For 38-year-old Maria, definition of a “workplace” changes every few hours. And over the years, the domestic worker has learnt to protect herself from sexual advances, gestures and “danger signs” as she puts it.
Seven years ago, she says, things got out of hand when her employer, a boy many years younger to her, chose to take his advances to the next level. “I was washing vessels when he came and grabbed me from behind. When I started screaming he let go and I ran out,” she said. Worse, when she complained to her apartment manager, he told her that “she may have led him on for him to take such a bold step”.
Maria says that domestic workers of a particular area are well-networked. So after her incident, she and others ensured that only “very old women” worked at the house. “There are times when these things grow into full-blown wars, involving families, but after that it just becomes impossible for the victim to find work anywhere.” Oddly, she adds, once a domestic worker makes her complaint public, she is seen as “a problem-maker” by others, and finding jobs becomes tough.
Various domestic workers who work indoors point out that the lack of social support and the unequal power relation between them and their employer makes them vulnerable to various forms of sexual abuse.
Prema (name changed), a domestic help, used to work in a house in Vijayanagar where two women and their father stayed.
“Knowing my poor financial condition, their father promised to pay me an additional sum, if I listened to him and acted as per his orders. I immediately quit the job,” she said.
Although the amended Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha recently has, for the first time, included the domestic worker in the purview of the bill, activists feel that a lot more should be done as cases of sexual assault continue to be underreported from this sector. Geetha Menon of Stree Jagruti Samiti said, “These women are scared and feel that their families will be brought to shame if they speak out.”