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Women Masons in Tamil Nadu: Lessons from a unique experiment

Varalakshmi Vemuru's picture
Not long ago, fifty three year old Parvati Amma was told that she was too old to train as a mason. But that didn’t deter this feisty lady. She took the rejection as a challenge and went on to ace the class.

Parvati Amma comes from Pulkattai village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu where the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project (TNEPRP) has conducted a unique experiment.  In an effort to raise the very low levels of women’s participation in India’s labor force, it is helping rural women break into jobs that are traditionally held by men, where they could increase their earnings significantly.

In this part of Madurai district, most of the men folk are successful masons. The women worked as helpers, merely passing tools to the men as they laid brick over brick to build houses and office blocks. Being unskilled, the women earned half the men’s wages.

Even though Tamil Nadu is one of the most urbanized states in India with high literacy rates, new buildings are proceeding apace amidst the state’s booming construction industry, attracting over a million migrant workers - more than a tenth of whom work as unskilled labor. There is, however, a paucity of trained masons.

The challenge for the women was to take on age-old social and cultural barriers and enter into this exclusive male preserve. Masonry has never been seen as a woman’s job in India, much less in this conservative rural area. For a start, the women wear sarees that constrain them from climbing onto scaffolding to build the higher storeys. Masons are also required to travel long distances for work, and staying away from their families is not something the women could easily do. Apart from mobility constraints and worksites that are not women-friendly; domestic responsibilities, burden of child and elderly care, and a conservative societal outlook, are all challenges.

Nonetheless, the women of Madurai’s Pulkattai village were not to be daunted. They saw this as an opportunity to prove their worth and double their wages in the bargain.
 TNEPRP)
Women Masons in training (Photo Credit: TNEPRP

Supported by a visionary panchayat president and an expert mason from the village who had confidence in the women’s capability - Parvati Amma and 25 other women joined the masonry training offered by the project. 

In India, small interventions bring big changes for gender equality

R. Kyle Peters's picture
Young girls iin a  school in India
Young girls in a school in India. Credit: World Bank


I was in India a few weeks ago and had the chance to visit some rural schools in Uttar Pradesh. When I was there, I met a group of adolescent girls who could potentially help close the country’s gender gap.
 
These girls board at school, where they get nutritious meals and are able to focus on their studies. The program purposefully targets 11 to 13-year-old girls from poor households who cannot afford to send their daughters to school. Some girls are also at risk of being married off early.
 
By keeping the girls in school at this critical juncture, they have a chance at a better life.
 
Parents told me that many of the girls at this boarding school were underweight and malnourished when they arrived. As they studied and ate and slept well, they slowly gained weight and got taller. As their knowledge grew, so did they.
 
But how many of these girls will go on to fulfil their true potential and add to their family’s income by joining the job market?

For rural Afghan women, agriculture holds the potential for better jobs

Izabela Leao's picture
Photo: National Horticulture and livestock project

 “… If women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million …”
                                                      
Agriculture Sector: Creating Opportunities for Women
In Afghanistan, agriculture continues to be the backbone of the rural economy – about 70% of the population in rural areas is engaged in on-farm activities. At the same time, large share of the employment generated in non-farm and off-farm sectors, such as manufacturing, are also closely linked to agriculture and food-processing.

Women’s participation in the labor market has been generally low in rural Afghanistan. For the last decade, the country had one of the world’s lowest rates (19%). In recent years, however, the rural labor market in Afghanistan has experienced an impressive influx of women, increasing the rate to 29%. Yet, a large share of the working-age female in rural Afghanistan (71%) remains out of the labor force. In 2013/14, out of 5.2 million women of age 14 or above, only 1.5 million (29% of total) were in the labor force, about one-third of that 1.5 million workers remained unemployed, and the other two-third were employed – which accounts for only 22% of total rural employment (Figure 1). Of the employed female workers, majority are employed in agriculture (11%) and livestock (59%).

In Bangladesh, changing behaviors for better health

Rokeya Ahmed's picture
A toilet in Chunarughat, Hobigonj reduces fecal contamination for this family (World Bank/M. Monir)
A toilet in Chunarughat in the Habiganj district in Bangladesh has helped reduce fecal contamination for Amena Begum and her family. Credit: World Bank/M. Monir

Amena Begum resides in a village in the Habiganj district in Bangladesh and is a mother to three young children.  Last year Amena spent US$100 to construct a toilet to ensure her three children were hygienically protected from feces.
 
