It is not hard to find women working in Dharavi. Even before we arrived in Dharavi, we met some women working as sales people in the women’s compartment of the train. One woman dropped her bin of pomegranates onto the seat beside me before going through the compartment haggling prices on the fruit. Another woman sat in the doorway vending bags of pistachios while her son played under the seats of the train. From the entrance to the main road going back towards Sion Station, women sell Chat and other snack foots and they carry baskets of fruit and roasted peanuts, selling them along the street. There were far fewer women working on the main road than the men operating snack stores, barbershops and restaurants. Women working in this street tend to be with their husbands or a male figure while they work, hardly any of them are here alone. Overall, women seemed to be far less involved with the public face of these businesses, and far more involved with the behind the scenes work. This also seems to be true given the statistics of female versus male street vendors in areas of the city like Colaba.
Once we started moving through the dark, twisting alleys in this informally planned space, we saw more women. Each little house front had clear signs of someone caring for the space: whether it was plastic flowers hanging from the doorway, curtains sewn and hung over the open door, carefully swept front steps, and clothes drying from wires outside of the home. Women sat together chatting in small candy and odds-and-ends stores in the less public parts of Dharavi.
We ran into three older women, probably in their late 50s, sitting in a circle chatting and making brooms out of dried grass and twine. They explained to us that these are sold in bundles to stores and businesses outside of Dharavi. Just across the narrow dirt and rubble road from them was a young woman in her early 20s printing on an old fashioned printing press. While she worked, her husband sat on the floor stacking and cutting pages. She showed us how she ran a round of printing and then went back to work. The little shop sold paper, printed goods, and provided a cheap printing service for manuscripts and books.
A third young woman, at most sixteen years old, was sewing pants with a sewing machine in the doorway of her home. She was working alone. She had a pile of finished men’s trousers beside her, and she excitedly showed us how much English she knew by pointing at various things in the room and giving us the word for it in English. Most of the women that we saw producing goods independently were working alone or with other women off the main streets. In this capacity, their work seemed to be very limited in its interaction with customers or clients.
A few industries within Dharavi are famously run and operated by women. One clear example of this is the Popadam industry in Dharavi, which is run entirely by widows. The widows work in a collective to make this kind of bread, which is then sold in restaurants all across the city. Women making and drying this bread fill one of the public spaces in Dharavi with colorful saris, kids running around between the baskets, and baskets with drying bread. Their work is limited by the weather: the process in which the bread is dried and cooked requires the round sheets of raw dough to lie on wicker baskets to dry before it is cooked, so they must find other ways to supplement their income during the monsoons.
The traditional fish market is also an industry dominated by women. Bombay began as a Koli fishing village, and this rich history remains in the heart of Dharavi, where Koli women have sold fish for generations. Women originally inherited this job because the men would fish while the women sold it, but now, even as others have taken up the job as local fishermen, the Koli women of Dharavi continue with this tradition (see appendix A). There are 60 women who sell fish in this space, and the tradition is passed down through women in family. Once the sons in the family get married, their wives are trained and expected to sell fish in the same way the elder women do. These women go to the wholesale fish market from 4:30-5:00 am, buy fish in bulk, and then return to open their market stalls at 9 am and then again at 6 pm until the sell all of their fish. Each woman has a marked block where they sell their fish, and the stands are passed down through generations of women. While there are men selling fish in other parts of Dharavi, this market space is an integral part of Bombay and Dharavi’s shared history as a Koli fishing village. While other factors have changed, the presence of women in this part of the industry serves as an important piece of Dharavi’s economic activity.
Outside of these professions, the majority of workingwomen are drawn into a few keys industries that offer them informal “contracts.” Often they are given work in construction sites in a sort of delivery service, where women bring supplies like bags of cement back and forth between trucks delivering supplies and the construction site. Another 1.68 million women are employed as domestic labor for the middle and upper classes outside of slum areas across India. Many another women are employed as low skill labor within informal garment production in Dharavi, offering help as assistants to trained tailors and finishing garments before they are sold off to western companies. These jobs often have very low entrance barriers, which is appealing for women without training in specific skill sets, but their wages were usually far under minimum wage standards and come with very low job security.
Another option for work comes from self-employment and running local, small-scale businesses that often end up employing other workers. The benefit for women who start their own businesses is that they control their own wages and have direct access to their profits. On this level, they are more likely to receive the same wages as men working in the same industry. Street vendors are some of the most visible workers in the informal economy for any part of the city, and about 40% of them are women. Often, these women can run and operate their own small-scale business while competing alongside men without significant barriers to entry based on gender or skill set.
We found a one-room schoolhouse run out of someone’s first floor apartment and children poured out of the room chewing on sweets and being led out of the alley by their sisters. The kids looked ranged from ages three to six and they were taught by a young woman who looked like she was in her early 20s. One clear benefit of a community like Dharavi was that children could go through the streets in groups while their parents worked and it was safe enough that boys and girls alike did not need constant supervision beyond that provided by the community. The space and the street belongs more to these families here than the streets in middle class neighborhoods do to those families. Only when we stood in corners, watching games of cricket or cards, did groups of children gather around us, curious about what had drawn our interest, and often older women would appear and shoo them away, giving us more space. In some ways, the neighborhood helps lessen the burden on working mothers who need to care for the family as well as complete domestic work, an added benefit of living in Dharavi rather than living in other parts of Bombay.
Even the space seems to have certain expectations to it for men and women. We walked through a few “men’s spaces,” where we were the only women present. Often these spaces were filled with little boys and men of all ages playing cricket. We typically found women interacting socially by sitting in their door thresholds and chatting with their neighbors. At first, most the women looked at us cautiously, or even warily, but we grinned and said “Namaste!” to all of the women we saw along the way, and often they returned our greetings very kindly. Their presence in the social sphere was much less public than that of the men in the community. Unlike my interactions with men in other areas of the city, all of the men that we encountered in Dharavi provided us with respectful amounts of space and only communicated their curiosity about our presence in Dharavi by asking if we were lost and needed directions. Besides the typical problems workers in the informal sector face, women also face cases of sexual harassment, limited access to restrooms near their work places, and limited bargaining power in their workplace.