Gender, Rights and Policy Specialist
Enforcer, HomeNet South Asia and Former Regional Director, UNIFEM – South Asia Regional Office
Putting women at the centre of every decision to build safer and more equitable societies.
Envisioning all her life of a gender just world, she had consistently strived for a world of equal opportunities, equal choices and equal recognition of work of both women and men. With more than 56 years of working experience, Chandni Joshi’s name is synonymous with gender, rights and macro policies in Nepal and other South Asian countries.
From a Lecturer at Padma Kanya College to the Regional Director of UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) for South Asia, Joshi’s professional journey has given her innumerous challenges at national, regional and global levels which have enhanced her capabilities and evolved her into a powerhouse of knowledge on diverse issues. She is an inspiration to her peers and the younger generation and recognised as a national asset.
At present, Joshi is also the Enforcer of HomeNet South Asia, an organisation that has been working to unite home-based workers across the region so that their voices are heard and their contribution to the national economy is recognised.
In this issue of Business 360, we spoke to Joshi regarding HomeNet South Asia, what gender rights mean to her, and about the upcoming HomeNet International congress being held in Kathmandu with participants of over 29 countries collectively addressing the issues and rights of home-based workers. Excerpts:
When and how was Home-Based Workers International Network established and when and how did it come to Nepal?
Home-based workers have been around for generations and have been an integral part of the informal sector. However, they were lumped in the informal sector and we did not dissect it. We at HomeNet South Asia have dissected it and we said there is a special category of informal workers called home-based workers. These are women who are own account workers and rate workers working from their homes. We started this movement after the Kathmandu Declaration in 2000 when all the countries of South Asia got together. All the Secretaries from the Ministries of Labour from all over South Asia, gender advocates, researchers, late Ela Bhatt of SEWA/WIEGO, UNIFEM, Renana Jhabvala and Marty Chen came together and then HNSA was established. Initially, we didn’t even know how many home-based workers there were and where they were located. So, we mapped them, organised them, and built them into networks. That’s how HNSA’s journey started.
The Kathmandu Declaration had the participation of the SAARC Secretary General, SAARC secretariat, all the governments of South Asia, all the women’s movements, and UNIFEM then, which is now called UN Women. I was Regional Director of UNIFEM then. The Kathmandu Declaration talks about home-based workers’ rights and their solidarity. It demands for a national policy for home-based workers. We talked about solidarity, one voice for South Asia. I remember ICIMOD, the United Nations and various NGOS from Nepal were also a part of that event.
Though we had a structure of HomeNet in every country, we soon realised we needed more outreach. We then started an advisory group with affiliates under it. For instance, in Nepal we have seven affiliates at the moment and the number of members is multiplying. In the same way, there are 260 million home-based workers across the world. It is a huge number if you really look at it and 67 million are from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan alone. HomeNet South Asia has 62 affiliates and they are representing 1.2 million members from among these workers and 97% of them are women.
What does Kathmandu Declaration focus on?
It talks about organising the workers, giving them voice and visibility because their contribution has not been recognised. They have been working for generations but they are never counted. Neither does the census count them nor does the national economy. They need to be seen, they should be visible, their voices should be heard. There should be visibility as well as recognition of their contribution to the national economy and their rights to social security and home-based worker friendly national policies. That is the focus of the Kathmandu Declaration.
How does being a member of the organisation help home-based workers?
Being a member benefits them a lot. Even when you look at the global scenario, women’s work are taken for granted. They are not only not counted but are not even seen. If you look at the value chain, they are at the far end of the tier. Since they are at the far end, they are invisible. There is no transparency in the supply chain. They don’t know who their employer is, cannot negotiate, so they are always behind. So how they benefit by becoming a member of HNSA is that the organisation trains them to climb up the value chain. We help to build their capacity and whatever they produce has the comparative advantage in terms of it becoming marketable. Women are able to see the steps of the value chain. Capacity building is done at all different levels so that they can reach not only the local and national market but also the international markets.
When we speak about home-based workers, do we refer to only those producing goods or also those providing service?
Ours is not to provide services. Those providing services are defined as domestic workers. So, they are another category because they are in a salaried job. But when you say home-based workers, then they are not certain whether they will get the contract, they don’t know whether they will get the work tomorrow. There is so much uncertainty and they have to focus on their work while also performing the unpaid care work at home.
