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Migration, Gender and Right to the City

The Indian Context

R B Bhagat ( is with the Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.

Since the 1970s, urbanisation across the globe has been shaped by corporate capital under the neo-liberal policies of the state. Cities are treated as consumer products with massive private investment in real estate, corporate and public infrastructure, entertainment facilities, and security, to promote corporate urban development. The urban poor, slum dwellers, and migrants are dispossessed as a result of urban restructuring and gentrification. This article evaluates women’s migration to urban areas, identifies exclusionary processes against migrants in cities, and suggests strategies for implementing the “right to the city” perspective.

Since the 1970s, the nature of urbanisation across the globe, including India, has been increasingly shaped by corporate capital under the neo-liberal policies of the state. Cities are treated as consumer products, with massive private investment in real estate and housing, malls, expressways, flyovers, waterfronts, sports and entertainment facilities, and policing and surveillance to promote corporate urban development. Urban amenities and services are privatised, and labour reforms are undertaken to benefit corporate capital. The urban poor, slum dwellers, and migrants (both male and female) are dispossessed as a result of urban restructuring and gentrification (Mayer 2012; Brenner and Schmid 2015; Hearne 2014). These exclusionary processes began in 1990 and are acute in Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad (Banerjee-Guha 2002; Kundu and Saraswati 2012).

The central government started the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in 2005—which was renamed as the Smart Cities Mission in 2015—with the primary aim of accelerating neo-liberal urbanisation policies to promote economic growth. This has also led to various urban protests and movements in different parts of India related to such issues as the restructuring of urban space, demolition of slums, displacement, and the relocation and privatisation of urban amenities. In a remarkable development in Delhi, a new political party called the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) (Party of Common People) came to power by winning almost all the seats in the Delhi state legislative assembly in 2015. TheAAP was supported by the urban poor, workers in the informal sector, slum dwellers, transporters, and migrants.

While it is true that cities have evolved through migration, cityward migration, and interstate migration in particular, has been sensitive issue in India. India is a federal country and states are organised along linguistic lines. Linguistic differences are essentially cultural differences, which are pronounced in the event of migration. Though the Constitution guarantees freedom of movement and freedom to settle within India as a fundamental right of all citizens (Article 19), migrants face several barriers in their ability to access civic amenities, housing, and employment. They also encounter restrictions on their political and cultural rights because of linguistic and cultural differences. Discrimination against migrants is articulated in various parts of India under the “sons of the soil” political ideology, which simultaneously justifies the natives’ lay to claim on local jobs while blaming migrants for snatching them away (Weiner 1978). This ideology has evoked sharp anti-migrant sentiments, leading to occasional violence against migrants (Weiner 1978; Hansen 2001). Migrants are also vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation as many of them are poor, illiterate, and live in slums and hazardous locations that are prone to disasters and natural calamities. Women migrants are likely to suffer more in such situations.

Migration raises the central issue of the right to the city: the right of everyone, including migrants (men and women), minorities, and the marginalised to access the benefits that a city offers. This perspective also seeks to identify how best to promote awareness and representation of these groups within the city (Balbo 2008). The right to the city perspective ultimately seeks to achieve urban transformation that is just and equitable in contrast to urbanisation based on neo-liberal policies, which promotes exclusion, deprivation, and discrimination (Purcell 2002). Right to the city is also expected to unite disparate categories of deprived people under the common vision of building our future by building cities (Poli 2014).

This article reviews the nature of migration, urbanisation, and cities in India from the perspective of gender. It reviews the nature and process of women’s migration to urban areas in light of recently available evidence, identifies the exclusionary processes operating in cities that influence migration, and women migrants in particular, and suggests strategies for integrating migration and gender with the aim of building inclusive cities.

Cities, Migration and Gender

Migration accompanied urbanisation in Western countries as cities emerged as centres of economic growth with industrialisation. The nature of the city has changed from an oeuvre (work of art) to a commodity that shapes social relations, leading to unequal power, wealth, dominance, and exploitation of labour by the dominant capitalist class (Lefebvre 1991; Kofman and Lebas 2000). In India, large cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, being ports, were trade centres during colonial rule and grew into centres of factory production following industrialisation. As a result, existing social relations and hierarchies based on religion, caste, and gender came into conflict with the novel social forces generated by new cities and urbanisation. However, instead of being eroded by urbanisation, historic identities either remained intact or morphed into new forms of inequity and discrimination in the decades after independence (Patel and Deb 2006). In most cities, segregation along caste and community lines is still very prominently visible (Vithayathil and Singh 2012).

