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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Meenakshi Gupta Jain On The Harassment Faced By House Helps In India

  • IWB Post
  •  January 28, 2019

Right from corporate boardrooms to the entertainment industry, as #MeToo has slowly risen in the country, there still remains a part of the country’s population, whose #MeToo stories remain widely unheard of.

Right from the rural women of the country to our LGBTQ population, to the house helps in our very homes, there remain so many with their #MeToo stories locked in the cupboards of oblivion. The questions now are what does #MeTooIndia do for these women, how much has the movement registered its presence among them, and how can we channelise it to aid them in a better way?

In the wake of these questions, Indian Women Blog has partnered with SafecityWe have taken over their Twitter handle for a week where we are curating conversations on women’s safety and the inclusivity of #MeTooIndia. For one such conversation, we reached out to Meenakshi Gupta Jain, the founder of Helper4U, a venture that has changed the life of so many house helps.

Meenakshi explains, “We have created an employment exchange on the mobile portal. Here, the person looking for a job needs to get a profile created and this they can do themselves or through our help, whichever is more convenient for them. They get to specify where they are looking for a job, what kind of a salary are they seeking, their experience etc. The verification is done using their Adhaar details.”

She adds, “Through Helper4U, the person is able to find a job in the comforts of the area that they were looking for and a job which pays them what they think they should rightly get.”

Here are excerpts from a chat that I recently had with Meenakshi:

You have shared that the house helps that you work with often approach Helper4U with their issues and problems. Has your work given you new insights into the nature of sexual harassment faced by these women?

Before starting Helper4U I did know that there were agents who tried to bring women from places like Jharkhand, lure them with promises of work in big cities, and put them into flesh trade. Or they would bring women in pairs from Jharkhand, one would be an older woman one would be a younger woman where they will make the older one work in houses and the younger one is pushed into the flesh trade. This way neither of them can escape the trap because their partner is stuck.

But the very fact that this could happen with the women who are in the city itself and directly trying to find work was new to us. We would never have thought that a security guard could be an agent or a middleman. We thought that these agencies only worked by pimps soliciting women from villages and then exploiting them in the cities. But we eventually realised that anyone who gives you a reference for a job could become your exploiter.

Are the #MeToo stories of these house helps any different from the corporate #MeToo stories that we have been hearing of late?

There are people who tell these women that they know of houses where a maid is required. They help them get in a job, however, in exchange for a certain percentage of their salary every month, say Rs. 500. Now job has not become pakka, might pay her a meager Rs. 1500 per month and yet she has to shell out Rs. 500 on this fellow who has not done anything. There are times when she is not able to save this sum and such instances open them for other kinds of favours.

Imagine a woman who is looking for a job, no husband or anybody else to support her financially, and thus she has to take care of everything. So after a point, she will say “okay I will go and sit in the corner with you. I will do what you ask me to do after all I have to survive.”  Of late, we have been hearing so many #MeToo stories about workplace harassment and men seeking sexual favours in lieu of better jobs and money, so ya, it works the same way with these house helps too.

What other problems have they been struggling with?

One like I have talked about, when some of these women are offered jobs in exchange for a certain percentage of their salaries. Each time they fail to pay the money, they are threatened by these agents. A woman once told me that she had to sell off her magalsutra since she could not save sufficiently to pay off one of these agents’ commission.

The other problem is that employers rarely treat them as professional workers. They remain the “servants” in the English colonial sense. If I were to hire a babysitter or house help in the US I will give her due respect, I will give her due leaves, I would pay her in time and she will come and do only what I have hired her to do. But that didn’t work here.

Also, these women lead lives of drudgery and as a result, by the time they are 40, most of them are fit to do manual labour. There are so many of them who approach us saying that they live in small dingy houses with their sons and their families and its not working for them anymore. They thus approach us seeking jobs so that they can someone survive till their last days. The problem is that the government doesn’t have any policies to help them out. We have this bill pending from labour union for domestic workers for a couple of decades now.

What hinders these women from approaching the police and seeking legal help?

Just yesterday, there was a woman who told us that her husband beats her and he has married someone else. She told us that she was seeking more work so that she could get out of that house. I asked her if she wanted some help from the police, she refused and said police ke paas nahi jaana hai. In most of the cases they tend to avoid the police, I have not gotten into studying what exactly goes into this conditioning. But I think it has a lot to do with social stigma. The very fact that you are going to go against your husband and the thought that biraadari wale kya kahenge stops them from taking an action. Again, it is the same as us. It is the same fears and stigma that were hitherto stopping us from coming out with our #MeToo stories.

Have you come across instances of these women being sexually harassed by the employers?

Just 1 in the past 3 years. There was this woman, who was working as a 24-hour maid at a couple’s place. They lived in a 1 BHK apartment and the husband was the one who lived at the house for the most of the time. This woman told us that he’d stare at her lecherously and that made her very uncomfortable in the house. We immediately took action and got her a job in another house.

How do you think these women can be encouraged to stand up for themselves and raise a voice for the harassment being inflicted on them?

That’s a tricky one. They could be helped only in two conditions. Either they are financially very independent, or they could be helped by the society’ support. And yes, there also is a need for a support system for these women created by these women themselves.

This article was first published on November 3, 2018.

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