I remember an incident in the late 90’s when the ILO Convention was being tabled in Geneva. There were 15 countries who were not sure whether or not they should call for the convention. So, we organised a regional meeting in Bangkok for those 15 countries. China was also one among them and then we had a few Asia Pacific nations and Nepal was one of those countries. Back then, when we advocated about home-based workers they were not sure of whom we were talking about. So, we set up a corner in the conference room where the meeting was being held and conducted a small simulation exercise. We put a home-based woman Thai shoemaker in that corner. So, there she was sitting in that corner and she was cooking, breastfeeding and also making shoes. And all the while she was also cleaning the place. So, she was doing many things at the same time; the unpaid care economy as well as the productive work of making shoes and selling them. Whenever we were discussing the ministers of the respective nations would talk about entrepreneurs and we would say no your excellencies, we are talking about such type of workers and show them the woman shoemaker. But today, we do not have to do that as we have a firm definition of who the home-based workers are and the numbers have increased so much too.
What are the key issues and challenges being faced by home-based workers in the region?
Well, there are many challenges because they are at the end of the pyramid. They are literally combating with poverty and hunger. They are the marginalised and excluded women. All of them are not organised either. They do not have one voice. So, they cannot negotiate either with the governments or employers or contractors. National policies have to be made for them to benefit. In Pakistan, they have done tremendous work when it comes to national policy level work. They have built a national policy for home-based workers. Within South Asia, the other countries are trying to see what we can learn from Pakistan and follow up in other countries.
Any policy changes that you feel are required in Nepal where we have seen a lot of people involved in the informal sector?
Policy changes are very important because one good policy change can change the life of the home-based workers. There is no market for such workers. Linking them with the market and helping them so that their products pass through the international standards is something all stakeholders need to look into because any product needs to follow certain criteria when it is manufactured. There is no capital for them to start something bigger because they are totally relying on the middlemen who bring them the work. Home-based workers don’t know who their employer is as the employers are often anonymous. She gets the work after many hands change, may be just to make a button or just to do an embroidery as it is often piece rate work that she does. So certain policies have to be introduced to look into these issues and their capacity has to be built to raise their expertise and to capacitate them to compete with international standards by their product quality, quality control, packaging, branding and digital marketing.
There has always been a challenge for women in our part of the world while doing business. How can we improve this scenario?
I am a student of economics and sometimes, I feel that maybe we need to unpack economics and look at different aspects of it. Whenever we talk about growth, we only talk about GDP but are we counting the GDP properly is a key question? Here we are talking about 51% of the population in Nepal. Is this 51% capacitated? They have been contributing to the GDP but their work is not properly counted. Are we doing our homework properly? Also now looking at our situation at the moment with the SDG goals that have to be met, everybody is rushing towards reaching those goals. We had started exercises of localising SDGs but then we had the earthquake and then the Covid. And during both these times, we saw that they were the ones hit harder because disasters – whether it be natural or epidemics – seem to hit women harder than men. The impact that such disasters have on women and men is different. And now since Nepal is graduating from the LDC status, I think so many of our special provisions are going to be taken away. So again, who is going to be hit? The question is open. Even now when we talk about economics, women and especially the not so much specialised category are the ones ‘who get jobs the last and are the first ones to be fired’. It impacts them adversely. I think we need to look at all these aspects too.
When we talk about home-based workers, we are not talking about decent salaried work. We are talking about very basic wages. So, we are providing them wage card through which they can negotiate their wages, be recognised for their potential and contribution. Social security is another aspect that needs to be dealt with. During the Covid, HomeNet South Asia conducted many researches. We looked at the impact of Covid on home-based workers. Of course, we all know that everyone was hit hard but how hard were they hit is what we wanted to know. The other aspect we also looked at was how has violence affected home-based workers because we know that during Covid, violence really increased as everyone was at home and home was not the safest place for many women. That was very clear. I remember one of them saying that if she had to make tea twice a day for six people, she was making tea five times a day because everyone was home. And there was that perennial anxiety, that fear. The home-based women workers were suffering the most brunt. The research reports show all the challenges they faced and now our work is geared towards solving them including how home-based workers are affected by climate change. HomeNet South Asia is planning a campaign on ‘Home Is Our Workplace’ for two years.
What are the basic legal regulatory frameworks that are required that could help home-based workers?
The first is being recognised as citizens, giving them identity cards or citizenship. They should have them so that they can claim their benefits, their rights. Right now, they are invisible, at the end of the pyramid down there but we need to realise they too are citizens who can make claims. The other I would stress is training. When it comes to building capacity, I think there are so many opportunities in digital innovation. During Covid, many terrible things happened; the fear, the anxiety of what will happen next. Yet, we also learnt many skills as how to connect far and wide became excellent.
One of our affiliates, SABAH conducted its AGM with 700 home-based workers attending it online. There were 70 to 80 home-based workers sitting in one area and looking at one TV screen and speaking. We had never thought that this was possible. During Covid, we learnt that and one day, I was counting the number of webinars I had attended and talked in and given keynote speeches, and I had spoken in more than 100 panels. I would have never been able to travel so much and so far at this age and with my health and I would have never met so many people. So, these were opportunities. I didn’t have to be physically present. There are so many Zoom meetings happening every day. There are many opportunities to learn from far and wide places. Even the way marketing is being done has changed with online marketing the norm now. We at HomeNet South Asia were able to bring in Amazon, and we have been negotiating with Daraz and BRAC. We are also looking at where the potential market is and how can we link it with the home-based workers. Previously, one individual used to get an order – let’s say from Japan – and she used to do the work. But now it is more people getting the opportunity to do it. So, the marketing opportunities are opening up. The quality control also in Nepal has really improved because now I see every institution has a quality control person. Before we thought it was only the designers who did that but now our home-based workers are geared on the product design, quality control, branding and packaging.
Empowering women is quite a vast subject. But if I had to ask you about five basic requirements that are needed to empower women, what would they be?
I have spent 56 years working on women’s empowerment and I am still learning. First, I think it is information, information is very powerful and important. Information about government, about government facilities, about government schemes, what is the government giving? What is the government geared to? How many people really know that? That information has to filter down. We always talk about bottom-up planning so it has to reach there as the SDGs say: leave no one behind.
The other is economic empowerment. Unless women have money in their hands, they cannot make decisions. Of course, she makes the decision of what to cook but I am talking about important decisions like where to invest, which school the children should go to, what to buy and save for the future? I think economic empowerment gives that decision-making authority.
Another aspect is that women are always made so busy in the unpaid care work at home as if she is destined to it. Because she is born a woman, she is responsible for the house, children, the sick, elderly and child, for food, water, cleaning, hygiene, everything. Now we need to look at how all these responsibilities can be shared by the family members and how she can save time for herself. There are certain biological roles that only women can do, the rest of the work can be divided, can be shared.
The fourth I would say is being organised. There has to be solidarity among the women’s networks, there should be one voice. That is exactly what HomeNet South Asia does, bring them together. We thought we had started a strong network but we didn’t realise that it is going to be a huge powerful movement today.
Finally, I would say there should be a violence free society and whatever she does, she might be economically empowered, her drudgery might be less, she might be making decisions but if she is made to suffer every day, that kills her from inside. It does not necessarily have to be physical violence. It could be mental too, being mentally abused is violence. Violence has different contours, different colours. So, she should be free from that.
These are the five things which I think are essential and then the political part and all that comes later. Once she is aware, knows her rights and has the information- the how to do, then she can move ahead as she has wisdom and strength.
There has always been a glass ceiling when it comes to women taking on the leadership positions, be it in the workplace or politics. How can we break that?
There are two ways of looking at that. One is the patriarchal system where there are claims that the men are the bread earners and decision makers, the power relation is such which subordinates women. A lot depends on how you raise your children. While raising their boys, they tell them they are going to be a man and that they are not supposed to cry, not supposed to express their emotions or talk about their weaknesses. Poor things, even when they are small boys, they are told that they have to look after their mother, take the dynasty forward. It is a huge responsibility for them also. I think we also need to look into these different aspects. When I say patriarchal, I don’t mean men only. It is a structure where we put the man on the top. We have to understand that if given the chance, if given opportunities, if pushed a little bit, a woman can perform equally well and they have proved it. Look at South Asia which has given such wonderful women leaders. The first female prime minister of the world was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka. We have had leaders like Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto and our own Shailaja Acharya who was the Vice Prime Minister at one point of time. It is not that women can’t perform; they are not given the opportunities. There is no glass ceiling as such but it is the mindset. It is the mindset that creates all these false ceilings that block women’s opportunities often. The women who get the opportunities, who have the agency, they can break the glass ceilings and they have been breaking it, we have seen it with our own eyes.
