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04 March

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How women negotiate opportunities in small cities

By Mukta Naik (Centre for Policy Research)

This blog is part of a series sharing findings from a research initiative of the JustJobs Network and the Centre for Policy Research that examined small cities in India and Indonesia. Read the introductory blog here.


Cities are often seen as sites of emancipation and freedom for women, as compared to the social restrictions of the village and the hard manual labour of working on the farm. Indeed, we find that all our case cities are attractive destinations for young women to be able to pursue opportunities to study and work while being close to their places of origin. Like many other south-east Asian contexts, the cluster of export-oriented manufacturing firms in Semarang Regency, Indonesia has triggered a wave of female migration; in fact, 76 percent of the women we surveyed in the city worked in factories. Kupang and Mangalore offer women work in service occupations like retail and education, while Kishangarh is an important hub for female education in its region. 

Notions of ‘women’s work’ prevail in many of these occupations: that women have ‘nimble fingers’ is a key premise in garment production in Semarang Regency, the notion of care work as feminine work drives the predominance of nursing and domestic work in Mangalore, and in Kishangarh, women’s work outside the home is deeply stigmatized and they are often stuck doing cleaning and sweeping work or home-based tasks like stitching. These notions are often a means to keep women in low wage, precarious jobs with hard working conditions and negligible social protection. That the growth of the service sector has created opportunities for women to work in retail, education and hospitality is surely a good sign. However here too, they are often stuck, with slim chances of promotions and wage increases. Moreover, conditions of exploitation often persist; for example, in Kupang, young women working in retail establishments often live on the premises, and though employers might provide food and lodging, they also monitor their movements and expect long hours of work without additional remuneration. 

Access to work in small cities is facilitated by kinship networks based on religion, caste and ethnicity and women have to navigate these in addition to gender biases. Our qualitative fieldwork indicates that women rely on intra-household negotiations and negotiate what Kandiyoti has famously called the “patriarchal bargain”, which pushes against convention and yet remains within its bounds. For instance, working in Kupang helps women delay marriage and in Semarang Regency, women often find spouses in the city, thus combining incomes for enhanced prosperity. In Kishangarh’s intensely conservative milieu, women use academic achievements as a way to delay marriage and opt to work in spaces their families consider ‘safe’, e.g. within the home, in family enterprises or by starting home-based businesses. 

Our research finds some supporting institutions and practices in small cities address some of the challenges working women face. In Semarang Regency, migrant women rely on kosts, boarding houses where safe, affordable accommodation is bundled with services. They also have better access to the formal banking system and are more likely to be members of unions, as compared to their male counterparts. Efficient and safe transportation systems – paratransit in Semarang Regency and private buses in Mangalore – improve mobility within the city as well. 

Overall, while small cities might not offer the level of freedoms women experience in the metropolis, they do create specific opportunities for young women to access non-farm work. And while some spontaneous initiatives might exist to facilitate opportunities for women, a gender inclusive planning and governance framework is urgently needed to leverage the potential for improving women’s work outcomes in these places.

For more on this project visit smallcitydreaming.org

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