Wages of Liminality: How an in-between status lowers the earned wages of women health workers

by Vrinda Marwah 

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Second Place Winner, Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights (2020)


In this paper, I analyze the experiences of the world’s largest, all-women community health workforce through the lens of liminality. Originally used to describe transition from one state to the other, the concept of liminality in the study of work and organizations can frame workers’ experiences of being in-between established structures and roles in varying degrees, times, and/or places. India’s ASHAs, or Accredited Social Health Activists, are community women at the frontlines of the state’s health care provisioning. But the state does not categorize them as workers or employees. ASHAs are considered volunteers. Instead of salaries, they are paid task-based incentives. Based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork, including 80 interviews, I find that ASHAs’ liminal occupational status as ‘paid volunteers’ produces conditions of chronic underpayment and control for them, further lowering their already low wages. This has implications for how we understand the gender wage gap. I argue we need to consider not just how much women are paid, but how the amount is structured, and how that places women workers in relation to others in the workplace. Moving beyond whether liminality is a negative or positive experience, future research should delineate the conditions under which liminality is negative or positive, and for whom.

About the author:

Vrinda Marwah is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her primary research interests are in reproductive health issues, particularly in how they are translated into law and policy in contemporary India. Vrinda received her MSc in Gender and Social Policy from the London School of Economics, and her BA in Political Science from the University of Delhi. 

Project & Publications Type: Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights, Rapoport Center Working Paper Series