Patriarchal power relations continue to be embedded in religious, caste, place, and gender-based identities in cities, despite increased urbanisation and mobility (Fenster 2005). The decision of whether women family members can work outside the home is often made by men. Working women have to take care of both household chores and workplace duties, have little control over their salaries and wages, and are dependent on men for their movement (Jejeebhoy and Sathar 2001). Migration has taken women from the sphere of traditional gender relations in rural areas to a new patriarchal set-up embedded in the conjugal family system and the separation of the living space from the workplace. There are several feminist studies that have contributed to our understanding of the role of capitalism and gender in migration. They have studied the role of patriarchal power in controlling women’s labour in the home and the workplace (Silvey 2013). Studies show that women migrant workers are more vulnerable to violence and exploitation in the workplace than their male and non-migrant counterparts (IDRC and CRDI 2013). Gendered power relations also influence women’s private lives as well as their access to and use of public spaces. Women’s safety and security are a matter of great concern in cities, and these issues take an acute form with respect to migrant women (Fenster 2005).

Urbanisation, as a vehicle of capital accumulation, has been associated with an increased concentration of wealth in big cities and urban centres; rural–urban gaps in income, wages, and employment opportunities have also widened. Exclusion and deprivation are ubiquitous in cities as every 50 urban dweller lives in a slum and about 90% work in the socially unprotected informal sector with very low wages and salaries. Cities pose many challenges to women in general and migrant women in particular. For example, the built environment in cities and urban planning in India are not women-friendly, which is glaringly evident in the case of public transport in Indian cities. For example, a lack of bus services at non-peak hours, roads designed without taking into account women’s safety needs, and a lack of streetlights that increases crimes against women are major issues. Recently, there was a public outcry regarding the Nirbhaya rape case. Nirbhaya was a migrant woman who was waiting for public transport at a bus stop in Delhi for hours. Goons trapped her in a private bus and subsequently raped and killed her. Women’s access to safe public transport when they travel alone or walk around poses powerful restrictions on their mobility and right to the city (Tacoli and Satterthwaite 2013). In many cities in India, women also face the risk of violence during the night, when toilet facilities are not available within the residential premises or are located far outside the home (Mcllwaine 2013). A lack of water supply in the residential premises also forces women to spend more time on water collection. The availability of schools, hospitals, and crèches in the neighbourhood, or within walking distance, matters to women in particular. Urban infrastructure and services are usually not gender-neutral, as men and women do not have equal access (Khosla 2009). In general, Indian cities do not show gender sensitivity in urban planning and policies (Mahimkar and Gokhale 2015).

It is important to mention that women are not a homogeneous group, and some are more vulnerable than others. There are poor migrant women who live in slums and work as domestic and construction workers—these women face greater disadvantages as compared to middle- and upper-class urban women. There are also female-headed households, single women and professional women who migrate to the city and who encounter different types of vulnerability in the workplace, at home and in transit. There is an appalling shortage of basic amenities in Indian cities such as access to water, sanitation, cooking fuel, and a supply of electricity. As many women have to take care of household and workplace duties, the lack of such basic services represents a failure of the state and reinforces the patriarchal structure of society and denies them their right to the city (Haritas 2013).

Cities evolve through migration and shape both social and gender relations. Women’s internal migration in India, whether for employment, education, or movement with the family and household, is shaped by the institution of patriarchy, which not only controls their access to economic and social resources but also their mobility. Mobility includes travel and journey, and is an important means to access economic and social resources, knowledge, and skills.

