Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
– The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Every day, we make choices in our lives. And for every choice we make, we forgo something. Be it small choices like indulging in ice-cream (which for me isn’t really something to be pondered upon), or bigger ones like choosing what field you would work on or who you want as your partner in life. Every choice has consequences and we need to learn to make peace with these consequences, if we are to find happiness in life.
In economics, we term the cost of our choice as opportunity cost. But when does the opportunity cost of something become high enough for us to stop choosing it? This is something I got to explore as part of my visits to slums in South Delhi. As part of a UNDP project, we were visiting these slums to promote entrepreneurship among women. To spread the awareness, street plays were conducted and Focused Group Discussions held in the area. Women came to these meetings- some willingly and some after being rounded up by the local mobilizer. The numbers seemed promising. But as the purpose of our visit became clearer, the crowd started thinning.
Some told us outright they were not interested, others seemed wary of starting a business, which is deemed a far more risky venture than a steady job. Still others gave reasons like not being able to go out of their houses for long periods. While for some it was the censure of their families, for others it was because of young kids that they could not leave alone at home. At first look, these appeared as mere excuses to me. But maybe I was too hasty.
My mother is a working woman. Having grown up in a household where both my parents shared their responsibilities both inside and outside our home, the concept of a woman not being able to work because of young kids or familial pressure was an alien concept to me. I have parents who have had my back at every step of my life. I haven’t grown up in an atmosphere where I had to fight for going to school or getting a job. Neither do I have young kids that I leave behind at home every day for my job. As a kid, I and my brother have grown up with nannies, when my mother was at the office. We have never had a bad experience with them. Yet, I know that my mother, like many other women in her position all over the world, felt a lingering sense of guilt for leaving us at home while she went to work. She could afford nannies, but what of the woman who cannot afford one; what happens to her child?
What at first look appeared to me as mere excuses, on further pondering turned out to be legitimate reasons. You can’t just not care about what your family thinks; most of us do care. Neither can you not care about what happens to your kid. But these are also not issues which should make the opportunity cost of a women finding financial independence so high, that they can’t even take the first step towards it.
How do we promote women empowerment in such scenarios? Do we only include women who seem interested and can manage to step out? Then what of those who do want to, but can’t? One solution that cropped out during further discussion at my NGO was that we could provide alternative child care centers during the training period. Let me extend this and say we could make having a crèche compulsory at work places. But this can be applicable only for the organized sector. In a country where 93 percent of the labour force is part of the unorganized sector, it is difficult to implement laws that will impact the entire employed population. What crèche would a maid or a vegetable seller send her child to?
As for not having supportive families or partners or environment, it is something many people face in their daily lives. Either you adhere with their wishes and not fulfill yours, or you follow your dreams. At some point or the other, with someone or the other, most of us have made this choice in our lives. It is never easy. But then, nothing worth having comes easy.
Today, when I talk about women empowerment, it is not just statistics that I can think of. I can visualize people I have based my view on. Real people, with real problems, that cannot be solved with a magic wand or just loads of funding. Some of us get to choose; for others, making the choice in itself is a lofty goal that they haven’t yet reached.