JAIPUR, India (WOMENSENEWS)–In March 2013, when the 32-year-old widow Manju Devi first stood in the Jaipur railway station awaiting the incoming train, she said all she got from passengers were curious stares.
The slightly built woman struggled in her first few months to break into a job considered to be reserved for males, and only males.
With passengers looking at her, but not signalling for her help, Devi considered giving up. But the thought of her three young children and their needs kept her going. Each day she put the gleaming brass badge of a licensed porter, which she’d inherited from her deceased husband, back on her arm and kept trying.
“It was tough to get people to accept that I was as capable as the 180 male porters working there,” Devi told Women’s eNews as she sat on the floor of the one-room rental, where she lives with her two daughters–Puja, 15, and Arti, 13–and her 11-year-old son Rahul. The room is on the top floor of an unpainted four-story building located in a by-lane close to the station. The other rooms in the building are mostly occupied by male porters.
Speaking in a mix of Hindi and a local dialect, she said that no one had ever seen a female porter before and few passengers were willing to let her carry their luggage. “It was tough to survive but I knew I had to fight for the sake of my children.” She said she found herself up against cultural expectations that a woman should be cooking and producing children, not working in public.
In Rajasthan, which ranks 20 out of 29 Indian states on human development indicators, according to the 2008 Human Development report, the barriers to female aspiration and opportunity are hard to overstate.
The maternal mortality rate here, according to the most recent government data, is 255 deaths per 100,000 births, far worse than the national average of 178. Female literacy, at 52.7 percent, is the lowest in the country. Only 1-in-100 girls reach grade 12,with 40 percent dropping out before fifth grade. A strong preference for sons leaves the sex ratio at 926 females per 1,000 males and even lower for children: 883 females for every 1,000 males. Fifty percent of the girls and women here, like Devi, are married before the age of 18.
Confronting the Statistics
Fortunately for Devi, Shiv Dayal Meena, her deceased husband’s closest friend, showed her some of the ropes of being a porter, which helped her begin to confront some of these statistics in her own life.
“I told her not to run after all the trains,” said Meena in an interview at the Jaipur railway station. “It was better to choose trains which originated from cities in South India like Chennai. My experience had shown that passengers from these cities were more generous towards women.”
After six months the strategy brought in enough money for Devi to bring her three children, who had been staying temporarily with her mother, to live with her in the small room where she spoke to Women’s eNews.
Devi can earn as much as $8 a day now, though on bad days she brings home less than a dollar. She makes fewer trips during the scorching summer months and like all porters her income goes up during the period between September and March, tourist season in India, where Jaipur is a popular destination.
Last month she repaid a loan she’d gotten from Meena to buy a second-hand television and air cooler.
A wealthy family on hearing about her plight, as an act of philanthropy, is paying for her children’s education and Devi, who is illiterate, wants her three children to concentrate on their studies without worrying about where their next meal will come from.
“Neither I nor my five sisters got the opportunity to go to school,” said Devi. “We were all married early. But I want my two daughters, Puja and Arti, to study as much as they want. I will not get them married until they want to do so. I’m also not going to let my son, Rahul, give up education to support family income. I don’t listen when some people say I am going against tradition.”
Suddenly the Breadwinner
Breaking tradition, however, was the last thing on Devi’s mind when her husband’s death compelled her to leave their drought-prone village in search of work in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. Married at the age of 10, Devi had rarely stepped out of the house during the 20 years of her marriage. But when she was widowed in 2012, she was suddenly the breadwinner.
“I tried to make ends meet after my husband’s death. I earned $3 a day by selling the milk of the buffalo I had. But when a drought in my village made it hard to feed the buffalo, I had to sell it,” Devi said.
Her in-laws withdrew their support after she turned down the proposal of her husband’s younger brother, an unemployed laborer, to live as his wife under the “nata” tradition in Rajasthan, in which a widow accepts her brother-in-law as her husband without the customary marriage or legal spousal rights.
She later learned that her brother-in-law was willing to take care of her in return for being given the right to the job her husband, a licensed porter in Jaipur, held before his death. Only the widow or adult children can get the license, according to the government railway rules.
Devi decided to apply for the job. She knew it would be strange for a woman to take up this kind of work, but she said it was her only hope for independent survival. She said passing the physical fitness test to assess her capacity to lift and carry weight was easier than persuading passengers to let her carry their baggage once she became a porter.
Now she has become more comfortable in her role, approaching specific trains and finding more people who will hire her. Her goal now is to save enough money to marry her elder daughter Puja, once she completes her education.