In search of the average Indian woman

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“We were a group of 10 girls, and we were free to do whatever we wanted, go wherever we wanted and eat whatever we wanted,” said Devi. The classes lasted for three hours. “The rest of the time was ours. I used to leave home at 9.30 in the morning and come back by 5.30-6 in the evening. We would walk to the centre, chatting and having fun, even though we could have taken a bus. The main market was on the way, and we would stop to snack and shop,” she recalled.

That freedom of girlhood was now far behind her, as the 26-year-old sat outside her house in Kantewa village in Rajasthan, her four-year-old daughter getting on and off her lap. In a red bandhej sari, a bangle on each wrist and a mangalsutra around her neck, she was a picture of cheerful confidence. Till her mother-in-law, Pushpa Raj, hung around, she spoke in a slightly hushed voice. Once she left, Devi opened up and spoke more freely, smiling and giggling as she told her story.

Why did she stop going to school? “Stubbornness,” recalled Devi. “When I was in Class IX, everyone in my group, 10-15 girls, moved to a new school, saying it was better than the old one we went to. It was a little far from our village and we had to take a bus. I also wanted to join my friends. I did not want to walk 1-2 km every day to school anymore,” she said. But her father refused. “At this point, I decided that I would either go to school with my friends on a bus or not go to school at all,” said Devi, laughing at her younger self.

Nor did the thought of completing her education and getting a job force a rethink. “I didn’t think that way. Girls in our places do not become ‘successful’. They are married off, have to bear children and take care of the house, and so on. I wanted to study until Class XII, though.”

Devi’s experience is common enough. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-21, the median education levels of rural women in the 15-49 age group is 8-9 years of schooling. Devi’s reasons for not pursuing education, too, are not very surprising. For most rural girls, dropout rates rise with increasing age. Among rural girls of age 6-17 years currently out of school, 21% each cited lack of interest and high cost as the main reason for dropping out. Another 20% were required for household work or were married off. And 7% said that the school was far away.

Devi is determined not to let the same happen to her daughter, Pratigya, who has just started going to the government school in the village. “The quality of education is good in our village school, so it is alright for the time being. In the future, my husband and I plan to send her to a private school, which is 2 km away. I keep telling my husband that I’m even ready to cut my own living expenses, eat less, but I do not want to compromise on her education.”

The lives of Indian women are too diverse, too complex, to be entirely captured by data. But if we were to piece together a picture of the “average Indian woman”, the aam aurat, from the comprehensive information collected by the NFHS, and other public datasets, who would she be? And where could you find her? To find the answers to those questions—to put a face to the data—Mint arrived at Devi’s doorstep in Sikar district, Rajasthan, last month.

According to the NFHS 2019-21 data, a typical Indian woman, in the 15-49 age category, is likely to be someone like Devi. She would be married, Hindu, and OBC. Given that 65% of Indians live in villages, she would be a rural woman. She would be between 25-29 years old, and have completed schooling of 8-9 years. She would also be unemployed. The typical urban Indian woman would be slightly older and more educated: 30-34 years old and with 10-11 years of schooling.

Why did we choose to seek the representative Indian woman in a village in Rajasthan? Among all states, Rajasthan is closest to the national average on all macro indicators considered. For instance, its state GDP per capita is 1.15 lakh compared to the national GDP per capita of 1.49 lakh (for 2019-20 at current prices); the state’s sex ratio is 1,009 compared to the national ratio of 1,020 women per 1,000 men (NFHS 2019-21); according to the ministry of health and family welfare, 74% of Rajasthan’s population is estimated to live in rural areas compared to 65% of India’s total population; its female literacy is 65% compared to all-India figures of 72% (NFHS 2019-21); 22% women in the 15-49 years age group are employed in Rajasthan compared to 25% in India; at 2.0, the state’s total fertility rate is the same as that of India.

As the availability of the latest district-level data is limited, Sikar was selected based on its sex ratio, urban-rural break-up, female literacy and share of cultivators and agriculture labourers in total workers (Census 2011). Kantewa, a mid-size village with 198 houses and a population of 1,243, was selected based on logistical convenience. A typical rural household, according to NFHS data, owns agricultural land, has a pucca house, has at least one room per three members, has a modern toilet on its premises, has access to electricity, uses solid fuel for cooking, owns a fan, bicycle/motorcycle, a mobile phone —but no refrigerator, air-conditioner, car or computer. Devi’s house met all the criteria except for the ownership of refrigerator and cooler, which are common possessions in Rajasthan, a rather hot state.

