Africa: Spices and Women’s Empowerment – I Have Been Surprised

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I’m currently undertaking a work-based learning placement as part of the IDS MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and it has been one and a half months since I have started working at the Masala Center, or Spice Center, located in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. The aroma and feel of the spices is making this experience even better. My favorites are cumin seeds and dry mango powder.

I have developed bonds of friendship with the 14 women who work here. I have been documenting oral narratives, trying to gauge whether working here leads to their empowerment – at an individual and collective level. Many women at the center have been working here for over 15 years, spending most of their adult lives at the center. I had come in with many questions and the notion that the center would have sub-standard working conditions, the workers would have no knowledge of their rights, and would be completely disempowered. My time here has proven me wrong and I have been surprised by the women’s empowerment through their jobs

To begin with, working at the center is economically empowering. Through the money they earn, women are able to both run their households (in the case of female headed households), as well as support their family income. Expenses include rent, rations[monthly provisions], school fees, etc. They also have bank accounts, with savings facilities. As said by Roopa Devi, 40 years, ‘(Out of a monthly salary of Rs. 7900-approx. 88 pounds) I spend it all on rations, Rs. 500 (approx. 6 pounds) goes to the bank. I will make a house in my village with this money’.

Apart from these routine expenses, women are also able to use this money for themselves. Seema Devi says, ‘I can say that I am no longer dependent on anyone for money, I don’t need to look elsewhere. I can make my own clothes and jewelry now’.

This suggests that working at the center has enabled their children’s education, given them freedom of choice and made them more economically independent.

Another facet of individual empowerment is the value and respect these women get in society for their work. As Seema Devi further says ‘My relatives actually respect me for this work, because I can run the house with the money I earn at the centre. I am no more frightened of anyone, whether it is someone senior or junior to me’.

She is supported by Prem, 40 years: ‘No one is desperate once they start working, they can stand on their own two feet, and my children are being educated and well brought up. It’s good that I work, my needs are being met’.

This work is also emotionally empowering as well, as the center provides a space for these women to vent their frustrations and share their joys and sorrows. Some of them come from troubled homes or from single income families, others they have children with health problems and some suffer from depression. By coming together and talking openly about their problems, these women are able to overcome their grief.

In the words of Gyani Devi, ‘When I come here, my tension reduces. When I go home, the same problems start again. A married son should be able to run the house, but there is no one to do that as he is ailing. All the money goes in his treatment. Laughing and crying is a part of life. But why should we cry? What is the point of that? When I come here, we laugh and make jokes together. That is why I never take holidays’.

The physical space is quite large and airy. The women have individual grinding wheels and enough mortar-pestles and sieves to work with. They also have a courtyard where spices are packed as well as a terrace for drying them. This goes against my initial viewpoint that they have sub-standard working conditions.

As far as workers rights are concerned, many of these women have joined the organised sector for the first time. They are able to raise their issues with the management, and have managed to considerably increase their wages over the years. This clearly shows their collective empowerment.

Apart from working at the center, I have also interviewed other women like my grandmother, two female chefs, one domestic help, and one working woman. Their views have also provided interesting insights into preparing and sharing food. All these women gain respect through sharing and preparing food, but for those whom cooking is livelihood, the relationship is different. They feel that cooking is a job for them, whereas for women who cook at home, it is also seen as an avenue to release their tension.

I still have a lot more questions to ask – do these women at the center have any attachment to any specific spice? If they were not doing this work, what would they like to do? Is there anything else that they want to tell me?

I hope these questions are answered by the time I write my next blog entry…

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

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