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How Caste And Class Make Us ‘Other’ Our Own: Life Of A Domestic Worker In India

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When I read “The White Tiger” by Arvind Adiga, I found it to be a gripping read. After all, it painted the story of a young boy and his struggles from the rural countryside to the national capital of Delhi in a very dispassionate yet sincere manner. It used powerful tools to make its point regarding discrimination and marginalization that people face because of their identities. A certain subplot dealing with the usage of separate lifts for flat-owners and their domestic workers caught my attention.

It triggered my thoughts regarding the ‘otherization’ of domestic workers on an institutional level. Domestic workers form an integral part of the ecosystem of any upper-middle-class, domestic household.

Be it cooking, cleaning or babysitting, they play a crucial role in upholding the structural base on which the careers of better off, privileged individuals are built.

That the empowerment of some comes at the cost of others is largely ignored in mainstream scholarly discussions on feminism, a trend that is popularly known in the west as white feminism. A basic idea of social privilege would indicate how some groups and communities are relatively better placed than others, because of various factors.

Domestic workers form an integral part of the ecosystem of any upper-middle-class, domestic household. Representational image.

 Did Feminism Ignore Its Marginalised?

Owing to the fact that women as a gender have been historically disadvantaged, several movements arose under the umbrella term of feminism, to demand equality in social, economic and political spheres. As a result, after decades of bargaining and negotiating, protests and debates, women were granted certain rights, that on paper, made them equal with their male counterparts.
That such legislations did not make much headway on the ground and didn’t trickle down to the lowest rungs wasn’t paid enough attention.

Concepts of higher education and corporate workplaces were romanticized and in turn, a significant chunk of feminist activism turned towards advocating higher education and negotiating conditions for white-collar jobs.

Whether it was important or not, is a matter best left to be discussed another day but for sure, it did take the much-needed attention off the empowerment of women belonging to marginalized communities. Coming from a culture of excellence, the women belonging to “upper castes” found it easier to occupy spaces in academia, governments and businesses.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique talks about the empowerment of housewives, about putting their creative energies to work instead of doing household tasks all day. However, she fails to address the vacuum that would be created in such a situation.

The most important question that would arise is who would be responsible for household tasks in that scenario.

Surely, the men would not do it because their privilege and dominance of power structures would help them get away. The onus would fall on women again; only this time, they would be the ones belonging to marginalised communities, people of colour and the so-called “lower castes” in India. Bell Hooks explores this angle in an articulate fashion in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to the Centre. Women belonging to marginalized communities face the brunt doubly – on account of both their gender and caste/colour.

Domestic workers in India are not only underpaid but also made to work in inhumane conditions for long hours, without a break. Representational image.

Inhuman Hours, Lack Of Agency, And Respect? Well.

Domestic workers in India are not only underpaid but also made to work in inhumane conditions for long hours, without a break. There are no holidays on the weekends, salaries agreed on after hours of bargaining and the ever-looming threat of violence. Even after all of the collective tools of institutional oppression, popular media becomes galore with jokes about how domestic workers always try to evade work.

One popular argument forwarded, in an attempt to appropriate the labour of these workers, is that all professions are respectful and that it is not about the job itself as much as about the sincerity with which it is carried out. The fallacy in such a proposition is that these workers didn’t choose these jobs for themselves. They were forced to, out of the economic and social malaise and in some extreme cases, trafficking.

I remember that in a popular daily soap opera, a certain “humorous” episode dealt with the demands of the domestic workers that also included watching television for half an hour. The satire and ridicule with which the demand was met made me wonder if people thought domestic workers have no right to a source of entertainment or other forms of excursion that privileged individuals seem to take for granted.

Left with the powerful imagery of The White Tiger, I started glancing around for any such subtle signs in my vicinity that were marked with casteism and segregation.

The ‘Othering’ Of Our Domestic Workers

Although I wasn’t able to mark out segregated lifts, I did notice something else. It is a common practice in households where domestic workers are employed to offer them refreshments at times and even clothes and goods, during certain festivals. That such goods, clothes and refreshments are second-hand and of inferior quality is almost always excluded from the discussion.

In fact, employers pride themselves on their supposed acts of philanthropy even when all they do is rid themselves of redundant materials or offer a basic courtesy. In the event of offering refreshments, the practice of using separate crockery is prevalent with explanations being offered about maintaining hygiene and cleanliness.

However, the same practice is never extended to guests who come from a similar or better off economic and social stratum. If anything, costlier and better crockery is used. That notions of hygiene only serve to mask the older and politically incorrect terminologies of purity and pollution is a conclusion any aware individual would draw.

The ongoing pandemic and the renewed emphasis on social distancing and hygiene has led many vested interests to amplify and justify their casteist practices. It is not that men belonging to marginalized communities do not bear the brunt of these practices but women have to fight a two-front battle of surviving sexism and casteism.

Living and working conditions of domestic workers need to be inquired into for a start. A robust framework guaranteeing economic and social security must be put in place and followed religiously to ensure that basic human rights of workers are protected and allegations of violence should be probed into and disposed of as quickly as possible.

Last but not least, sensitization at the grassroot level, especially among the households that employ domestic workers must be carried out, to instil in them, etiquettes regarding behavioural practices. Only then, we can claim to have started a march towards a meritocratic society.

Featured image source: ILO Asia-Pacific
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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