Manjari is an 18-year-old tribal woman living in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India who has had no schooling. Even at such a young age, she already shoulders a world of responsibility – she is mother to two children (a daughter who is four months old and a son who is three years old), she is a brick kiln and construction worker, and she looks after a sizeable household. Manjari lives in a large extended family with her husband (also aged 18), her two children, her husband’s parents, his sister and his brother’s family (a wife and two sons, aged nine and ten).
Most of the family moves with their children for brick kiln work (which is seasonal employment) for about eight months of the year, including Manjari and her sister-in-law. The work is within the same city, but at different locations as temporary sites are set up. During the monsoons, they return to their homes, where they look for daily wage labour as construction workers (15–30 minutes’ walk from home, for eight hours per day). Due to this seasonal migration, neither of Manjari’s nephews have attended school, either at their place of migration or at home.
Much of the household has been engaged in brick kiln work since they were children. Manjari herself is still only 18 years old and has been working at the brick kilns for several years. Moreover, over the last year, Manjari worked at the kilns into her ninth month of pregnancy with no break in the intensity of her work: ‘one does, out of helplessness… what can one do?’ she asks. After 15 days of unpaid leave, with a little baby to nurse, Manjari returned to work because she feared that her job would be given to someone else.
Manjari gets no respite from work, whether at the brick kilns or back at home. At the brick kilns, the women work for 15 hours a day, they sometimes manage to get only 4–5 hours of sleep, going to the kilns at 3am and returning at 11pm. Manjari nurses her youngest child as she works, ‘I take time off in between work and have to feed them milk’, she says. When she is working, her children are kept nearby: ‘where we work, we leave them there, make them sit… they play… we keep an eye.’
Ironically, despite the harsh working conditions in the brick kilns, Manjari also has her work cut out back at her home, where she only has irregular paid work. She says, ‘I have to do all the work at home, like I have to wash the dishes, make food, get water from afar, sweep the house, all the cleaning I have to do [alone].’ Although she has a large extended family, she feels burdened by the responsibility of housework, ‘no one takes responsibility. I [alone] handle things, I [alone] do the work,’ she says.
There are very little public services available near Manjari’s home. Unlike at the brick kilns where water is readily available, there is a scarcity of water in the slums, with government tanks delivering water irregularly, sometimes with a gap of four to five days. When the tanks do not arrive, Manjari and her sister-in-law, along with the older children, walk a few kilometres to collect water on their heads – it takes them two hours for each round of water collection, and it is arduous work:
One has to lift [water] and get it. It is very far, you take it on your head and bring it, one’s head too hurts. Once you are back with water, one does all the work like cleaning and cooking, all the work, to bathe and clean the kids, take shower oneself, clean clothes. All the work and then there is no rest at all.
Manjari also grazes cattle when she is home. She takes her young children with her when she goes out grazing. This is in addition to the regular chores of childcare and household work, some of which she shares with her sister-in-law. Her mother-in-law steps in to help when Manjari is away, and her husband says he steps in to help with getting water when she is ill. He also procures firewood. Although other family members support her at times, Manjari’s perception is that she bears the brunt of the work. She doesn’t receive support from the wider community.
Manjari feels overburdened by her workload, ‘I do all the work, there is no rest, I don’t take any rest,’ she says. She also experiences violence in the house, especially when alcohol has been consumed. When her husband is drunk, she says euphemistically, ‘some wrongs do happen,’ she gets hurt, and, ‘then it is very difficult.’
At the brick kilns, the workers are indebted to the ‘seth’ (contractor) because they usually take an advance before they begin work, and they repay this advance for the entire duration of eight months. The workers get money for weekly expenses, which is counted against bricks made. At times of crisis, it is the seth who steps in, but again, this help is added to the total debt the workers owe him.