India’s social system is predominantly organised through the institution of caste—a hierarchical arrangement of social groups, where status is determined by birth. Each social group traditionally lived in a spatially demarcated area. The castes previously known as the untouchables and now called Scheduled Castes always occupied the outskirts of villages because they were considered polluted. Historically, they were a part of the agrarian working class in villages, and they tilled land that they did not own. The traditional system of procuring agricultural labour tied to the land and landowners was very much prevalent in India—it was similar to the serf system of Europe. This system of caste relations was both social and spatial and was known as the jajmani system (patron–client relationship); it kept the agrarian classes immobile (Dube 1990). On the other hand, the privilege of mobility was only available to the Brahmins (priestly castes) who travelled to provide priestly services and also the Vaishyas (trading castes) who often travelled to trade various goods and commodities. In the traditional hierarchical caste system, patriarchal and gender segregations were much stronger among higher castes as compared to the lower castes, where both men and women worked together in agricultural activities (Raju 1993).

It is important to mention that gender relations have historically been shaped by the institutions of family and marriage, which are both deeply embedded in the institution of caste. The mobility of women is controlled and carefully planned within this system through the normative structure of patrilocal residence. In more patriarchal societies in North and North West India, village exogamy is practised along with the practice of child and early marriages, which subjects women to subordination and exploitation. The purdah (veil) system is still practised in this part of the country, which perpetuates women’s dependency and curtails their freedom (Dyson and Moore 1983). Women are often not allowed to move around without a male escort, and their movement is contingent upon male members of the family granting them permission, be it fathers, fathers-in-law or husbands. These situations have been changing due to the rapid urbanisation of Indian society, albeit slowly.

The right to move assumes enormous significance for women’s well-being in an urban society. A gender perspective on the right to the city envisions the safe movement of all women (including migrant women) within a city, their safety and security in both public and private places, access to the social and economic resources of the city without any prejudice, and their participation in building the city. This requires a paradigm shift in the ideology of a city from being a source of gross domestic product and economic growth to a space that is environmentally sustainable, woman-friendly and inclusive.

Women’s Migration to Cities

Due to economic growth, rapid urbanisation, and increased means of transportation and communication, the rate of migration of women has increased as compared to men in recent times. Also, longer distance and interstate migration has increased among women (Singh et al 2016). While most men report employment as the reason for rural–urban migration, women report marriage (60%) and relocation of the household (30%) as the dominant reasons for migration (National Sample Survey Office 2010). On the whole, family-related migration of women has increased in the last two decades. It would seem that male and female migration from rural to urban areas is related, since men move for employment—or in search of better employment—and women follow them after marriage or move after men migrants settle down.

In cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Pune, there have been increases in female migration. In fact, the increase in female migration is evident across all classes in urban centres (Singh 2009). Women constituted the majority of migrants in most cities between 2005 and 2006 (Figure 1). As most of these women do not work, this shapes their relationship with the city, especially with regard to access and use of the city space and resources. On the other hand, their contributions as homemakers and family-care providers are enormous, but seem to be structured through the continuity of patriarchal traditions transmitted from rural to urban areas.

National statistics on migration show why men and women migrate. The statistics show that women have limited agency in case of migration, with less than 3% of women migrants reporting employment as the reason for migrating (Figure 2, p 38). It is true that there are women migrants who reported that the reason for migration was either marriage or relocation with their families, but these same women also became a part of the workforce after migration. In national data sets like the census and the national sample surveys, a single cause of migration is identified from several causes like marriage, employment, relocation with family, education, business, moving after birth, etc. Researchers have questioned this monocausal reporting of the reasons for migrating in national data sources, as in reality there are often multiple reasons (Mazumdar et al 2013). It is important to mention that the reasons for migrating are most often reported by the head of the household, who is often a man. Thus, a patriarchal bias in reporting cannot be ruled out. However, it is also true that the job market at the migrant’s destination is structured in favour of men, as only 14% of migrant women are reported to work in urban areas. This figure is significantly higher than the rate of women who reported employment as their reason for migrating (about 3%).

There is a huge disparity between men and women migrants in urban areas. The available data indicate that the participation of women migrants in the workforce has declined; about two-fifths of those who were either self-employed or casual workers prior to migration lost their work after moving to urban areas as per the 64th round of the National Service Scheme (NSS) survey conducted from 2007 to 2008 (Singh et al 2016). This shows some amount of defeminisation of the migrant workforce. However, it is noteworthy that while jobs were lost due to migration, there was also an increase in opportunities in certain job categories. For example, some large cities have shown enormous growth in the number of female domestic servants and construction workers employed, who are mainly migrants. A similar phenomenon has been observed elsewhere in the world, showing an increase in feminisation of migration as more women are employed as caregivers (Kofman and Raghuram 2012). In India, several placement agencies have also sprung up that are involved in recruitment processes in big cities (Neetha 2002; Srivastava 2012). Some skill-based diversification and expansion of occupations are also visible. Women migrants work as salespersons, beauticians, hairdressers and in call centres. However, paid domestic work is the most gender distinctive feature of urban-ward labour migration (Mazumdar et al 2013).