A day in her life

The Time Use Survey in India 2019 shows that an Indian woman on an average spends about five hours of her day on domestic work, whereas a man does not even spare half an hour for these tasks. Employment activities take up almost the same amount of time in a day for men as household work does for women, making it a full-time “job” for them—just largely unacknowledged and unpaid.

Like most women, Devi’s days are filled with work. She usually gets up between 5-6 am every day. After morning tea, she sweeps and cleans the house and feeds fodder to animals. For women in the house, most of the morning is occupied with cooking. Devi is assisted by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who is also her younger sister, in chores. Although their kitchen is equipped with an LPG cylinder, they prefer to cook on the chulha in the courtyard. Her father-in-law believes that food cooked on a gas stove leads to health problems. Devi finds it easier to cook in the open, too. Only when it rains, do they make use of LPG.

“Smoke from the chulha did bother me initially but I got used to it. Cooking on the stove feels more difficult as it gets hot and sweaty without a fan inside the kitchen.” Roughly six in every 10 houses in rural India still use dirty fuel for cooking, as per NFHS 2019-21. According to Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, around 600,000 premature deaths in India are attributed to household air, putting women and children at greater risk.

A water tank, some utensils and chulha kept in the front courtyard.

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A water tank, some utensils and chulha kept in the front courtyard.

Everyone in the family has their first meal around 10-11 am. The food usually consists of chapattis, two kinds of vegetables and chhachh or lassi (salted and sweet buttermilk). The family rears a buffalo, a calf and a goat, so dairy is available in plenty. Devi is fond of paneer. With 69% women reporting milk and curd in their daily diet, the consumption of dairy products is significantly higher in Rajasthan than the national average of 49%. Extra chapattis are cooked in the morning itself and preserved (soaked in ghee) in a tiffin box. They are consumed in the second half if anyone gets hungry and at dinner, with freshly cooked vegetables.

Even an advertisement of a chicken dish on YouTube is enough to make Devi feel disgusted. Except for her brother, no one in her parents’ or in-laws’ family eats non-vegetarian food. Among all states, Rajasthan has one of the lowest levels of meat or eggs consumption.

After lunch, it’s time to rest for everyone in the house. Devi’s favourite “pastime” is sewing. She spends a fair amount of time on her Vivo smartphone – she uses it to keep in touch with her husband, as well as her fast friends from the ITI centre. Sometimes, she visits her relatives in the village but makes sure to come back before the evening chores. When she feels like it, she also makes poha and Maggi for herself and her sister.

On days when her sister is not around, the housework doesn’t seem to end. “That’s when I wonder, ‘Where have I come?’” Devi said. These are also the days when she feels that she got married a bit early.

Her training in sewing has come in handy after marriage. As women in the village got to know that she sewed her own clothes, they started bringing their clothes to her, helping her earn a little. Her income from tailoring is sporadic, from nil to 2,500 a month. She spends her earnings on things of personal as well as family use. Despite the money it fetches, it is more a hobby than a profession. She has not done any sewing work in the last 4-5 months as she was away at her parents’ house.

Devi belongs to a minority, as only 30% women of age 15-49 years said they were employed in the 12 months preceding the NFHS 2019-21 survey. The employment level among women has seen a downward trend over the last two decades —the share of employed women has fallen from 36% in 2005-06 to 25% in 2019-21.

The alarming decline in the share of Indian women in the labour force has worsened with covid. It is partly explained by two historic factors: rising numbers of young women and girls in educational institutions and a decreasing need for women to stay in low productivity jobs such as subsistence agriculture as their families become richer.

However, the lack of “suitable” opportunities is a bigger reason for keeping women out of jobs, suggests research. A 2019 survey by Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania shows that women may be looking for jobs that are part-time, flexible in schedule, and closer to home – so as to allow them to perform their domestic duties.

Love after marriage

Devi got married in 2014, four months before turning 19, a little older than the median age of marriage of 18.2 years for rural women of age 25-49 years. Her husband, Rajendra Kumawat, was 23 years old at the time of marriage, a little younger than the median age of marriage of 24.1 years for rural men of age 25-49 years. He works as a tiler in Abu Dhabi.

Devi’s younger sister, who is married to Kumawat’s younger brother, had not even turned 17 at her wedding. Her husband works as a truck driver in Saudi Arabia. She was visiting her parents at the time of this writer’s visit. Both sisters were married at the same wedding.

