It is a workforce no middle-class urban dweller can do without ï¿½ domestic workers. In Bangalore, for instance, an army of about 500,000 low-paid women workers, equipped with no special skills, keeps the city going. Almost 25 per cent of this workforce is made up of girls between 10 and 16 years of age who, after dropping out of primary school, accompany their mothers to work and soon end up as workers in their own right. Earning a measly sum of about Rs 300 for part-time work and Rs 1,000 for full-time work (1US$=Rs48), these workers have not been unionized to demand better working conditions. In fact, according to reports, even the proposal to include domestic workers under the Minimum Wages Act is running into rough weather due to opposition from employers who maintain that affording domestic workers is already expensive and fixing a minimum wage would lead to further 'harassment'.
Organizing domestic workers is an uphill task, as Stree Jagruti Samiti, a women's organization, has found out. Starting with a demand for a weekly holiday, the Samiti has encountered difficulties in organizing the domestic workers under one umbrella, mainly because they do not see themselves as a homogenous group. The domestic workers are also conscious of the fact that theirs is a surplus market and that they can be easily replaced as their jobs do not call for special skills.
Mobilizing adolescent girls among the domestic workers has been even more difficult. The government does not recognize child labor, so child laborers cannot be unionized. However, the situation for domestic workers may improve if the proposed Karnataka Unorganized Workers Welfare Bill (2001) is enacted and implemented. Meanwhile, the Stree Jagruti Samiti has taken on the onerous task of empowering adolescent domestic workers in the slums of the posh Jayanagar area in south Bangalore. The Samiti, which has been working with the unorganized sector for over 20 years, has been tackling not only issues like dowry and wife battering, but also community problems like sanitation, water and ration cards.
In the course of its work, the Samiti came in contact with domestic workers, particularly young girls. Working with these girls was refreshing in that they had open attitudes towards caste and socio-cultural customs like, for instance, the traditional segregation of menstruating women. The older women, on the other hand, tended to have a more rigid mindset. Although these workers presented a united front on community issues, when it came to social issues like marriage and dowry, the group generally followed the diktats of their own communities. Says Geeta Menon, Secretary of the Stree Jagruti Samiti, "We shifted our focus to children and adolescent girls because they were more open to new ideas." And thus was born the Chaitanya Yuvathira Sangha (CYS), meaning 'awakening among adolescent girls'.
According to Menon, adolescence is a crisis-ridden period of change for any teenager but it is even more traumatic for girls from the backward and impoverished sections of society. There is a dilemma about the 'new world' that they aspire to be a part of and anxiety over their position in their own clan and community. The role of CYS is one of bridging this divide by empowering the girls and creating a sense of leadership among them. CYS has been in existence for three years and targets girls in the 12 to 18 years age group. In addition, it runs 'Chaitanya Shalai' for girls aged between 10 and 12 years who are school dropouts. Chaitanya Shalai is a non-formal school that the children attend in the evenings after they return from work, some as assistants to their mothers and others as full-fledged workers. The Samiti ensures that they are given some nutritious food like 'Sundal' (boiled pulses) or an egg at the end of the classroom session.
Classes are conducted six days a week and the choice of the syllabus is left to one of the adolescent girls who is provided with inputs at CYS. She draws a small stipend and is helped by a paid supervisor. The stipend adds to her sense of worth and helps in building leadership in the community ï¿½ one of the main objectives of the Samiti. The students are given exposure to elementary English and Mathematics and attempts are also made to increase literacy levels in Kannada, the local language.
Besides this, the experience is enriched by storytelling and 'Just A Minute' (JAM) sessions where the girls are asked to narrate their experiences or speak on any topic for a minute. Those interested can also avail of embroidery classes to increase their options when it comes to finding means of earning money. Chaitanya Shalai also extends supplementary tuition for girls continuing with their formal education - no mean task for school dropouts.
Says Tamilarasi, one of the girls in CYS, "I feel independent because I can read the signboards on buses without asking for help and even do accounts." Many of the girls say that they were very unhappy when their parents pulled them out of primary school and sent them to work instead. One girl quotes her parents as saying, "Of what use is education? If you work, we can clear our debts and have another income in the house." For all these girls, Chaitanya Shalai has been like an oasis in the desert of their dreary lives.
Becoming a part of the teaching staff is in itself an empowering experience. Says Rosy, a member of CYS, who is now a teacher in her area, "Earlier, I used to be intimidated by neighbors and others. Now I have gained the confidence to speak up and can share my problems openly with others. I am in charge of my own life."
Putting to use their newly learnt skills, members of CYS conducted a survey on sexual harassment, the findings of which were released on International Women's Day this year. Though the survey's accuracy in terms of numbers might be a subject of debate, there could be no doubting the sincerity of the girls in following the guidelines, nor the confidence with which they were able to speak up on a sensitive and taboo subject like sexual harassment.
Girls from CYS are also taken on local educational trips, which include visits to the planetarium and museums, besides attending meetings on issues that concern them like domestic work and child labor. They are also encouraged to stand up and express their views at such meetings. Yet, there is also opposition from community leaders who have to face uncomfortable questions from these dynamic girls. Many mothers, too, are not very happy about the transformation in the girls and their unwillingness to conform to old established patriarchal values. And what can be a better testimony to the success of the Chaitanya Yuvathira Sangha than such opposition?