Busting Gender Stereotypes

Busting Gender Stereotypes

It is the woman who plays the dominant role in society. Education as a means of empowerment of women can bring a positive attitudinal change. We, as a society, usually differentiate gender based on work or profession. But here is a case of women masons of Jharkhand's enterprising group (known as Rani Mistris) who have broken this stereotype - which was never easy for them, however, it helped that they played supporting roles for each other.

This is a story of 8 Rani Mistris living in Kharagdiha panchayat of Giridih District in Jharkhand. Tara Devi, Jammi Musammad, Bhulia Devi, Nunia Devi, Bhuvaneswari Devi, Krusha Devi, Gendia Devi, Rita Musammad come from impoverished economic backgrounds and belong to the marginalized section of society. However, they have broken into the hitherto male bastion of masonry and are breaking gender stereotypes.

In India, masonry work is a specialized skill that is usually dominated by men. These men are called ‘raj mistris’ – ‘raj’ being short for ‘raja’ or king. Traditionally, the women have played a supporting role, carrying bricks, preparing the cement mixture, and following the men.

Jharkhand’s enterprising group of women masons have now broken this gender stereotype. The women first took up masonry when the state launched a massive toilet-building drive under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Most men had left to work in the cities and the few that remained thought the money they would earn by building village toilets was too paltry a sum to work for.

Today, Jharkhand’s 50,000+ workforce of skilled women masons has played a pivotal role in helping the state achieve open defecation-free status, a milestone it reached in November 2018. Just as male counterparts are called kings, these women are called ‘rani mistris’ or queen masons.

But it was not always easy. In the beginning, the village community, especially the women, looked at them with disapproval. Poonam Devi, one of the rani mistris, recalls how her mother-in-law was against her learning masonry. However, with the strong support of her husband, she was able to start. “When they saw us becoming financially independent, the very people who disapproved quietly began asking how they could also learn the work. Once the women stood together, the community relented,” she says.

The women have broken another taboo too. Earlier, they could never think of traveling outside their villages to work. Women either worked at home or as farm laborers. But things have changed now. “We now travel to other villages when there are requests to build toilets. In fact, we ask the women of the household to help us. By the time we leave, some of them say that they too want to be like us.”

Nishat, along with the other women, was trained in the city of Ranchi on the technicalities of building toilets. The week-long module taught them how to do a site inspection and assess the best place to build the toilet. They also learned the technology behind soak pits and twin pits and were given practical training on construction techniques. After a week, they apprenticed under a senior mason before starting work on their own.

Now when the women go out to work, they always advise the family to construct the toilet within the courtyard of their house. “Traditional inhibitions hold people back from constructing a toilet within the house. But we feel that the toilet should be within the compound so it’s easier for the women at night. ,” says Usha Rani.

As masons, they earn more than double what they did as a construction labourers. Nishat, whose husband is unemployed, is elated with her new earnings, “I save the money I earn to pay for my children’s education. I even have spare cash to spend on myself.”

When Seema Kujjur’s husband died in 2010, leaving her with three children to raise, this young woman had a little choice but to take on daily wage labor that offered little money and less satisfaction. Eight years later, the 32-year-old is a proud “rani mistri” with budding skills and a leadership position in her village of Dubaliya,30 minutes from Ranchi.

The challenges went beyond the technicalities of construction. “To buy the bricks, we traveled out of the village and visited several kilns, compared to prices, and then made our purchases,” says another mason Reena Devi. “We went as a group of women, with no women. In the beginning, we were nervous, but this really gave us confidence,” says Ms. Khajur.

This initiative has not only helped strengthen the mason bank of the district but has also paved the way for women's empowerment while contributing to gender equality. Participating in economic activities outside their households is certainly breaking stereotypes and contributing to workplace diversity. From constructing toilets to training rani mistris, this woman is taking the lead to make rural Jharkhand free of open defecation.