Working Women in India

The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center
for International and Area Studies at Yale
Newsletter Articles - Fall 2006

Working Women in India

With the support of the Rustgi Family Fellowship, Nisha Tamhankar, Yale College Class of 2007, traveled to Pune, India, during the summer of 2006 to investigate the lives of women comprising the city’s domestic help sector with a focus on their health issues. She chose to conduct her research in Pune because it is among the most industrialized cities in India, and the majority of Pune’s upper and middle class households hire women from the city’s slums to do their dishwashing, laundry, and general household cleaning.

During her stay in Pune, Tamhankar worked closely with the Niramaya Health Foundation, a nonprofit health service organization that provides medical attention to women and children in urban slums. It operates in partnership with Pratham, a non-governmental organization dedicated to educating needy children. Using Niramaya and Pratham as her home base, Tamhankar was able to explore a network of organizations with medical and other services for women in underprivileged communities. She interviewed medical doctors, women’s health educators, social workers, the women’s employers, and the women themselves in order to gain insight into their lives and their health care status.

“These women do not have easy access to doctors or hospitals,” said Tamhankar. “Sassoon General Hospital, Pune’s sprawling public hospital, offers free services to yellow ration card holders. However, the hospital is understaffed, inefficient, and under-resourced. It suffers from weak administration, and consequently, patients are often misinformed and misdirected with regard to hospital policies, adding to the general chaos. The process of undergoing medical tests and examinations at Sassoon is somewhat expedited when patients are accompanied by medical social workers, but of course, the ratio of patients to available social workers is unbelievably large.

This problem of numbers was also readily apparent at the Niramaya-run health camps I visited; volunteer doctors were instructed to examine 50 patients per hour.”

Although many of Tamhankar’s insights cast health care in slums in a rather negative light, the impression with which she left Pune is much more optimistic. “The women I worked with were surprisingly smiling and upbeat despite the subpar living conditions in the slums,” she said. “There is something to be positive about; more of Pune’s slum children than ever before are completing a high school education and will not have to wash clothes and scrub floors as their mothers did before them.”

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Contact Information:
Marilyn Wilkes
Yale Center for International and Area Studies
(203) 432-3413
marilyn.wilkes@yale.edu