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Death in Debt: Underpaid Women at Work

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Women fisherfolk are caught in vicious cycles of death and debt. Is anyone listening?

Artwork by; Tanishk Katalkar

In 2022, the gender split of the population was 52% male and 48% female while the participation at work for men in India was 67% in the same year and a little over 33% for women. This means that women make up about a third of the workforce and hence, deserve their due not just in the form of pay equality and credit support but also, in their socio-economic status.

Women in Fishery

Source : Asian Fisheries Society

In India, fisherwomen participate in various activities of the fisheries industry, and as of September 2019, account for 34.6% of the fisherfolk population. Even though the stats suggest that women are a big part of the fishing industry, a deeper dive into the lives of the women bring up issues that highlight India’s failure to empower women with socio-economic and political disadvantages. A study showed just how serious the pay parity is between men and women in this industry during lean seasons, where the former gets paid around Rs. 560+_ 78/ month and the latter Rs. 289+_98/ month. Hence, most of the fisherwomen are landless and depend on local moneylenders for credit who are a ruthless group of exploiters. Unable to pay them back, women commit suicide and eventually, the burden falls on the rest of the family offsetting a vicious cycle of debt and death.

Women in Agriculture

The Indian agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women; they comprise 33% of the agricultural labour force and 48% of the self-employed farmers. While 85% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, only about 13% own land while also working double the hours their male counterparts do. Then why are women usually overlooked and undervalued by the government and their policies? The problem lies in representation and inheritance laws. In a country where inheritance is mainly the source of acquiring land, women are left holding the empty cup when their turn comes. These women then work at family lands and don’t get paid. They are not only snubbed of their land but also of hard-earned money.

Where does the problem lie?

As it turns out, the problems of women at work have a pattern. They are the invisible, unpaid workforce that works overtime, they don’t hold titles of owners, they have no access to the marketplace, they don’t pose as good candidates for institutional credit and their access to justice is limited due to their place in the society. While their illiteracy and lack of skills can take the blame, the real culprit is the system that ignores the woes of women.

What can be done?

Admittedly, not all their problems are ignored, they are beginning to come to light and attract the attention of the people responsible.

Since fisheries is a state subject, a few state governments in the coastal states of India have taken initiatives to support fishing communities. Odisha, for example, has introduced the ‘Matsyajibi Unnayana Yojana’ which extends financial assistance to fisherwomen. Likewise, Andhra Pradesh, through the “Fisheries Policy of Andhra Pradesh, 2015-2020” trains and assists women self-help groups in technical and financial matters and provides subsidies to women belonging to these communities. At the national policy level, the draft National Fisheries Policy (NFP) 2020 aims to encourage women in fish processing and enhance support to women cooperatives, women self-help groups and women-friendly financial support schemes. The NFP 2020 aims to achieve these targets by 2030.

While for women in Agriculture, the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) scheme was launched by the Ministry of Rural Development to impart skill development and capacity-building programmes for rural women. Another important plan is The Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY). The Jan Dhan campaign has ensured access to financial services, through banking/ savings and deposit accounts, remittance, credit, insurance, and pension to rural women.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, it will take another 132 years to close the global gender gap. While the suicide rates for female farmers increase, crises compound and the suffering intensifies we should remember that time is of the essence. The more we allow these issues to persist, the more serious and intrinsic to our work culture they become. If these already deep-rooted biases and practices are not removed, we might have bigger problems on our hands.


Women grow as much as 80% of India’s food – but its new farm laws overlook their struggles, The Conversation, 11 March 2021,

On climate change and fisherwomen in India, National Maritime Foundation India, 19 October 2020,

Women and SDG 2 – Promoting sustainable agriculture, OECDiLibrary,

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