While underage marriage has sharply decreased in the last few decades, the practice is far from being absent. Every fourth girl in India is married off before turning 18, as was the case with Devi’s younger sister.

 

Was it a love marriage or an arranged marriage for any of the sisters? “Love marriage is rare here. The marriage proposal was initiated by a relative from my village. My maternal grandfather then came to check out the grooms’ family, and my father finally approved it. I was too young to like somebody on my own, so I fell in love with the one I was married to,” said Devi, giggling.

Will she approve of her daughter’s marital choice in the future? “They (her daughter and her future husband) should be happy, that is what matters to me.”

Even if their families had arranged their match, Devi and Kumawat found a way to get acquainted with each other before their wedding. “After our ring ceremony in August 2013, we started speaking every day over the phone. I used to have a keypad phone back then. At first, I was afraid of my father, but eventually I became comfortable speaking with my fiance even in front of him,” said Devi.

Her first few conversations with Kumawat wouldn’t last longer than five minutes. “He would get angry at me for putting the phone down. Once he asked me not to hang up before 30 minutes.” The phone “courtship” made Kumawat less of a stranger to her.

Kumawat left for Dubai three months after their wedding. Devi left for her parents’ house in Badusar village, 7-8 km away, soon after. She returned to her in-laws’ after three-four months, and continued to visit her parents quite often. It took her roughly a year to settle into her new household.

Kumawat sends money every month to his parents’ bank account. Devi also has a bank account, but it’s hardly used. Her husband gives her some cash for her use when he leaves. Last time, he had left 10,000 with her, which got over in a few months.

He also deposits money in her father’s account whenever she demands for it, and whatever amount she needs. In the last five months, he has sent her 30,000 through her father. “If he sends money to my account, what will my in-laws think?” Whether sanctioned by her in-laws or not, allowances provided to Devi by her husband put her among the 49% rural women of age 15-49 years who have access to money that they can decide how to use

 

Apart from Devi and her sister, the household in Kantewa comprises her father-in-law, mother-in-law, her daughter and an unmarried brother-in-law. 52% rural households in Rajasthan live in a non-nuclear family, compared to 43% in India, shows the NFHS 2019-21 data.

The family stays in a large two-storey house, which has seen better days. Paint is peeling off most of the walls. The family has only four rooms and a kitchen to themselves; the other half of the house belongs to a relative.

The rooms have little to no ventilation, so most members prefer sleeping in the open, on the terrace. 48% of rural households live in pucca houses, with 58% having less than three persons sleeping in one room. Devi thinks their house is badly in need of renovation. “Our house was built a long time ago, it looks old-fashioned now. It would be better if we could make it more modern.”

The front view of Suneeta Devi’s house.

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The front view of Suneeta Devi’s house.

Motherhood and health

Devi’s first pregnancy in August 2016 resulted in a miscarriage. When she started experiencing spotting, she was at her parents’ house. She did not know what it meant. She was taken to a nearby doctor, who gave her an injection. When the bleeding did not stop the next day, she went to her regular doctor. But it was too late. It took her a few months to get over this grief.

Even during childbirth in 2018, she fainted immediately after the delivery and stayed unconscious for a couple of hours, her body turning “blue”. Postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) or heavy bleeding is the most common cause for such a condition, an obstetrician-gynaecologist told Mint. Anaemia (haemoglobin deficiency) increases the risk of PPH. About 57% of women of age 15-49 years are anaemic, with its prevalence having risen by four percentage points over the last five years, shows the data from NFHS 2019-21.

Like Devi, her daughter’s eyes and tongue are pale, indicating a high likelihood of iron deficiency, the most common cause of anaemia. 67% of children of 6-59 months are anaemic, as per NFHS 2019-21. Disconcertingly, anaemia among children has risen by nine percentage points over the last five years.

Research suggests that babies born to anaemic women have an increased risk of childhood anaemia. Devi has tried to give some pills, procured through a “compounder”, to Pratigya in the past, but no consultation with a doctor or change of diet or addition of supplements have happened yet.

Despite a difficult childbirth, Devi wants another child. “Two is ideal.” What does her husband want? “He also wants one more; sometimes he jokes about creating a cricket team,” said Devi, breaking into giggles. A boy or a girl? “That does not matter.” She does not have a timeline in mind. “My daughter was still very young when my husband was home the last time, so he asked me to wait. We will think about it when he is here next.”

