Sunday, December 16, 2018

Just Published: #MeToo Movement and the General Condition of Women in Everyday Professional Life in Kolkata

News is just in that Jharna Panda's feature on the #MeToo Movement in Kolkata has just been published in a popular daily on 27 November 2018. In the English synopsis, Chandana Dey underscores that Jharna makes the point that the #MeToo covers celebrities in the media, but fails to highlight the sexual harassment faced on a daily basis by city women on the lower social rungs. She focuses on domestic help, especially the carers of old people, and call center workers- who have to travel at all hours. Jharna's Bengali text as published and Chandana's English summary are below.

In the Workplace, Committees to ensure security for women are useless, unless there is goodwill among its members. 


By Jharna Panda (Bengali Version above) with English Synopsis by Chandana Dey below

"Me Too" has focused on a certain strata of women. Beyond this are countless women, who work as domestic help or who are housewives, or who work in call centers- these women are voiceless. 

It is not a novel phenomenon to have stories of sexual harassment faced by celebrities in the media and for this to occupy a prominent place. (Me Too). The Me Too campaign has stripped many male celebrities from their pedestals. There has been vilification, and shaming, and new events have unfolded. The private lives of celebrities are being discussed in every corner tea shop. 

In the workplace, the Government has enacted a statute (COGSASH or Committee On Gender Sensitization Against Sexual Harassment) with the objective of safeguarding women from harassment. This entails setting up a Committee in every workplace. We need to ask whether in fact, every organization has set up this mandatory committee. It could be compared to the mandatory law that requires bikers to wear helmets- for their own security- but in fact, bike riders choose to wear helmets because they do not want to be stopped by traffic police. 

We know that workplaces with hierarchy and an uneven balance of power result in women’s insecurity. In NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) or private concerns, if women complain of sexual harassment, they can lose their jobs. There was an incident where a married woman wrote a love letter to her male boss. He sent the letter to the COGSASH Committee, and the woman was transferred to another part of the organization. But what would have the outcome been if the roles were reversed? In a case of a 25-year-old woman, who was about to place a grievance with the Sexual Harassment committee, one of her senior colleagues advised her against this move and said that this action might endanger her job. Committees may have been convened because they are required by law, but they may not end up carrying out their own statutes and guidelines. 

Let us look at the status of lakhs (a lakh is unit of 100,000) of women who earn a living by caring for other people. You may have noticed many hundreds of women, reporting to work by 8 am in the cities. (Editor: These women travel long distances by commuter train from distant villages into Kolkata). These women are called ’24 hour ayahs’ (female maid or nanny). No mention is ever made of the daily harassment they face at the hands of their employers and employers’ families. Many ayah- employment centers are run by housewives who earn a commission on the women’s labor, but these women have no recourse when their rights are abused. They need the work to run their homes and have to hide the fact of their abuse from their own families. ‘If my husband got to know the harassment I face, he would not let me come to work; then when money falls short, he would start drinking and abusing me. It’s best to keep silent’, says one women who works as a carer of an elderly couple. 

Another woman, Rita, who worked to look after an elderly couple at night was continually attacked by the men of the family (married and unmarried)- and not allowed any sleep. When she changed her job to a day- time job- difficult because she has two small children- she recounts, 'The elderly gentleman could barely get out of bed. But whenever I approached him to give him food or medicines, he would touch me inappropriately. When I would bathe his wife, an invalid, he would take his chair over to watch and would abuse me, in a low voice, and bad language.'

When the maids depart by eight in the evening, another set of women workers are out on the streets at ten or eleven. These are women who work all night in call centers and are forced to travel by public transport at night. No arrangements are made for women night workers by the organizations that employ them. (Editor: Call centers operate at night since the communication is with offices located in Europe, the UK or the US). We need to also look at women who often are asked to work for twelve hours or more- in places like banks. Says one such worker, ‘We sit for hours in rooms with LED lighting; we get headaches, and always carry our medicines with us; we need to bring tiffin (lunch box) from home because the canteens shut. Why only talk of sexual harassment? There are other forms of cruelty also.’

About the author (left): Jharna Panda is  Senior Research Assistant, Centre for Training & Research in Public Finance and Policy Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Jharna is affiliated with the UNESCO/UNITWIN Network on Gender, Culture & People-Centered Development

English Synopsis by Chandana Dey (right), Founding Member of the UNESCO/ UNITWIN Network and former Editor for Social Science Press, New Delhi