What are the key deliverables of the upcoming congress going to be?
Well, the deliverables are: I would say one is of course, home-based workers will be meeting each other for the first time. So, it is more towards solidarity, oneness, leading to common understanding and sister/brotherhood. And they will be talking about burning issues like climate change, access to market. Different working sessions have been planned for the congress. So, there is going to be peer learning and sharing. And when I say peer learning, it is very powerful and transformative. You can’t learn certain things from books or by going to a university. Neither from the internet like the trend is now. It is more learning from each other, their own anxieties and challenges and achievements. They will be talking about the pain they are going through and how did they combat it. What coping mechanism did they use, how did they use technology to organise their work. A lot of sharing is going to happen, that is one. They are coming out with a ‘Kathmandu Declaration’. That is going to be something significant. It is going to be the first congress of the HomeNet International and they are going to have their election of HNI president. They will have a leader and the Kathmandu Declaration to follow as a way forward.
Any areas you have identified that need to be looked into immediately to uplift home-based workers?
Yes, one is definitely how to keep them together and be organised. Again, I am emphasising on the solidarity and oneness aspect. The other is linking them with markets because they have the skills, they just need the exposure. Home-based workers have been trying at their end and now we have to look at making them climb the value chain. We need to make them capable so that they can get rid of, I wouldn’t say all but some of the middlemen who are taking huge shares of the earnings and our home-based workers are getting peanuts. At least, their quality of life is going to be different. Their scope of work is going to increase. They will have more capital to increase their business. We are looking at the marketing aspect. And then we are also looking at climate change, how that is going to impact them. What do they do in terms of disaster preparedness? What are the steps they are going to take? These are the major actions. And we also need to look at how their rights are not violated and violence against women will not be tolerated. And some home-based workers from South Asia, especially from Sri Lanka, are going to talk about it.
Your suggestions to the government to improve the lives of home-based workers?
The one thing I have been advocating about is making the census better. There should be specific questions in the census as to how many home-based workers there are because numbers do matter. And when it is the Central Bureau of Statistics’ reports, you can’t undermine that because that goes straight to the National Planning Commission and plans are made based on that. Home-based workers are labourers too who are contributing and the CBS has to seek them. Usually, when you ask women if they work, they tend to say ‘no’ but when you probe them then they will say what they work on.
The reason why I am emphasising on the census and labour force surveys is so that home-based workers are counted and are visible. We have to also listen to their voices, these are feeble voices though. Give them your ears and listen to their demands. They might need small things but those are important to them. When it comes to capacitating them, so much of funds is used for stereotypical trainings. The training has to be need-based. If they are growing potatoes, they have to be trained for that; how to preserve potatoes, how to make different products from potatoes, and what is the ‘property’ that lies in potatoes that they can use, and training programmes have to be result oriented.
Recognise home-based workers and give them identity cards and count them as labourers. Only workers in a factory are not labourers. Home-based workers are contributing to the national economy. So, if that is recognised then I think there will be a huge change in counting our GDP, in terms of the growth we often talk about. So, I think the scenario will really change. If we are talking about graduating to a developing country from an LDC, then I think that will really help. I think the capacity building component should be ensured. All planning should be bottom-up. I would urge planners to pay attention and look at the home-based workers and see what is required on the ground and then plan accordingly.
It is an opportune moment. Nepal is a progressive country if you look at the constitution, the laws, women’s representation in the parliament. At one time we had the chief justice, speaker as well as the president who were women. So, we have set many examples but the non-negotiable goal I am talking about is the forgotten woman. The excluded woman should now really be seen. They should come out. And if you count their contribution the fate of Nepal is going to be totally different. As I said if you undermine 51% of the population then how can that help. It is not even economics, just plain common sense. How can a machine work if one part of it is not working? I have stopped comparing this scenario with two tyres; two tyres of the bicycle, the car, I don’t even say that anymore. I talk about the machine, be it a small machine or a big machine. If one part, though it has the potential, is not lubricated properly and it does not move the way it should, then how can the machine function. Be it a political goal or while counting the GDP. All these goals that we have set, all that will make sense, development will make sense, economics will make sense and business will also make sense when women are recognised for their contribution and potential.