Even though her family members have adapted to using the toilet, exposure to fecal contamination can occur anywhere.  For example, while playing outside, a child may accidentally ingest soil with animal feces, or the child could be exposed when he or she eats food off of dishes washed with pond water.  
 
It is also not uncommon for families without toilets to throw feces into a nearby bush, which remains exposed in their living area. These actions can lead to the contraction of hazardous, lethal diseases and create a traumatizing effect on the lives of many children, not to mention the unfavorable impact on the environment.
 
A new study on early childhood diarrhea in rural Bangladesh found that despite high on-site latrine access, frequent fecal contamination was present along all environmental pathways investigated. Human fecal markers on children’s hands and in soil, and rotavirus in stored water, soil and on hands had been detected. Animal (particularly ruminant) fecal markers were highly prevalent in water, soil and on hands.

Join Sri Lanka’s journey to end poverty and promote prosperity

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture

A 90 day reflection of the new Country Director of the World Bank
Join Sri Lanka's journey to end poverty and promote prosperity

I take this opportunity to thank all the Sri Lankans that opened their minds and hearts to help me understand the country context and constraints. During my first 90 days in Sri Lanka my colleagues and our clients gave me a warm welcome. I first met our core counterparts in the Government of Sri Lanka when I visited in July 2016. I have since travelled outside of Colombo several times, and I have met with many of our clients, development partners and stakeholders.  I have also had the privilege to meet with our friends from the media, civil society groups, academia and private sector to better understand the current operating environment and discuss solutions to issues of common interest.

Cricket in Sri Lanka is followed with so much passion and enthusiasm. This thrilled me as it is the same in my home country, Zimbabwe. Many things about Sri Lanka and its people and culture bring back fond memories from home.  Sri Lanka to me now is a second home so I am often torn with who to support when Sri Lanka plays Zimbabwe.  It’s even harder to know how to react when Sri Lanka beat Zimbabwe recently.

I recently read an article by Kumar Sangakkara on the Spirit of Cricket.  What an apt article.  It just demonstrated so much what one can do when they find a common thread that they are all passionate about.  Sri Lanka has many lessons to teach and to learn from the game of cricket.

I join my view into that of the article, that all Sri Lankans will need to work together regardless of location, gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation and social status. The focus should be on Sri Lanka’s priorities for development and how the Sri Lankan people can work together to win the match of ending poverty and sharing prosperity.

For the differently abled by a differently abled – an inspiration from Tamil Nadu, India

Varalakshmi Vemuru's picture
Mr. Kannan, a differently abled social entrepreneur
Mr. Kannan, a differently abled social
entrepreneur. (Photo: Varalakshmi Vemuru)
During my recent mission visit to Sivagangai District in Tamil Nadu, India, I met with Mr. Kannan, a social entrepreneur. I was visiting communities to understand the latest efforts under the Tamil Nadu Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Project (TNEPRP) to support the differently abled with economic activities following their identification and mobilization. For six months now, Mr. Kannan is running a Community Skills School (CSS), an innovative approach to skills enhancement, in the Kalaikulam Village. At the school, which provides self-identified and motivated trainees with skills to repair home appliances, Mr. Kannan has already trained 70 differently abled men and three women. Among the trainees is his wife, who is differently abled herself, but is of huge support to Mr. Kannan in running the CSS and in working with women. He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women.


He has an agreement with TNEPRP to train a total of 180 differently abled, including a planned group of 30 women. Run on a guild program model, the CSS ensures that upon completion of a one-month program on skills enhancement, the trainees can become self-employed or work in small enterprises repairing home appliances in their own and neighboring villages. The rapid urbanization of rural Tamil Nadu offers plenty of such opportunities.

