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Odisha’s Girls Are Breaking Societal Norms to Work in Cities, And They’re Not Looking Back!

Odisha’s women are no longer just content with being wives, daughters, and mothers. More and more women from the state’s rural areas are flocking to its cities for jobs, and in the process discovering their independent and self-confident selves.

After finishing her Class XII, Shalini Das decided to step out of the protected environs of her home and small hamlet in Odisha’s Kendrapada district and shift to state capital Bhubaneswar to look for work. Her father had abandoned her mother when she was born and the older woman had raised Das into a strong young woman, in spite of the crushing poverty and social struggles. “My father had wanted a son so he left us as soon as I was born. My mother worked as a farm labourer and she had to face many difficulties to raise me. It is my turn to take care of her,” she says emotionally.

It was an uncle who informed her of a possible opening in a marine export company in the city, and she decided to take the leap of faith. “He suggested that I go for an interview and assess my prospects. So I came and met with the supervisor here. I got a position in the peeling section of the factory. Initially, I did not like the work much. Cleaning shrimps is not easy as one has to use a small blade to do it and the hands are always stinking. However, it’s been four months and I have decided to stick to this job.”

“I feel happy when I am able to send my mother some money,” she says with a bright smile.

Shalini Das decided to step out of the protected environs of her home and small hamlet in Odisha’s Kendrapada district and shift to state capital Bhubaneswar to look for work. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)

Like Shalini, other women – single, married, separated and widowed – are not afraid of taking a chance, and moving bag-and-baggage for better work-life opportunities. Where earlier social and familiar compulsions governed female migration in the country, today, women are increasingly moving to find their own space, identity, and self-confidence. Indeed, while these educated youngsters usually come from the countryside to the city because they do not find any suitable work near home and are in dire need of money, once they are here, they love the sense of accomplishment they experience when they make it big on their own steam. “If you have passed Class X, or even studied up to Class VIII, there are no employment opportunities at the village level. You simply have to migrate to cities to earn.”

“Some of our friends in villages have gone to cities in other states too, like Bangalore and Chennai. Most find work either in garment or marine export factories. I preferred to come to Bhubaneswar,” shares Das.

In the beginning, adjusting in the city was difficult for Shalini Das but with time she gained confidence. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)

In Odisha, there is major production and export of seafood, and the marine export businesses employ women in large numbers. “Unlike men, women are more productive and dedicated to their job, and execute the processing work properly. So we prefer to recruit more women,” says Rajendra Kumar Rout, Manager, Falcon Marine Export Limited, Bhubaneswar. Most new recruits start off in the peeling section and then later on, depending on their performance, they upgrade to grading, checking, and packaging.

“Seafood is a perishable commodity, so we call women to work in shifts. For instance, whenever we have trucks coming in with the raw catch, we ask them to report for duty. To ensure that they can come in on time and that they are safe, we have set up a hostel adjacent to the factory itself. The beginners get a salary of Rs. 6,000 per month. It rises to Rs. 10,000 besides other benefits,” informs Rout, adding that most of the girls and women employed with them are from economically weaker backgrounds and from villages. He says, “They come to know about us either through word-of-mouth or during recruitment done by our licensed contractors.”

Lata Behera was in her teens when both her parents passed away. She lived with her brother and sister-in-law, and was responsible for taking care of the home and doing all the chores. “I didn’t like staying with them. To them, I was just someone who was there to do all their work. When I became older, they were not even interested in getting me married. They felt that if I left them, who will take care of everything?”

“I was an unpaid servant, till I decided to come out from that hell,” recalls an angry Behera, who is now in her 30s.

Meena Behera, 39, of Badamba in Cuttack district, lost her husband five years ago in a road accident. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)
Meena Behera, 39, of Badamba in Cuttack district, lost her husband five years ago in a road accident. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)

It was through a contractor that she came to know of Falcon Marine Exports, and these days she, like Das, is working in the peeling section, making a tidy Rs. 6,000. “Ever since I have started making money, I have new-found self-confidence. I will work to secure my future. Moreover, the attitude of my family members and relatives has changed considerably. They don’t take me for granted anymore,” she states. What about marriage – does she plan to settle down soon? She says, “At present, I have no such plans. But if and when I get a suitable partner, I will surely like to have my own home and family.”

Migrating from the village has proved to be a good move for Das and Behera. Although it was a daunting transition, they are happy with their decision. “In the village, girls are always living under constraints and there are many restrictions on their movement. None of us ever get to even go to a cinema hall. We are told to stay at home, work there, and watch television if we want to relax,” relates Kalpana, who is from Ranpur in Nayagarh district. She finished her Class X and then decided to shift to Bhubaneswar to find paying work.

“My father is paralysed and my mother toils away day-and-night as a labourer. I have one elder sister who is married. As I have done my schooling my parents have big expectations from me. They are hoping that I will be able to support the family,” she elaborates.

Dipika Barla of Deogarh district’s Tileibanei block moved to town to realise a cherished dream. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)

If Kalpana moved because of financial pressures, Dipika Barla of Deogarh district’s Tileibanei block came to town to realise a cherished dream. “I had never been to a city and always wanted to go. A few years ago, some girls from my village Prabhasuni went to Bangalore to work in garment factories. When they came back during their holidays, wearing nice clothes and with fancy mobile phones, I decided to see what it would be like for me,” says Barla. Naturally, the first chance she got, she came to Bhubaneswar to join Falcon Marine Exports. Working hard, she managed to save up enough to buy her very own smartphone, which she is very proud of. “I am thrilled because here I do whatever I want to do. After finishing my shift, I watch movies or go for shopping,” says the 18-year-old, who has just finished her Class X.

According to Dr. Sabita Acharya, Director of Women Studies, Utkal University, this kind of feminisation of migration is a positive development. She explains, “In rural areas, single women (mostly deserted or widowed) live in difficult situations. Moving away from their conservative milieu gives them an opportunity to earn a decent livelihood and lead a respectful existence.”

“They become confident and learn to take decisions of their own life.”

Girls chilling out in the hostel in Bhubaneswar. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)
Girls chilling out in the hostel in Bhubaneswar. (Credit: Rakhi Ghosh\WFS)

Take Meena Behera, 39, of Badamba in Cuttack district, who lost her husband five years ago in a road accident. His sudden death landed her in a lot of financial difficulties as she had to single-handedly provide for her five children. Working at Falcon has solved her problems and she feels certain that she will be able to raise and educate the little ones on her own.

It’s true that with women moving for different reasons – a shot at economic prosperity is the dominant factor for most – the outcome for many has been life-changing, and in a good way.

Written by Rakhi Ghosh for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.

To find out more about the Odisha government’s assistance for such independent women, check the Woman and Child Development Department.

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