#MeToo in India: The women left behind

#MeToo in India: The women left behind

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Puneet Barnala

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Domestic maids and other women in India’s informal sectors are particularly vulnerable

India’s #MeToo campaign has taken off in fits and starts but it has still not touched the lives of millions of poor, vulnerable women who work in informal jobs, writes professor Sreeparna Chattopadhyay.

Meena (her name has been changed on request) is a 45-year-old domestic worker in the southern city of Bangalore. And she is a survivor of sexual harassment in the workplace.

She cooks and cleans in three different homes, earning around 6,000 rupees ($84; $64) a month. She used to earn nearly three times as much. But she lost her job in several homes after she accused one of her employers of sexually harassing her.

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Meena said the harassment started after she borrowed 100,000 rupees for her older daughter’s wedding from a couple in their early 70s. She had been working in their house for three years by then.

She alleged the man would initially try and brush past her while she was sweeping or mopping the floor. Sometimes, she said, he would try and touch her casually or even tug on her sari.

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Puneet Barnala

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Scattered surveys of female workers in different parts of the country tell an incomplete but important story

His wife, Meena said, was often asleep and didn’t seem to know about her husband’s inappropriate behaviour.

Meena said she tried to resist his advances.

But one evening his wife locked herself in the bedroom and went to sleep. That day, she alleged, he grabbed her and tried to pull her onto the sofa.

Despite his age he was strong she said, but fortunately not stronger than her. She managed to push him away, and flee the house never to return.

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Meena did not file a police complaint because she assumed no-one would believe her. But then the couple started pressurising her to return the money she had borrowed, failing which they wanted her to return to work to pay off her debt. At first, they threatened her over the phone. Then, she alleged, they sent men to her home to intimidate her.

The wife also blamed her for dressing “provocatively” and “tempting” her husband.

Image copyright
Puneet Barnala

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Given their economic and social vulnerability, informal workers are less likely to report offences against them

Meena said she was scared, depressed and did not know what to do. She could not pay off her debt in full and returning to work in their home was not an option.

In one of the other houses that she worked in, she felt comfortable enough to share her experience. This employer put her in touch with a domestic workers’ union and another organisation that works on violence against women in Bangalore.

The union representative spoke to the elderly couple and threatened police action if they did not stop harassing Meena.

Meena had some money saved and decided to use it to pay off as much of the debt as she could.

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Getty Images

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Domestic workers’ groups have been protesting for years for more benefits

Her tribulations ended but she still struggles. Her daughter suffers from cerebral palsy and needs constant care, so she spends a significant portion of her savings taking her to school every day because she can’t walk by herself. She is entitled to a disability allowance from the government but the payments are not regular.

The incident also scarred Meena – she had nightmares, was afraid to take a job near the home of her previous employers and experienced shame and guilt.

Informal workers like Meena – women employed as domestic workers, construction labour, garment workers and vendors – make up 94% of India’s female workforce. But their experiences of sexual harassment or assault rarely come to light.

And data is also hard to come by – scattered surveys of female workers in different parts of the country tell an incomplete but important story.

Original Article Source…

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