending nursing school while I only finished ninth grade. She has more choices and will likely have a better life."

In recent decades, Kalaiselvi’s native state, Kerala, has instituted measures to improve female education, health and economic security.

The state reintroduced delivery services in hospitals that no longer offered them; doubled the size of state government pensions for widows; and eliminated a ban on widows receiving pensions if they had male offspring over the age of 20. The changes have inspired similar measures elsewhere in India.

After India’s Parliament passed the Women Against Domestic Violence Act in 2005, Kerala was one of the first states to implement the law, creating counseling centers and hiring "women protection officers" to aid survivors of violence.

But rights advocates still noticed that many programs for women that made it into the state budget were not implemented. To rectify that, they pushed through the creation of the Kerala Gender Board in January 2009, which ensures that 10 percent of state-funded programs benefit girls and women directly.

Board Spurs Female-Friendly Initiatives

The Gender Board has helped to spur the opening and expansion of maternity care centers, job training programs and anti-violence initiatives in the past year. Board members also make sure that women play a vital role in creating and running the programs that are designed to benefit them.

Headed by Kerala’s Health and Social Welfare Minister and headquartered in the state capital of Trivandrum, the board has 18 members. Two are female legislators and one is a member of the Kerala State Women’s Commission. The board meets monthly to keep tabs on women’s initiatives that are starting–or already established–in the state.

The creation of Kerala’s Gender Board was a landmark move in India. Even though the national economy is rapidly developing, many women do not receive an education or the chance at paid work that affords a comfortable standard of living.

Only 54 percent of Indian woman are able to read, compared to 75 percent of Indian men, according to the New Delhi-based National Literacy Mission. Women are just 10 percent of India’s Parliament, which means India ranks 99th among 187 countries in this measure, lagging behind neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, reports the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

India’s Equal Remuneration Act of 1936 promises equal wages for equal work, but men employed by Indian companies earn an average $3,698 annually while their female counterparts earn less than one third of that, or $1,185, according to the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.

Women’s advocates say things are comparatively better in Kerala, which is 55 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 20 percent Christian. The state has a long tradition of women participating in education, commerce, politics and the arts.

State Boasts Best Rates

The tea fields in Munnar, India.</Kerala says it boasts India’s top-ranked literacy rate for women (88 percent); its highest sex ratio (1,058 women to every 1,000 men); and its longest average female lifespan (76 years, versus 65 years in the rest of the country).

The maternal mortality rate in the country is 301 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, according to the Indian government, though the World Health Organization’s estimate is 450. Government statistics put Kerala’s maternal mortality rate at 262 per 100,000 live births–significantly lower than the national average.

Tea pickers in Munnar earn $734 per year, which Selin Mary, a spokesperson for Kalaiselvi’s employer, says is high for agricultural workers and on par with what male workers earn.

"Part of the reason these women’s pay is so good," she said, "is that the firm running this plantation–the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company–employs many women, is 70 percent employee-owned and has a woman heading its workers’ collective. Also important is the fact that our tea pickers live and work in Kerala."

T.N. Seema, a member of the Gender Board and president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a New Delhi-based organization that promotes women’s rights, still sees plenty of room for improvement though.

"Kerala’s women are better off than many, but they are still concentrated in low-wage-earning sectors like tea picking," Seema said. "Women should have better job training and should be equipped to work in professions other than those traditionally earmarked for females."

During a break from her work in the fields of Munnar, Kalaiselvi said she agrees.

"Our daughters and granddaughters can get an education, medical treatment and government benefits that older generations never enjoyed," she said. "Even so, we hope they will also have the opportunity to have professional careers, whether they choose to leave the green hills of Munnar or whether they choose to stay."

Molly M. Ginty (http://mollymaureenginty.wordpress.com) is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

Kerala State’s Women’s Commission:

All India Democratic Women’s Association: