She: The Invisible Bread Earner (Part I)

“Who is the head of family?” I asked a boy from Chikiti Block of Odisha. His  response was the same as my earlier experiences of Tehri Garhwal, Uttrakhand. 

“The father or the male member is the head of the family,” he replied. The same answer was replicated by many other individuals in my field. When I asked why the father is the head of the family, they concluded that the father is the earning member and thus runs the family. However, upon talking about the family structure and their daily lives, their conclusions about the head of the family seemed juxtaposed for me. It included women’s work more than the work of the male members – and here I am not only talking about the domestic work, but the work in fields as well.

showing the labor work by women
Paddy cutting by daily women laborers in Chikiti Block, Odisha. (Picture courtesy: Sahana Afreen)

If work actually matters to make a person the head of the family, then according to the labor a woman completes over her lifetime, no other member can defeat this. But it’s not about the work. It’s about the socialization and psyche of the person and the society which have this implanted notion that only a man can be the head or have the power to lead others. And till 2016, it was legally accepted that a woman can’t be the head of the family. Till the time a case was registered and the female won and amendment happened in the law, in which a news of Times of India concludes now “women are eligible to become the legal head of a family, a position hitherto reserved only for the eldest male.” Despite this legal landmark, however, I doubt the active implementation and awareness about the same to the majority of Indians.

All of them are ready with lunch and water for the whole day to work in the field. (Picture courtesy: Sahana Afreen)

I am working as an AIF Fellow in Chikiti block, Odisha. Here if you go around the area, you will definitely find either all females or majority females in the fields. Especially in the month of transplantation and cutting, the landowners need more laborers to get the work done fast. The majority of the laborers are women as per my experience. According to one analysis, women form 32% of the workforce that prepares the land for cultivation, 76% of those sowing seeds, 90% of people engaged in transplantation 82% of those transporting the crop from field to home, 100 percent of workers processing food, and 69% of those in dairying [1]. So “she” works at home and outside the home still “she” doesn’t get recognition of her work and appreciation is something which is even harder to imagine.

Instead of recognition and appreciation, others generally dismiss her work as chota mota (of minimal value). In a conversation with a  male member who works in development sector, I heard this expression. I was surprised by his answer, wondering if I’d heard correctly. I asked him again, questioning his referral of the women’s work as chota mota. I asked him what would happen if women would not work and not take care and do daily toiling in the field after the male migrants had left the field for cities. He remained silent. His silence for me affirmed the acceptance of the structural hierarchies that exist in the social structure. His usage of the expression chota mota reflects on how the work of a woman is looked down upon and valued less within the larger economic arena when it comes to the division of labor between men and women. 

The fact is that rural women in Odisha play a significant role in agriculture and allied activities. They actively participate in all ranges of agricultural activities, including pre-harvesting and post-harvesting. The rural women, besides looking after the family and performing all sorts of household activities, very actively remain busy from dawn to dusk in such agricultural operations to supplements their family income. Despite such a huge contribution, her role has not yet been recognized [2]

Women who have always been considered the second gender, despite their hard work and contributions, are still struggling to be recognized as heads of their families. This hesitation comes even when we know that she can be the head. I always ask this question to every woman I meet: “what do you do?” Almost all of them will respond “nothing.” But when you talk to them further and ask about their daily routines, then they will tell you about the work which is hard to complete in a day, and yet they will feel inferior to others as that’s what they are made to believe about themselves from society.     

“She” has been made to think like this because if “she” will recognize her work’s worth, then the power dynamics will take on a different shape and patriarchy would not be able to handle it. It’s hard to question norms and rethink the truths we are growing up with. It’s hard to question your own (self-) beliefs and values, no matter if we are old or young, educated or illiterate. As a woman growing up in a patriarchal structure of society and having studied in a top university, it took me 20 years to even realize what and why all this happens. I still find myself uncovering the layers. 

Way home after a long day of work in fields. (Picture courtesy: Sahana Afreen)


  1. Sainath, P. “Visible Work, Invisible Women – A Lifetime Bending.” Youth Ki Awaz, July 2015. 
  2. Das, Lipishree. “Work Participation of Women in Agriculture in Odisha.” IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (20.7): July 2015. 

Sahana is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Voluntary Integration for Education and Welfare of Society (VIEWS) in Gopalpur, Odisha. For her Fellowship project, she is supporting women self-help groups in launching social enterprises focused on organic farming practices to popularize the use of organic versus chemical fertilizers in the region. Sahana is a 23-year-old woman passionate to work towards gender equality. She has completed her Master’s degree in the discipline of social work with a specialization in rural development, mental health, disability, and counselling. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in political science. She has interned with Roshini, working with government school adolescent girls on life skills and creating a module on cyber security. She has also worked for the community in a slum in Delhi called Seelampur on different issues including gender, livelihood, education, and disability as part of her social work degree course. She was a part of the Youth Accountability Advocate (YAA), working towards understanding the needs of young people on sexual and reproductive health and rights. As a YAA member, she has been selected by the ‘Women Delivers’ in 2019 to share her experience and learnings in their international conference in Vancouver, Canada, with more than 8000 participants from all over the world. Sahana has been actively volunteering for an organisation called Pehchan for girls education in the peripheries of New Delhi. With AIF Clinton Fellowship, Sahana aspires to gain in-depth knowledge of the diversity in socio-economic, cultural, and educational fabric of India. She aims to hone her skills and build perspectives of working and solution generation in development sector.

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8 thoughts on “She: The Invisible Bread Earner (Part I)

  1. Very important topic that Sahana has brought to our notice here. It’s disappointing to know that the women who work equally (or more) to what work the men do and still being considered ‘doing nothing’ by their familay and community. It only disempower the women when their actions are not acknowledged. Not only in the case of women, but every human beings deserve acknowledgment and respect. Acknowledgment and respect by fellow beings will only strengthen
    individuals’ self respect and hence empower them.

    1. I agree with you that we all should get acknowledgement and respect to what we do as it’s one of the important needs to go on and do what we do.

    1. Thank you jane and yes a lot is here to get documented and get acknowledged which I will try to come up in my next blogs.

  2. I reflect my own experience while I reading this blog that male domination is exist in different part of India. Its forms may very but outcomes is almost same. “Everyone must think about our social as well as cultural Practices”.

    nadeem alam
    AiF Clinton Fellow 2016-17

    1. Yes definitely we all need to delearn what we have learned as a society about the gender roles and power dynamics.

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