According to NFHS 2019-21, the ideal number of children that women of age 15-49 years want to have is 2.1, with 81% preferring at least one son and 79% preferring at least one daughter. Devi’s gender indifference for her next child, hence, is atypical and progressive. Sometimes her mother-in-law says that they should have at least one son. Devi counters her by saying that she bore only sons, how much do they care about her now?

Escaping caste

Kumawats in Rajasthan have traditionally been potters, classified under Other Backward Classes (OBCs). However, no one in Devi’s family, on either her parents’ or in-laws’ sides, are in this profession anymore. Even in her village, most have escaped the caste occupation. Like his son-in-law, Devi’s father is also a tiler; he owns some land too.

Her father-in-law owns about 1.5 acres of land, where he grows onions, moong, bajra, jowar and wheat for the family’s consumption. About 52% rural households own agricultural land and 58% own farm animals, as per NFHS 2019-21. Her father-in-law had also been a tailor, but that work has now slowed down a bit.

Although Devi was married in the same caste, she is open to her daughter marrying outside her caste. What if her in-laws object? “They will be too old or would have died by then to have a say,” said Devi, chuckling.

Freedom and fetters

Over the last 15 years, the life of the typical Indian woman has changed significantly: 45% of women were illiterate compared to 28% now. The median age of marriage among women aged 20-49 has gone up from 17.2 to 19.2, the fertility burden has decreased, and access to institutional healthcare has improved. Access to clean drinking water and clean cooking fuel is also better.

Devi’s mother-in-law, for instance, is 47 years old and illiterate. She speaks the local dialect and cannot follow the conversation in Hindi. She can answer calls on her phone but has to keep guessing symbols of numbers to dial. She doesn’t believe she has missed out much by not going to school. “What is the point of education if there is no other job for women other than the household work?” she said.

Suneeta Devi’s mother-in-law Pushpa Raj.

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Suneeta Devi’s mother-in-law Pushpa Raj.

Devi spends several hours on the internet every day, video-calling her husband, and watching cooking or design videos. She often tries to imitate designs from the web for the clothes she sews. “When it’s too intricate, I leave it,” said Devi. She watches movies and TV series on the phone itself. Devi belongs to 33% women of age 15-49 years in the country who have ever used the internet. Does she run an Instagram account as well? “I’ve an account there but don’t use it as such.” Although the house has a television set, their dish antenna has been non-functional for a while now.

Raj regularly works in the field with her husband. Devi sometimes accompanies her mother-in-law to the field but does not contribute as such; she is allergic to mud and dust. While she provides fodder to animals, it’s Raj who primarily milks them and takes care of them. The household now has an electric machine to extract chhachh and lassi from milk, but Raj used a labour-intensive method (consisting of an earthen pot with bamboo and rope) in her younger days.

How does she assess the work of her daughter-in-law? “Fair, neither good nor bad.” What is her definition of an ideal daughter-in-law? “She may not be educated or beautiful, but she should have virtues. Someone who should respect her parents-in-law, not indulge in gossip,” explained Raj.

Devi said her mother-in-law has never been harsh on her, even if she occasionally complains about chores left unfinished. “A mother-in-law can never become a mother, and a daughter-in-law can never replace a daughter, that’s a fact. So whatever our duties, we should perform them,” Devi said.

While Raj works extensively in the field, she rarely goes to the market. In comparison, Devi’s visits are more frequent to the closest market in Lacchmangarh (the tehsil) for medical needs, buying their clothes and ornaments and sanitary pads. Neither woman has been to the market alone; they are accompanied by the men of the house on a motorcycle.

A substantial portion of Indian women find their mobility subject to family control: only 56% of women of age 15-49 years reported that they were allowed to go alone to the market (NFHS 2019-21). Freedom of movement for women increases with increasing age.

When they step outside the house, both women cover their faces with a ghoonghat (veil) (About 61% of women across communities cover their heads outside the house, data from Pew Research Centre 2019-20 shows). If she had her way, Devi would like to experiment with her attire. “After marriage, I used to find it difficult to wear a sari. I would like to wear more comfortable clothes like salwar suit, t-shirt or leggings.”

Both women have never been outside the district Sikar. Devi has been on a bus several times, to places within the district, but she has been on a train only once in her life. Her husband often takes a flight, does she not want to get on one? “Just because I wish, will the flight come to me?”

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