This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
The issue of violence perpetrated on domestic workers, largely women, remains mostly invisible and unaddressed.
The many conversations on violence against women that began on December 16 remain incomplete. We discuss the visible. We rarely mention the invisible or less visible, the violence inside closed doors, in private spaces, away from the public sphere. By this I don’t just mean the violence by family members.
That is, in any case, shrouded in several impenetrable layers of silence. Apart from this, there is another form of violence, one that is largely accepted. Often the perpetrators of the violence can be women, even those who have themselves been at the receiving end of domestic violence.
This is the insidious form of violence that millions of domestic workers suffer each day in the homes where they work. It consists not just of physical or sexual attacks but of a lack of dignity, of lack of basic rights and of the absence of recognition that they deserve a fair wage for the work they do. We need to condemn and combat this hidden violence as much as we have now begun to talk about the violence on our streets.
This column has repeatedly taken up the cause of domestic workers because it is one of those under-the-radar issues that is somehow not addressed. The majority of domestic workers worldwide are women. In India, the official data puts their numbers at just seven million when it is evident that the actual number is many times more, closer to 90 million. And this figure does not take into account the children who are illegally employed for domestic work.
Worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an estimated 53 million people are employed in people’s homes. Over 80 per cent are women. Admittedly, this too is an underestimation. A new ILO report points out that, despite international attention being paid to the issue, little is being done. In 2011, after many years of campaigning by organisations that represented domestic workers, the ILO passed the Domestic Workers Convention (No 189). Yet two years later, the Convention has still not come into force because only a handful of governments — the Philippines, Uruguay and Mauritius — have ratified it. The Philippines has gone a step further by promulgating its own law on domestic workers giving them the same rights as other workers. Not so most other countries, including India, which is among the list of countries yet to ratify this convention.
Why is such a convention or a national law specifically addressing the problems facing domestic workers needed? Precisely because of their invisibility. They work under individually negotiated contracts, have no job security and can be fired at will. There is no regulation about their working hours or minimum wage. Nor do the women get the benefits of sick leave, maternity leave or a weekly day off. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that they are not organised and, therefore, cannot resort to any kind of collective bargaining. A law would at least inform them of their rights and would make it clear to employers that, even if they continue to exploit them as they do today, they are wilfully breaking the law.
The ILO report titled “Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection” brings out several disturbing statistics. For instance, more than half the domestic workers around the world have no limitation on the normal weekly hours of work, or get a weekly off, or get paid get paid a minimum wage. An estimated 15.6 million women working as domestics do not get maternity leave or cash benefits.
The central government has drafted a policy for domestic workers, one that will ensure that they come under the ambit of existing laws that relate to the rights of workers — such as the Minimum Wages Act, the Trade Union Act, Payment of Wages Act, Workers’ Compensation Act, Maternity Benefits Act, Contract Labour Act and Equal Remuneration Act. Karnataka was the first state to fix minimum wages for domestic workers, to accept that they were entitled to a weekly off and to ban children less than 14 years of age working as domestic workers. Of course, the implementation of this policy is another story but at least a beginning has been made.
There are many layers to the issue of violence against women. But as women’s groups have been repeatedly emphasising over the past weeks, several simple interventions can be made. I would suggest that one such step could be to implement a policy for domestic workers. Even though domestic workers now come under the ambit of the law on sexual harassment at workplace, as long as they continue to work as isolated, atomised individuals without other rights granted to workers in general, they will remain vulnerable to all forms of violence and exploitation.
If we can deal with these dark spaces in our society, where there is little value for the rights of the people who do thankless work, perhaps then we will be better placed to talk about the more visible forms of abuse and assault that have dominated public discussion and debate.
Hope lies in the fact that even if the rulers are deaf and have lost the ability to speak words with meaning, the people have found a voice.
Since December 16, a day that is now seared in national consciousness, and December 29, when many of us felt we had lost a member of our own family, millions of words have been spoken and written on rape, on sexual assault, on women’s safety, on the attitude of Indian men. Thousands of young women and men have come out on the streets to demonstrate their anguish at the absence of justice for Indian women. Passion, anger, rhetoric, argument, posturing, empty promises, brute force — we have seen it all in this fortnight.
The despair at the State’s silence is justifiable. But the hope lies in the fact that even if the rulers are deaf and have lost the ability to speak words with meaning, the people have found a voice. Never before has the issue of violence against women been such a dominant topic of discussion.
Even in the 1970s, when the then nascent autonomous women’s movement launched its campaign to change rape laws following the custodial rape of a young tribal girl, Mathura, by two policemen in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, the response was tepid compared to what we have seen today. This was not just because the issue was rape of a tribal girl, far removed from our urban sensibilities or that the perceived levels of violence on the streets in the cities were lower than they are today. The absence of 24-hour television to amplify the protests could have contributed.
I believe the real reason was that most people would not accept that women’s rights are human rights. There are many in this country who still refuse to acknowledge this. Yet, thanks to the determined campaigns by women’s movements across the country, there is a break in this wall. Laws have been amended. Women are more visible in decision-making positions although nowhere near what is needed. And most importantly, a generation of young women has grown up believing that they are entitled to the same rights as men. While our generation, the mothers, sometimes chose to keep quiet and tolerate, this generation, our daughters, will not. They want their voices to be heard, they have better and more effective media with which to make their views known, and they firmly believe that in a free country they should not be denied these rights. That is the change we witnessed when we saw thousands of angry and determined young women holding placards, facing water cannons, suffering the lashes of the police lathi. It is something that cannot and will not be easily reversed. The silent rulers sitting in their soundproof offices in Delhi need to recognise this.
On a personal note, I saw this change in the response to my last column “What’s wrong with Indian men?” (Sunday Magazine, December 23).
In the past, whenever I have touched on the subject of violence against women, I receive at least a dozen vituperative emails from men berating me for being a “feminist” (which I am proud to declare that I am) and generally ticking me off for not understanding the “plight” of Indian men.
This time, I received almost 70 emails, the majority of them from men, most of them quite long and thoughtful. Space does not permit me to quote from some of these submissions but it was evident that every one of them had thought hard about what needed to change in the attitudes of men to prevent occurrences like the one that triggered the current outrage. The one I quote below reflects some of the sentiments expressed:
“I write not only as a 21-year-old man of young India, rather more as a man of the concerned India. Witnessing the recent events that have shook the nation, I’m only left with the option of asking myself, where is Our India? I was a part of the protests that took place at India Gate. I saw things change in a matter of minutes. We were not a part of any group or political organization; we were just a spontaneous gathering of young citizens of India asking about our rights and questioning the people in power. I would also like to make a point that not all the people were actually concerned on this sensitive issue. But then, where do these things end? Will they end by bringing in tougher laws, or making public speeches assuring that ‘someday’ things will change? I have now started doubting the future of my nation. We have to go beyond the social barriers that have hindered the growth of our society for the past many decades. Has our country fallen so deep that a rape case is needed to awaken us?
We proudly call ourselves the largest democracy in the world, but I think we all know what the reality is. In this male chauvinist and egoistic society I am ashamed to call myself a man. Our country is in a dire need of a revolution which not only changes people in power, rather their thinking. One after which the men of our society at least start respecting the wombs from which they are born. But the question still remains, HOW?”
This young man’s views reflect the churning that has begun. For it to continue, we have to move beyond slogans to working out the concrete steps that must be taken — making the criminal justice system more responsive, changing the sexist attitudes among politicians, in the media, in our school texts, in our films, at our work places and refusing to give up fighting for change, even within the confines of our inefficient and limited democracy.