“Write this down.”
When I first began participant observation in India’s anganwadis –free, government run early childhood care and education centers that form the backbone of India’s Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS) – this was a common refrain. That, and, “Put this in your book,” “Make sure you tell people,” and, “You’re taking this to Delhi, right?”
These were the words of anganwadi workers, the all-female workforce recruited from India’s poorest communities to run angnawadis. Workers are often low caste and low income; many are the primary breadwinners in their extended families. They are also some of the most skilled advocates I have ever met, lobbying local councilors for space and resources, navigating families past obstinate bureaucrats and mountains of paperwork, and crusading for girls’ education by breaking up early marriages, enrolling daughters in school, and implementing schemes designed to counteract female infanticide.
And yet, the workers I observed were overwhelmed with invisibility. No one knows what we do, they told me. No one asks our opinion. No one respects us. The extent of the problem became apparent in Bangalore, my primary research site, when workers began calling each other to say, “Mathangi madam is here. She’s writing a book. Shall I send her to you?”
Feminist scholar Mohanty (2003) argues that the invisibility of women’s work – and, in particular, the work of low-income women of color – is a byproduct of patriarchy, both because it is the result of devaluing all that is female and because invisibility allows for the perpetuation of financial male-domination. Women’s work (defined as both the work women do and work associated with women such as cooking, cleaning, and child care) is positioned as nothing more than the daily tasks required for men to do the “real” work of capitalism. It is easy to justify unpaid labor if you insist that it does not exist.
For anganwadi workers, invisibility is institutionalized. The Indian government labels the women “voluntary” and pays them “honorariums” even though they work seven hours a day, five days a week, plus a half day on Saturday. Even when the media covers issues relevant to ICDS, anganwadi workers are almost never mentioned; instead, articles invoke their colleagues (like health workers), superiors (like Ministers) or un-appointed spokespeople (like non-elected union leaders). Yet, I have not to meet anyone in India who is more intimately familiar with the realities of child poverty, or better equipped to make recommendations about its alleviation. But you cannot ask the opinions of those you cannot see.
Dismantling this invisibility, Mohanty (2003) argues, means dismantling patriarchy. She writes,
“Making Third World women workers visible in this gender, race, class formation…leads to thinking about the possibilities of emancipatory action on the basis of the reconceptualization of Third World women as agents rather than victims.” (p. 143)
It was this call to action that inspired me to work with professional photographer Greeshma Patel to develop Picturing Change, an attempt to literally render anganwadi workers’ work visible. This July, using a grant from the Fulbright Foundation and funds crowdsourced on Indiegogo, Greeshma and I purchased digital cameras and began training five anganwadi workers – Geetha, Sujatha, Sumitra, Varalakshmi, and Yashoda – in photography. In the past three months, the women have produced and curated an exhibit that will be on display at Thalam gallery in Bangalore from September 28 – October 12.
Already, there have been sparks of the reconceptualization Mohanty (2003) precits. Visitors to Picturing Change’s Facebook page tell us the photos have disproved their preconceived notions that government workers are lazy, submissive, and corrupt. Senior ICDS officials who viewed the photos said they did not realize the range of activities anganwadi workers implemented in their centers, or the creativity with which they approached their jobs. A local NGO that is influential in national early childhood policy asked if the workers could speak at a community forum about reforming ICDS. Such shifts reposition women’s work as skilled, as well as important, and women workers as experts in their fields.
The participants say the project has brought them attention and respect, giving them confidence in themselves and pride in their work. At least two are planning to write personal testimonials for local presses, and all of them are interested in producing a book after the exhibit ends.
Dyrness (2008) writes that “we cannot hope to transform social structures without first transforming ourselves,” supporting feminist scholars who have argued that personal healing is a necessary first step to radicalization. While I do not dispute that transformation is a prerequisite to change, I am reminded of Chowdhury’s (2011) well founded claim that too often, NGOs, academics, and activists who settle for individual empowerment do not do enough to fight for structural change. For me, Picturing Change has been transformational, in that it has taught me the power of images to remake identities narrowly and falsely hewn by intersecting oppressions. Most importantly, it has taught me the importance of working beside women in solidarity, rather than for women in a separate, elitist space.
Last week, I was at Varalakshmi’s anganwadi on a day when she had invited mothers to come have their children weighed to assess whether or not they were malnourished. She balanced a camera in one hand, using the other to record weights, hold babies, and steady hanging scales.
When I asked if she wanted help, she said, “No madam, I’ll do it myself.”
So I sat, and I listened, and I watched, in solidarity, as, slowly and surely, Varalakshmi’s invisibility faded away.
Written by Dr. Mathangi Subramanian
Dr. Mathangi Subramanian is a Banglore-based writer, educator, and Fulbright Scholar. Her writing has appeared in academic and popular publications ranging from Gender and Education to The Hindu Sunday Magazine to the seal press anthology Click!: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She is the co-editor of Us Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice, which is forthcoming from Routledge. Her first single authored book, Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide, will be published by Scarecrow Press in 2014. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Thanks to Greeshma Patel for allowing us to use this photo