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Contracted for Harassment
|by Aparna Pallavi|
"I can handle my work at the site as well as the laborers. It is the officials of the Public Works Division (PWD) whom I can't handle. They have such a horrid attitude towards women!" declares Meena Mahule, one of the 200-odd women registered as government contractors in Nagpur, Maharashtra. "They ask you directly, 'Madam, beer bar chalte kya (will you come to the beer bar with me)?' I have had to give up several contracts (worth Rs 50,000-60,000) because of this harassment. I need to marry so that my husband can handle these officials for me," says Mahule.
Mahule says that though their work is distributed through draw of lots, much depends on the PWD junior engineer. "The schedule, the permission to start work, record keeping - everything is done by the junior engineer. He can hold up work or payment at any stage. Unlike men, the women mostly don't have to face blatant demands for money, but there are other, overt or covert demands."
Until 1996, there were no women contractors (civil engineers by training) in Maharashtra. The field was dominated by a handful of families who had been in the business for generations. It was only in 1996, when the state government started a scheme for allotting minor works (up to a personal limit of Rs 1.5 million per engineer [1US$=Rs 44]) to unemployed engineers that women got an opportunity to enter the field. Today, out of the nearly 3,000 engineers registered with the PWD in Nagpur, some 200 are women.
For most, it has been an uphill task. The family system, social norms - even the trade unions - work to discredit, exploit and finally push the women out of this profession.
Why is there such a strong bias against women contractors?
"The women don't work," claims Vinay Bhajipale, Nagpur district President of the Maharashtra Engineers Association. "They mostly sublet the work allotted to them. The work is too rough for them."
While Bhajipale's views reflect the general perception about women contractors, the women insist that the reality is different. "When I and some other women approached the union for membership about two years ago," says Bharavi Deshkar, "We were told that we should take the 'easy' way out - sublet the work at a percentage to the male members of the union. The pressure grew so great that finally we withdrew from the union."
"The union has never had any special agenda for women. Women have never been allowed to serve on the work distribution committee (comprising of officials of the PWD and other union members)," says Shakir Abbas Ali, President of the newly launched Indian Unemployed Engineers Association, which hopes to make a difference.
Family pressure is even harder to combat. Says Y R Kalbande of the Maharashtra Engineers Association, "Women only work as contractors till they are married. Once married, their husbands take over."
Unfortunately, this is the case with an alarmingly large number of women engineers. Says Archana Nannaware, "The in-laws tend to see the daughter-in-law's work as a kind of family business. In my case, I was told to mind the house while my husband went to the site to look after my work. It came to a point where I realized that he was taking over completely."
However, the most difficult problem faced by the women is that of sexual harassment. This not only affects their performance, but discourages many women to the extent that they are forced to resign themselves to the much maligned role of 'percentage takers'.
While women often deny being harassed when questioned directly, their restrictive way of working indicates how sexual harassment is inhibiting their growth as engineers. For example, most women admit that they can't ever go to the site without a male escort. "You come across many dirty characters in this field," says Shobha Lakhe, a civil engineer. "In particular, the junior engineers. I never ever go with them alone. My brother is always with me."
Speaking about a particularly successful and well-known woman contractor, another contractor alleges that she gets more cushy assignments as entertains the junior engineers.
The union office bearers deny the existence of the problem. Says Bhajipale, "We have not received any complaint of sexual harassment. And anyway, how can there be harassment when none of the women ever go to the site without a father, a brother or a husband?"
Mahule says women don't give a formal complaint for fear of losing their contract. There is little scope for the women to seek justice. "Women are less than 10 per cent of all the registered engineers in the city," says Darshana Donekar, "Who will listen to such a minority unless the union backs it?"
Says Neelima Reethe, a senior contractor, "There was much more hostility towards women when I first entered the field nine years ago. Now women are better accepted. Of course, this is not enough. We have to survive in this field, and we do so with whatever means we have at our disposal."
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03/17/2012 00:51 AM
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