Mommy and Me: Basti Edition

“Meri mummy sab se acha khaana banata hain,”  Shifa exclaimed with excitement as she took a huge bite of the mutton shalom gosht.

My mom makes the best food in the world.  

Her comment elicited a collective laugh from everyone in the room. Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (ZeN) – an eleven woman catering group that specializes in Nizamuddin Cuisine – had just finished hosting their first ever pop-up restaurant. The group members and event organizers all sat on the floor in a large circle devouring the food that was not sold at the event. After a very intense week of planning and three hours of serving food in the Delhi sun, it was our time to celebrate the sold-out event. 

For all of the members of ZeN, the pop-up was the first time they had the opportunity to interact directly with their customers at their own kitchen — the group usually operates on a delivery model basis. It might have been a first for customers to see the women in their natural habitat but definitely was not for their children who were often at the kitchen when their moms were working. 

Celebration with ZeN Family
Celebration after Zaika-e-Nizamuddin’s pop-up.

In fact, Zaika-e-Nizamuddin’s kitchen is housed next to Insha-e-Noor’s (the other women’s group in the Nizamuddin Urban Development Initiative) production center. Members in both groups bring their toddlers to work with them or have their primary school aged children come to meet them at work. 

I had started developing my own relationships with the kids of Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin. Drinking mango juice together, asking them what they learned in school, smirking as they asked (and eventually begged) for their mothers’ smartphones. Although it had become one of my favorite parts of the job, this was not always the case. 

When I first started the fellowship, I was a bit taken back by the number of children in the kitchen and production center. 

Is it safe? What if they fall or get hurt? Should we be working to set up a formal day care? Is this sustainable? — were some of the thoughts I had.

Though these thoughts made sense, I was forced to think more critically about the situation given my own personal background. After all, much like Shifa, I was a restaurant baby myself. 

In 2001, my parents opened their own restaurant in Buffalo, NY. My parents could not afford nor were they interested in hiring a babysitter to take care of me. Instead, my seven year old self spent most of my time after school in the storage area of the restaurant on the second floor. I was away from the kitchen but my mom would frequently come upstairs to check on me and make sure I hadn’t managed to get myself in too much trouble with my three coloring books and one 11-inch TV with the VCR attached. At age 11, I started helping out in the kitchen by cutting onions or stacking clean dishes and by high school, I was a member of the front end staff. I attribute all of my current and any future success on my experience with the restaurant. Working in a fast-paced and often challenging and emotionally draining environment ensured that I would be equipped to handle less than ideal situations or unexpected changes in my professional life. More importantly, working alongside my parents and witnessing their sacrifice and commitment to our family has been the biggest motivator in my life. 

Despite fondly looking at back at many childhood moments I spent at the restaurant, I am always a little reluctant to share these special memories. Growing up in the United States, the idea that the restaurant served as an alternative to daycare or a babysitter always elicited a strong and often harsh response. 

“Oh honey, it’s so awful that you were forced to be in the storage room.” 

“Your parents are so lucky that nothing ever happened to you, it’s just so unsafe.” 

These interactions made me feel like my time spent at the restaurant was unideal and inappropriate childcare due to my parents’ financial status at the time. 

The children of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin and Insha-e-Noor forced me to acknowledge my own Western bias on the matter. In the United States, the general notion of children in workplaces —particularly those with machinery — is unacceptable. Even recent efforts to acknowledge its economic strain and establish government support childcare programs such as universal pre-K and childcare subsidies in certain U.S. states, childcare is seen as a service that should be administered solely in a formal setting. Often times, Americans have immediate objection to the presence of a child in a work environment in the developing world. 

Saiba and Mariam
Saiba and Mariam: Mom and Daughter pair during a ZeN member meeting.

The problem with the perception is both that it is inaccurate and has forces limitations for working women in the developing world. Workplaces can be easily modified to accommodate children by creating a separate enclosed area. Mobile Creches, an NGO in India specializes in creating low cost childcare spaces next to construction sites where 30% of the workforce is female. To date, Mobile Creches has reached out to 650,000 children and runs 550 daycare centers (“Our Impact”). Even at my fellowship host organization, we have had a lot of success at my host organization by using expandable playpens in the kitchen

More importantly, women working in the informal sector do not have the financial ability to afford day care and cannot rely on other members of the household. Urbanization and migrant based work have dismantled the extended family support structures. Even when extended family are geographically close, family members increasingly have less capacity to help with child care. This is particularly true amongst the lowest socioeconomic levels where all family members need to engage in income generation activities.

Mariam
Mariam (ZeN Member Saiba’s Daughter) and I.

Accommodating the needs of working mothers benefits the whole family well beyond financial gain. Research indicates that growing up with a working mom has numerous benefits to children: in a study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries, daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles and earned higher incomes (Claire Miller 2015). Admittedly, nearly all of the research of the effect of working mothers has been done in developed countries and the limited research in the developing world is focused on the formal labor sector. It makes the case for exploring alternative forms of daycare even more pressing. 

There are already barriers for so many low income urban women to join the labor force such as transportation, safety, and financial strain. It makes little sense to me to create another one by not allowing their children to accompany them. Though it is not a permanent solution, modifying a workspace to be safe for children can go a long way in encouraging more low income women to gain dignified employment. 

How else would Shifa come to learn that her mom is the best chef in the world! 

  1. Delany, Ryan. “Gillibrand, Hanna Push for Universal Pre-K Together.” WVRO.org, 3 Feb. 2017. Accessed at: wrvo.org/post/gillibrand-hanna-push-universal-pre-k-together.
  2. “Our Story.” Mobile Creches Homepage. MobileCreches.org/ Indian NGO for Early Child Development & Rights, 2018. Accessed at: www.mobilecreches.org/our-story.
  3. “Our Impact.” Mobile Creches Homepage. MobileCreches.org/ Indian NGO for Early Child Development & Rights, 2018. Accessed at: https://www.mobilecreches.org/impact.
  4. Cassirer, Noami, and Laura Addati. “Expanding Women’s Employment Opportunities: Informal Economy Workers and the Need for Childcare.” Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, 2007. Accessed at:  www.cpahq.org/cpahq/cpadocs/wcms125991.pdf
  5. Miller, Claire Cain. “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers.” The New York Times, 15 May 2015. Accessed at: www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/upshot/mounting-evidence-of-some-advantages-for-children-of-working-mothers.html.

Minahil earned her Bachelors of Arts in Advocacy and Argumentation from the University at Buffalo where she was a Prentice Family Foundation Western New York Prosperity Fellow and served as the undergraduate Student Association President. After graduation she served at Buffalo City Hall as an AmeriCorps VISTA and on the campaign team for New York State Senate's 60th legislative district. She most recently served as a Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society Fellow at UC Berkeley. Throughout her professional and academic career, Minahil has been interested in working on issues of equity at the intersection of gender, race, and class. After her time as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Minahil plans to attend the Georgetown University Law Center to earn her JD.

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