“Is this the place where we sign up for jobs?”

4 April 2024 | Female Labour Force Participation, Gender, Skilling

Ashwini Deshpande

Ashwini Deshpande

Professor of Economics, Ashoka University


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Field observations of the pushes and pulls of young women’s economic aspirations in rural Uttar Pradesh


We saw her through a cloud of dust, precariously perched on a motorcycle, riding pillion behind her husband, one kid sandwiched between them, the second, a tiny 3-month-old wrapped in a towel, tucked in her arms. Had she reached the wrong place, we wondered. She got off the bike and approached us. “Is this the place where we sign up for jobs?”


L to R in left photo: Uttama Deb standing, Anisha Sharma (seated), the mother with the baby and other women from villages around Moradabad. Older kid, all agog in left photo, napping in the right photo. Photos by author.

Not really, we answered. We are here to talk about skilling programmes that can get you into paid work. Either a job or something you can start yourself. Will you be able to work, given you have two small children?

“Yes, I want to. I need to. But villages are far apart, and the nearest town is really difficult to get to. There is no reliable transport. I had to come here with my husband because there no is regular transport between my village and this centre [the panchayat building where we had assembled]. I also must take care of housework. So, I need [paid] work that I can do close to home.”

We were struck by her clear articulation of the very real constraints she and her peers face when it comes to participating in paid work, assuming there are potential opportunities.

We were also struck by her willingness to travel this distance from home, with a tiny baby in tow, in search of paid work, as well as by her husband’s willingness to drive her in search of work.

What were we up to?

On a hot and dusty day in 2023, Anisha Sharma and I had set off for Moradabad for a test run of our research plan on women’s employment. We had been working on a research design to get answers to the following questions: if given an opportunity for free vocational training that will also place them in a job, would women in rural India (in this case, Uttar Pradesh) take it up? If they did, what kinds of skilling would they choose? Courses that would get them jobs in the stereotypically feminine sectors such as beauty, stitching/tailoring courses that pay less? Or could they be motivated to opt for the more remunerative sectors like hospitality and healthcare or even consider training for various roles in the automotive industry that are traditionally male dominated?

The Moradabad pilot team. Photo by author

Rewind to August 2022: Pratham Skilling Centre, Moradabad

The Moradabad pilot took shape and materialized into a concrete plan of action after months of digging into academic papers, talking to various skilling and entrepreneurship programmes (that led us down many interesting rabbit holes, including a sneak peek into the Delhi Government’s women’s entrepreneurship programme; more on that another time), and brainstorming with colleagues. We finally had a plan in place in collaboration with Pratham Skilling, whose Moradabad centre provided the base for the pilot. The results of the research will emerge in due course; this piece is about insights from our various field visits.

Our first visit to the Moradabad centre in 2022, along with our excellent research associate Uttama Deb, had been eye opening. We met enthusiastic and eager young women and men insides classrooms in white lab coats, learning the basics of health care. Some of them were already married, though most were not. For their next lesson, they trooped into the adjoining room where a dummy of a human body lay on a bed. Here they got practical training to use all kinds of basic healthcare gadgets. Yet another room had computers, where in the afternoon they would receive lessons on basic computer literacy.


R to L in left photo: Anisha Sharma, Uttama Deb and members of Pratham Skilling. Dummy patient in the practical lab in the right photo. Photos by author.

Basic healthcare equipment in the practical lab in the left photo. Anisha talking to a student under the watchful eye of a skeleton. Photos by author.

The students were as eager to talk to us one-on-one as we were to them. Our conversations revealed stories that were individually varied but had several common threads. All of them had studied up to Class 12. Most students from that batch were first time enrollees into the training programme. They were children of workers (factory or construction), or agricultural wage labourers, or shop helpers. Mothers were either housewives or did odd jobs from the house, in addition to working on land or with animals in cases where they had any land or livestock.

“Why did you choose healthcare as a skill for training?” we asked.

The sincerity and resolve in their answers were unexpected and moving. “I want to be of service [to the community]”… “I want an identity for myself that is different [from my parents]”… “being a nursing assistant gives self-respect”…

“Would you be willing to migrate to the city?” Healthcare jobs in rural India are non-existent, especially the kind they were being trained for: generalized duty assistant, who could work in home care or as hospital attendants.

“How much do you think you will get as a starting salary?” They were sure they would start at INR 15-16,000 per month, which is a royal sum in the context of wage earnings in that part of UP. The Periodic Labour Force Survey for 2022-23 indicates that for rural Uttar Pradesh, average monthly earnings of women in regular wage/salaried work is INR 12,720, and for those in casual labour work, monthly earnings are on average INR 6,650 (assuming they work at least 25 days a month).