Studies show that illiterate women have a higher propensity to migrate than illiterate men (Singh et al 2016). Thus, the emerging labour market seems to be segmented, with women migrants relegated to informal jobs with low pay and little security, for which they require few skills. This shows that cities have become exclusionary; the patriarchal pressure to migrate continues, resulting in the increased confinement of women migrants to the home. This has resulted in increased disempowerment and vulnerability of women migrants not only in public places but also in private spaces like the home. Naturally, women migrants who move as dependents are more vulnerable—they are more likely to be less educated and work in precarious jobs offered by contractors.

Labour migration of women is largely within states, but in 2010, a significant proportion migrated from North East India in search of employment to more urbanised areas like Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand (National Sample Survey Office 2010).

Migration, Gender, and Exclusionary City

Exclusionary processes are subtler and more indirect in India as compared to China, where migrants in urban areas are discriminated against based on the household registration system, hukou. In China, migrants are not part of the urban hukou and face discrimination in their access to employment, pensions, housing, healthcare and education. This has sparked intense debates in recent years (Solinger 1999; Li 2010). In India, on the other hand, exclusion and discrimination against migrants takes place through political and administrative processes, market mechanisms, and socio-economic processes.

Amartya Sen (2006) argues that each of us has multiple identities, so a person may suffer from multiple deprivations as well. Women in the city suffer the consequences of being migrants and women, in addition to inherent sociocultural prejudices and economic deprivations. Migration adds to the existing baggage of inequality and discrimination. Migrant women not only face wage discrimination, but also sexual violence and various types of exclusion, such as restricted access to the public distribution system for food, to shelter and medical facilities, and may even have limited voting rights. Many women migrant construction workers are denied access to crèches, drinking water, sanitation, and toilets (Bhagat 2012; Agnihotri et al 2012). A study on migrant women in the slums of Mumbai shows that a significant proportion (20%) suffer from reproductive health problems (reproductive tract infections and sexually transmitted infections). The study also found that one in every five migrant women whose husbands consume alcohol experience sexual violence in their marriages. One in five husbands of migrant women are alcoholic, which is a serious threat to the autonomy and lives of the women (Mohanty and Bhagat 2014). The limited access that migrants, both men and women, have to health services is a very serious issue. Public health services are generally lacking and private health services are too expensive. In most cases, migrants are neither able to reap the benefits of health insurance schemes nor are they provided with health insurance by their employers. They also face greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDs (Saggurti et al 2011).

Lack of housing is a serious problem for migrants in Indian cities. For single migrant women, rental housing is expensive and working women’s hostels are either unavailable or beyond reach. As a result, many single migrant women either seek rental accommodation or live as paying guests (PG). Finding rental accommodation as a single migrant woman is very difficult because single women have to fulfil several conditions before they are accepted as tenants (Times of India 2016).

A study conducted in several states shows that 53% of women migrants in urban areas have no access to safe drinking water and have to fetch water from public taps or pumps. About 20% have no access to a toilet facility, and 15% have no access to electricity. On the other hand, more than 75% of women migrants and even more men migrants have no ration cards (food entitlement card) at their destinations. Although the situation is better in urban areas compared with rural destinations, the deprivations are glaring among women migrants (Agnihotri et al 2012).

