These are some of the facts that came glaring out from the experience sharing time I spent with my domestic help who is a young 27 years married Muslim woman. This story is based out of Bengaluru city in southern region of India
The criteria for selection of households to work in depends on how kind or polite the family members are especially the woman or household- in- charge, often the mother or mother-in-law. Because domestic help job can involve a lot of verbal and mental abuse.
Being a domestic help exposes women to the household undercurrent, feuds, power dynamics and violence, they are witness to what's happening within the family and at times, receive it themselves too. It's also cumbersome to leave and find another household where payment and services offered are complimentary.
One of the most significant concern among women who work as domestic help in Bangalore(India) is the apprehension of advances from the men in the household. These women are easy targets of sexual advances or abuse in the absence of other women family members or sometimes right under their nose. They have accounts of complaining to the women in the family but getting fired from the job and instead of relief, getting blamed for the incident. These incidents travel by word of mouth in the locality further affecting employment opportunities in other households or giving men the wrong notion that they are available.
The young woman who has been the biggest help to me in the past one year she has been working with me, did not wear her silver anklet at home. When I asked her the reason she told me,
" The house that I work in is very silent and when my anklet makes sound when I walk , I feel embarrassed because the family has many male members. I removed my anklet because I don't want to direct their attention towards me. I don't want any problem."
To find a women headed household is a blessing for women in this job as they can avoid unwanted attention from men in the houselhold.
The professional hazards for women who clean homes include back pain and constant fever, cough and cold from working with water the whole day and also headache. "I clean, wash, cook, shop for vegetables and home supplies for others but when I get home I am so tired I don't feel like cleaning my house or even cooking." This is another professional hazard- not having time or stamina for self and family.
This young woman has completed 20 years of work as a domestic help becuase she has very little opportunities other than this with no education.
She recollects how small she had been when she had first begun working at seven years that the woman of the household assigned her only one job, to sit with the children in the house and play with them because that was all she could do. They would even feed her like the family children, give her old clothes and toys, even make her sleep in the afternoon. She doesnt remember their names or the address, she only remembers their kindness to her. One day the woman informed her that they are moving to another part of Bangalore and that was the last she saw of them. Even in twenty years she hasn't forgotten them and tells that they are the best family she has worked for.
Never having received education makes women lack skills to remember names, time, location etc.
With long hours of work and atleast three to four households to attend to on a daily basis, money is not enough to support their family in an expensive city as Bengaluru, so informal micro credit systems/chit systems are common among women.
These women who work in others' homes sometimes form a community or informal groups, loaning money to each other, helping each other find new homes to work in and sometimes, if one is sick or due to family problems cannot attend work for a period of time as long as even a month, one of her friends or a substitute from the group offers to fill in so that the original domestic help does not lose out of her job in the long run.
Even more touching was to hear that she never went to school as a child though two out of her five siblings did some schooling as they were much older and were already in school when their mother passed away. Their father used to work in a factory and after their mother's demise when she had been five years, the most he could do was cook for them and lock them in the house till he returned at 8 PM everyday. It was not possible to take them and bring them back from school during day time when he was at the factory which was very far. This meant no schooling for the children.
Her joint pain has been assigned to calcium deficieny which has its roots from a childhood where she was not fed milk or nutritious food due to poverty and lack of care at home after mother's death. Even now she is underweight.
Few days ago on 26th July 2019, I participated in a Twitter chat under the theme 'Women at work' and 'Gender stereotyping at the workplace' organised by SheThePeopleTV where questions like what can be done to see more women at workplace or how gender stereotyping manifests at workplace were being raised to mobilize discussions.
I found that these questions do not accomodate the reality of women in unorganised sector or from lower income groups like women who are working in others' homes as domestic help. Workplace can never be just offices but for many women in India, even other's homes are their workplace. Further, these women are beyond the ambit of urban discussions or in our elite panels. They are busy working and not within the radar of either media or social media. But to not know they exist and not count them in the woman workforce and their contribution to the economy would be a big mistake because they are running their homes with their income.
There are several areas that this story suggests which can be possible interventions - mother's death at a young age when daughters are still in their pre-school years, single parent/widower headed family with multiple children to look after, empathetic policies in workplace for such single parent and multiple children families, education options for children from difficult situations and a unique examination provision for such children to not lose out completely on education, nutrition of children, support and safety systems for women working in homes or in unorganised sector, child care or day care facilities, hostel for children, micro-credit, insurance and other social welfare schemes that could provide support in local transportation, food supply, health care and medications, counselling for domestic violence, depression, anxiety and hopelessness and so on.
The narative on gender and workplace needs to accomodate women from all economic levels and profession, even those women who are unable to represent themselves in these conversations.
This was also my pitch at the Twitter Chat.
I request you to read few references like The New Federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Would Remedy Decades of Injustice and Invisible women: Domestic workers underpaid and abused that have emerged from discussions with sisters on World Pulse across this story which will throw light on the movement for protection of women's rights in domestic work.
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