The salary was clearly a draw. Would you be willing to migrate to the city to get work that pays this much? Yes. Would you be able to? Well, we would need to figure out where we would stay and who we could turn to in need. Our parents are worried about our safety and support systems in the city.

Forward to March 2024

Our pilot study taught us a great deal. For one thing, it was clear to us that enough women in rural Uttar Pradesh wanted to be in paid work. Even married women. Not everybody was willing (or was going to be able) to move to the city because the urban infrastructure is inhospitable, difficult to navigate, and with no guarantee of support systems. Even women with families encouraging them to migrate might not be able to. But there was palpable evidence that women wanted to try, wanted to aim higher than where their mothers had been to reach, and more importantly, had the education that was one of the essential ingredients needed to translate their dreams into reality.

We decided to scale up our study to villages near Lucknow and Kanpur –two big cities with greater opportunities compared to Moradabad. Also, two cities where Pratham Skilling had centres training students in a diverse range of trades.


L to R in left photo: Anisha Sharma, Neha Pandey, local mobilisers, with author. Neha Pandey leads the open day proceedings in the right photo. Photos by author.


This set of meetings have been even more enlightening. Many young women came with their fathers and mothers. Parental support to their daughters was clear and unambiguous.

What were the new things we learnt?

  • Distance from the city matters. Women from villages closer to the bigger towns/cities are more aspirational, show a greater inclination/willingness to migrate.
  • Families seemed to be more willing to let them take the risk associated with migration. “sangarsh karney mein bhi khushi hai” (struggle has its own thrill), “iss sey dar khatam ho jata hai” (struggle can help you overcome fear).

What risks, we asked. “Where will they stay?” “Who will support them in times of need?”

We had no concrete answers, and neither did they. But they were still willing to give it a try.

  • One father asked “gaaon mein sangharsh nahi hai kya?” (is there no struggle in the village?) “There is no work, there are petty fights, neighbours interfere in our personal matters … village life is no paradise either [if city life is tough]”
  • Others disagreed. “Where are the jobs in the city? It is not easy to get a good job that can allows you a decent life. In the village, if you run short of food, somebody will come to your assistance. In the city, nobody will even know you are hungry”.
  • Many fathers lamented the fact that they did not take risks when they were younger. “We stayed on in the village… lost possible opportunities”.

A father at the Ghatampur session (near Kanpur) had the perfect final answer, a wise truth that generations of immigrants have discovered for themselves in other contexts.

  • “There will be some issues related to adjustment for the first set of girls. As more and more girls migrate, they will form their own community and provide support to each other. New places always feel a bit unsafe. As we settle in, we start feeling more secure and safety becomes less of an issue. “hum jitney atma nirbhar hote jaatey hain, utney hi surakshit mahsoos kartey hain” (the more self-reliant we become, the more secure we feel).

This phase of the fieldwork is being led by the feisty and innovative Neha Pandey. After a long and lively discussion each time, Neha asks “if work is available, will you be willing to migrate to the city?”

The answer:


Willingness to migrate to the city. Neha Pandey leading the open day. Photo by author.

Postscript: Unchanging norms?

I can’t resist writing this short postscript. Our project is not on social norms but given the widespread belief among academics and donor institutions about unchanging (antiquated) gender norms in India being responsible for all gender gaps, one can’t help but notice the palpable change, even in the U of the BIMARU states, notorious for their poor showing on gender gaps.

Fieldwork consists of village-level mobilization leading up to open days at a common centre, where we do collective activities. We open our meetings with young women and their families with some fun ice-breaker games that everyone plays at the start of each session. The first of these is the “Whispering Game”, which works like magic to get the participants to loosen their inhibitions and talk freely to each other and to us.


Neha Pandey starting the whispering game at our Ghatampur venue in the left photo. Group discussion during our open day in the right photo. Photos by author.

As we were observing participants grouped in 4 circles playing the game, Anisha remarked “isn’t it striking how all the mothers are dressed in sarees and almost all daughters in jeans/trousers? Just one of the many tiny ways in which “norms” are changing? I looked around in each group, in each session. Anisha was spot on!

More importantly, many young women have aspirations far ahead of those of their mothers and aunts. Many mothers who accompanied their daughters expressed to us that they had been unable to do anything outside their houses, but that they hoped their daughters could go further than them.

Fieldwork imparts lessons that are unique and humbling. Who said change is always unidimensional and unambiguously positive? There are trade-offs that pose major dilemmas to individuals. But empathetic policies can help ease the costs of transitions.