The public health infrastructure rests on the shoulders of thousands of women who provide care work without access to social security networks. This was the claim in a recent Supreme Court ruling where the court, in recognition of the enormous care work and service, said that Anganwadi workers (AWWs) and helpers (AWHs) can claim gratuity – compensation, as “employees” have the right to. This lump sum has survival and cultural value; it not only increases the monetary power of women, but is also seen as a critical form of social security that employers must pay to the employee in recognition of their service.
“Gratuity is a gesture to value a person’s efforts to improve, develop and prosper a business, and that is why gratuity is considered social security, and over time it has become a statutory obligation on the part of employers, ”A bench of judges Ajay Rastogi and AK Oka ruled. They responded to a petition filed by Anganwadi workers and representative organizations for the right to be paid under the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972.
“The time has come to find out how to give the voiceless better service conditions that are commensurate with the nature of the job they perform,” Judge Rastogi wrote in his statement.
India’s Anganwadi workers have waged a long battle with the system. It was in 1975 when the role of the Anganwadi workers came to anchor the government’s child nutrition scheme. Several women in nearby villages agreed to take on tasks better suited to an arsenal of trained professionals; they kept detailed records, made house visits, made meals, and fed children by hand. Decades later, their workforce remains overlooked and laid off. More than 25 lakh in number, women provide nutrition and access to primary health care to millions of women and children in the public health system.
During the pandemic, it turned out that Anganwadi workers, along with other local health workers, were our national pride for how they provided lifesaving services to the needy – and shame for the weight of this burden without other support. They went on a vigorous strike to demand better pay, medical protection, regular Covid19 tests and the status of government employees – all the while responding to the needs of people separated from the health infrastructure.
Related to The Swaddle:
But the public health system has largely framed their service as “nursing work”, offering them a meager fee instead of wages – let alone social benefits. It has to do with how care work is feminized and thus devalued – because it is seen as less rigorous work.
Women have been shown to be the backbone of Integrated child development scheme (ICDS) – to allow “children’s survival, well – being and rights to become social issues of interest to the whole community,” as Prabha Kotiswaran, Professor of Law and Social Justice, noted.
In the present judgment, the court noted that the work of Anganwadi workers and aides could be equated with the work of a civil servant. As an “extended arm of the state” performed the work recognized under the provisions of sections 4, 5 and 6 of the National Food Security Act, 2013. The said passage of the Act aims to ensure nutritional support for pregnant women, who breastfeed mothers and children. In addition, as they are also responsible for carrying out pre-school activities by making school sets available and setting out schedules, their work also complies with aspects of the law on the right to education.
As such, Anganwadi workers and aides do not do “part-time work” – but a full-time job that needs to be framed as such. This empowering view was also reiterated in the judgment: “AWWs and AWHs have been assigned all-inclusive duties … given the nature of the duties specified below, it is full-time employment,” as Judge Oka noted.
Anganwadi workers, aides, the accredited social health activists, among others, make up the health apparatus of millions of people. Despite being crucial to this operation, the government and the judiciary have over the years refused to grant them status as government employees. The treatment of female caregivers in India tells a poignant and poignant saga about how the system continues to underestimate women’s work – and how work is always broken down by gender lines.
The right to gratuity then goes beyond money. It is a legal nod to the services women offer a system and a population deeply dependent on them – and a prayer for a fundamental change.