Co-authored by Nabeela Paniyath:
Being one of Delhi’s consumption centres, Okhla Sabzi Mandi is always abuzz with activity. Men can be seen loading and unloading stacks of vegetables and neatly arranging the produce on their carts. Amidst this sea of men, one can only spot a handful of women peeling garlic or stacking vegetables inside sacks.
Sapna is among the few women who work at the vegetable market. She sits in a small corner and patiently removes the peels from garlic cloves. Ask her about her struggles, and her otherwise cheerful face turns grim.
“You are at the Mandi, almost every day is a struggle for me. Nobody respects women here. If there were more women at the Mandi, I wouldn’t feel as threatened as I do now,” she says while talking about her fears.
Like Sapna, countless women who are working in India’s unorganised sector face harassment and intimidation. “I earn Rs. 100 to 150 every day. It’s not a lot but it’s something,” she adds.
A 2014 report published by Oxfam and Social and Rural Research Institute revealed that labourers, domestic workers and women working in small-scale manufacturing were the most vulnerable to sexual harassment at workplace. Lack of job security and hostile working conditions are among the many challenges that women workers face at the sabzi mandi.
“When I started working here, men would harass me and I used to feel very scared. Over the years, I have learnt how to fight back and the threats have gone down,” Sapna shares.
The commute is yet another hurdle that seems difficult to overcome. It takes Sapna half an hour to get to her workplace. She reaches the mandi at 2 in the afternoon and leaves in the evening by 8. Though she does not have to travel long distances, the timings and the route makes her feel unsafe.
“At night when I am about to leave, a group of drunk men sit near the gate and catcall women and even hurl abuses at them. But now I know a few women who work here, so that brings comfort,” she explains.
As evening approaches, Sapna decides to call it a day. “Bus is expensive and late at night, bus stops also feel unsafe,” Sapna said. But she is relieved that she does not have to walk alone, she pulls out her mobile phone and talks for a few minutes.
She collects her belonging, purchases a few vegetables and walks to the exit gate where her friend joins her. Together, they head back home.