Many migrants lack proofs of identity and residence in the city. This is the biggest barrier to their inclusion. Due to a lack of proof of residence, many are not included in the voter list and cannot exert their right to vote. Agnihotri et al (2012) note that a significantly higher proportion of women migrant workers do not vote as compared to men. This reinforces the idea that women migrant workers face a somewhat greater disenfranchisement because of migration. Lack of residential proof leads to the inability to open a bank account, get a ration card, or a driving licence. It is noteworthy that residential proof depends upon a migrant’s ability to own a house in his or her name or in the name of a family member, or rent a house under a leave and licence agreement. The recent Unique Identification project also insists on residential proof. Women generally lack access to property and housing rights, and the condition is worse for them when they migrate with their husbands or other relatives. The denial of political rights (of voting) to migrants, both men and women, is crucially linked to being denied the right to housing in the city. Due to a lack of proper housing, many migrants live in informal settlements and are unable to acquire residential proof. Also, as most of them work in the informal sector, they cannot get any proof of identity from their employers, unlike their counterparts who work in the formal sector.

Residency is another criterion that restricts migrants’ access to housing in contrast to non-migrants. In Mumbai, for example, those who lived in slums but arrived after 2000 lost the right to acquire housing under slum rehabilitation programmes. Also, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979 is hardly ever implemented to protect the rights of labour migrants. These instances are indicative of how urban policies and programmes discriminate against migrants in general and women migrants in particular.

Minor children migrated with around two-thirds of migrant female workers and just one-fourth of male migrant workers (Agnihotri et al 2012). Children of migrants are denied their right to education as seeking admission to schools is cumbersome, and language barriers are difficult to overcome. Migrants’ languages are generally different from the local language, and this adds to their disadvantages. The list of rights denied to migrants is huge, and it gets longer for women migrants.

However, when considering the denial of rights, it is important to keep in mind that the right to the city is not an exclusive individual right. Rather, it is a collective right, which aims to unify different exploited classes to build an alternative city that eradicates poverty and inequality and heals the wounds of environmental degradation (Harvey 2008, 2012). It is also pertinent to argue that individual and collective rights should not be seen as separate or unrelated; the fulfilment of individual rights may be a transformative step in realising the collective right to the city.

Conclusions and Future Directions

Urbanisation is often associated with the greater independence of women and the erosion of patriarchal power relations and values (Tacoli and Satterthwaite 2013). However, Indian cities have failed to achieve the goal of gender equality, as patriarchal norms continue to play an important role in the urban social structure—these norms have been transplanted to urban areas from rural areas through migration with few social reforms. It is worthwhile to emphasise that women are not a homogeneous group, but they are divided based on economic and occupational status, religion, caste, ethnicity and their migrant status. Each of these identities intersects with gendered power relations and the patriarchy in determining the realisation or denial of the right to the city.

A large proportion of women migrants live in slums, although this proportion varies from city to city. In some cases, women are affected more than men migrants in their access to housing, water and sanitation. Women migrants face various types of discrimination, barriers and exclusions. These issues should be a central concern for city planning and development agendas, and efforts should be made to integrate migrants and women politically, economically, socially, culturally and spatially. This requires an enormous change of attitude in those who appropriate and dominate cities towards the processes of migration and urbanisation. A historical understanding of the processes of migration and urbanisation, and migrants’ roles in building cities, must be highlighted.

Urban development is a state concern in India, but the central government has formulated a huge urban development programme and has given the states the opportunity to take advantage of them. Government policies and programmes are silent on the issue of migration and on the need to protect the rights of migrants. Concerns related to gender and migration are not addressed, and the rights of women migrants do not find an equal place in city development plans. Access to economic, social and health benefits are denied because of hostile attitudes, discriminatory practices and even legal frameworks based on the “sons of the soil” ideology. As women migrants continue to suffer at the hands of patriarchal values and practices, discriminatory practices deny them the right to the city. Shortage of urban amenities and lack of access to housing increases their suffering, but they still contribute immensely to the city as domestic servants, unpaid household workers, construction workers, and other workers.

The democratisation of city governance, and the political inclusion of men and women migrants in decision-making processes, are important steps to ensuring the right to the city for all, for promoting alternative urbanisation, and building cities based on the principles of freedom, human development and gender equality. In this light, the constitutional provisions under the 74th amendment to reserve one-third of seats for women in urban local bodies should be implemented in letter, spirit and practice. Women should be given responsibility in planning and decision-making processes in municipal administration bodies. Any approach remains incomplete until the right to the city philosophy occupies a central position in planning, and women participate in making decisions that are sensitive to gender and the rights of migrants, minorities and the poor.


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Updated On : 10th Aug, 2017


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