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Equal pay for equal work: 2015 onw
Earlier this month, thousands of women hit the streets across Switzerland to demand equal pay, but one of the wealthiest countries of the world would be amazed to know that women in a village in Nagaland have secured what it has been striving to achieve for the last 30 years. The gutsy women of Chizami in Nagaland’s Phek district succeeded in winning pay parity with their male counterparts in 2015 after a eight-year battle, and with the help of sensitive men by their side. But while that’s unlike anything heard of in India, their fight is far from over.
“We never had disparity in pay in the days when we used to practise barter,” says 74-year-old farmer Tasetshulou Kapfo, talking of a time before the advent of cash changed everything.
“Both boys and girls got three zahe (a measuring basket) of grain for a day’s work. But as cash came into the system, the value of labour changed and we started seeing disparity in wages,” adds Kapfo, who still works in her terraced paddy fields in the village that is about four hours’ drive from capital Kohima.
The women farmers of Chizami say men got paid more by projecting that they performed the more laborious tasks in the cultivation process, like ploughing the field. “We argued what women do, men can’t. That it is equally strenuous to sit hunchbacked the whole day and clear the fields of undergrowth,” says Kenzunyipe-u Tsuhah, chairperson of the village women’s society. In the terraced fields of Chizami, it is the women who put in most of the farm work without any mechanical assistance. “We pursued the idea of equal wages with the village council and its welfare forum for seven years, starting 2007, but it was pushed back every time,” she says. “One year men said it was a taboo for women to demand equal wages. Another year they said we should respect men as the head of the household and not look to be paid as much as them,” said 56-year-old Adile, who took to farming when she was barely six years old.
What the women were seeking was a big ask given that Nagaland is a highly patriarchal society where the customary laws deny women even inheritance rights. Women’s presence in the political space is negligible, too. But guided by North East Network (NEN), a non-profit organisation that promotes women’s rights, the villagers struggled on.
But seeing their strategy hitting the wall year after year, the women changed tack in the eighth year. “We approached men who were sensitive to our cause. Dr Wethselo T Mero, a paediatrician who works at the district hospital in Phek, became our spokesperson and convinced the village council that Chizami should be a model for the world,” says Tsuhah.
“The equal wages apply for all kinds of non-specialised agricultural and manual work and is fixed at Rs 450 a day during peak paddy transplanting time (from June 1 to mid-July) and Rs 400 for the rest of the year,” says Wekoweu Tsuhah, the programme director of NEN in Nagaland. Chizami, a village of 600 households and approximately 5,000 residents, is surrounded by hills carpeted with alder and oak trees. “About 20-30% of Chizami’s households depend on farm labour in addition to working in their family fields,” says Wekoweu.
Statistics show what the women of Chizami have achieved is no mean feat. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its ‘India Wage Report’ released in 2018 says the gender wage gap in the country remains very high by international standards, despite declining from 48% in 1993–94 to 34% in 2011–12. Of all worker groups, the average daily wages of casual rural female workers is the lowest, it adds.
“What this village in Nagaland has achieved is unheard of in the entire country,” says Ramendra Kumar, national secretary of Trade Union Coordination Centre, which works in 20 states across India. Despite the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976, enforcement on the ground is missing and discrimination is widespread, Kumar added. “The difference in wages can be anywhere between Rs 50 and Rs 100. The discrimination has been internalised and women don’t ever question the pay gap,” he says.
Women of Chizami, the village inhabited by the Chakhesang tribe, talk about newfound respect and confidence since the epochal decision of 2015. “Women from other villages have been inspired by Chizami’s achievement and are demanding equal wages. What is most important for us is that we feel happy and proud that our work is given equal value,” says Adile. “We can say to our children and grandchildren that in our generation we addressed the issue and achieved pay parity,” she adds.
But for Chizami’s women, the fight still continues as many men in the village find it difficult to swallow the idea of equal pay and are challenging the move, says women’s society chief Tsuhah. “Even last year, some men wanted the equal-pay decision revoked but the chairperson of the village council— the apex decision-making body of a village — put his foot down. Our struggle hasn’t ended, but we are going to hold on to this achievement with our lives,” she adds.
For now the women of Chizami have a friend in Welhite Naro, the village council chairperson, who is sensitive to gender rights. A master’s in sociology from Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi, Naro has two women members in the council and plans to increase women’s representation in the body. Asked about the challenge to the equal pay decision, Naro said: “There is no question of going back on the wage-parity issue now.”