Mr. Kannan designed the key aspect of the curriculum—which goes beyond technical training—based on his own life experiences. During our conversation, I found out that Mr. Kannan is differently abled himself—he was afflicted with polio at the age of three and has lost the use of both his lower limbs. As a result, Mr. Kannan needed a wheelchair to get around. Nevertheless, he was not deterred and continued his education to receive a diploma in mechanical engineering from a local Polytechnic. He ended up at Samsung’s service center in Chennai, the state capital, where he spent four years acquiring skills in home appliance repair. 
 

For Bangladeshi women, road maintenance brings better opportunities

Ashis Bhadra's picture
Bangladeshi women holding basket above their heads while working on road project. The Second Bangladesh Rural Transport Improvement Project interventions have created approximately 50,000 person-years of employment in project areas, out of which 30% were for poor women.
Bangladeshi women holding baskets above their heads while working on a road project. The Second Bangladesh Rural Transport Improvement Project has generated nearly 50,000 person-years of employment in project areas, out of which 30% were for poor women. Credit: World Bank

Not long after her husband suddenly died in 2012, Kunti Rabi Das struggled to put three square meals on the table for her family of three. Kunti, a member of the minority ethnic dalit community and living in the remote Rajnagar upazila under the Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh, simply didn’t have the means to produce enough to live on. Moreover, her prospects for any work that could support her family were dim.
 
That was her predicament until a Union Parishad (or village administrative council) representative introduce her to the Performance Based Maintenance Contract, or PBMC, program. Under PBMC, Kunti cleans drains, fills pits, clears minor blockades and plants trees on roadways near her home. Working six days a week, she earns up to 4,500 Taka per month.
 
The program provides a cost-effective and time-saving approach to keeping Bangladesh’s rural roads in optimal riding condition during every season. At the same time, it improves the lives and livelihoods of the country’s poorest women, who are given priority among other contractors vying for the work, according to the World Bank’s women’s empowerment principles.

Who is poor in Pakistan today? Raising the basic standard of well-being in a changing society

Ghazala Mansuri's picture
Photo credit: Visual News Associates / World Bank


Over 80 percent of Pakistanis consistently report that their economic wellbeing has either deteriorated or remained the same. Only 20 percent, disproportionately concentrated in the very top of the distribution, feel that they are better off and similarly small numbers believe that economic conditions have improved for their locality. If we took a poll today, it is possible that many of you would say that extreme poverty has risen rather than fallen.

But in fact, the national data tells a completely different story! According to the national poverty line set in 2001, Pakistan has seen an exceptional decline in poverty—falling from nearly 35 percent in 2001 to less than 10 percent by 2013-14. Moreover, these gains were not concentrated among those close to the poverty line. Even the poorest 5 percent of the population saw an improvement in living standards.

Making South Asian Apparel Exports More Competitive

Ritika D’Souza's picture

Apparel workers in Bangladesh

There is now a huge window of opportunity for South Asia to create more apparel jobs, as rising wages in China compel buyers to look to other sourcing destinations.  Our new report – Stitches to Riches?: Apparel Employment, Trade, and Economic Development in South Asia  –  estimates that the region could create 1.5 million new apparel jobs, of which half a million would be for women. And these jobs would be good for development, because they employ low-skilled workers in large numbers, bring women into the workforce (which benefits their families and society), and facilitate knowledge spillovers that benefit the economy as a whole.

But for these jobs to be created, our report finds that apparel producers will need to become more competitive – chiefly by (i) strengthening links between the apparel and textile sectors; (ii) moving into design, marketing, and branding; and (iii) shifting from a concentration on cotton products to including those made from man-made fibers (MMFs) – now discouraged by high tariffs and import barriers. These suggestions recently drew strong support from panels of academics and representatives from the private sector and government when the report was launched mid-year in Colombo, Delhi, Dhaka, and Islamabad. South Asia is now moving on some of these fronts but a lot more could be done.

Moving up the apparel value chain
Stitches to Riches? finds that South Asia’s abundant low-cost labor supply makes it extremely cost competitive (except for possibly Sri Lanka). But rapidly rising living costs in apparel manufacturing hubs, coupled with international scrutiny, are increasing pressure on producers to raise wages. Plus, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, who enjoy a similar cost advantage, are entering the fray, and some East Asian countries already pose a big challenge. The good news is that the policy reforms needed to keep the apparel sector competitive would likely benefit other export industries and transform economies (view end of the blog).

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