“I come from Dogri, a village near Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. I live in an extended family. We’re three siblings, all sisters, and I’m the middle one. I have studied till class six, and like my sister, I, too, was asked to leave school to work and help contribute to the family. My aunt brought me to Delhi and since then I have been working as a ‘full-time maid’ for households, and I also have to stay with them,” says Anita (name changed), an 18-year-old who works as a domestic help at my cousin’s place.
Every year, over 37% of India’s population migrates within the country to different cities in search of better living conditions, and a considerable number of migrants end up (some voluntarily, and many coerced) working as full-time household help (‘house-maids’) in metropolitan cities. The last couple of decades have witnessed the booming of the home service staff industry in India. Alongside other services, domestic help services are being neatly packaged and professionally streamlined. Today, most so called upper-class and many upper-middle-class households in urban India have a migrant house help who lives and works full-time with them. A few things, however, haven’t changed, and this includes employers’ attitudes to these workers, particularly those who are female.
Soon after they start working, the life of the house help begins to revolve around the house and the people they work for. Their employers can have dangerous levels of control over their lives (owing not a little to the lack of general awareness and inadequate laws protecting domestic staff). They get to decide everything about their employee’s life, including what her basic needs are and what she should prioritise as a luxury. Her mobility is also supervised by her employers, and she can only go where she’s ‘supposed’ to, and when.
Thus, intentionally or unwittingly, the employer controls the employee’s sexuality. And the younger the help, the easier it is to keep her under control. Away from their families, these women have no recourse to any form of aid. To avoid the chance of her having any kind of relationship with anyone outside of the sanction of the employing family, the ‘maid’ is often not allowed to have a mobile phone.
Seeing the needs and desires of the house help going unnoticed, I’ve always wondered how they feel. Ignoring the needs of the domestic help comes with the power and control employers exert on them as they feel the help works ‘under’ them. When I asked my aunt’s full-time migrant house help, Anita, if she feels the need to have a phone to talk to her parents or family members, she said she knows she won’t get a phone, which is why she has never tried to express the need to own one, and she rarely gets a chance or expresses the desire to speak with her family members back home in her village. Now she has got “used to it”. Slowly, the house help begin to understand that not only are they not allowed to expect their needs to be met by the employing family, there is also no point in feeling and articulating these needs for themselves.
It is not just mobility and communication that are compromised; the fact that the house help have very little privacy and agency within the home they work and live in, gives them almost no chance to express their sexuality. A little asking around revealed that many of them are fired for being romantically or sexually involved with someone, or if they are noticed to be pleasuring themselves.
A few days ago, my cousin saw Anita masturbating while going to sleep. And while having a discussion around this, I realised how, even after its being noticed, nobody wanted to talk about finding ways to discuss it with her in a pleasure-affirming manner. Instead, the discussion was more focused on ‘what to do now’. From telling on the women to their families to reporting the issue to the agencies that got them the job, all options are explored apart from the one of understanding how to meet the needs of their employee to ensure her health and wellbeing. Trying to understand the sexual desires or needs of those who are, for whatever reason, under one’s care (though the house help does all the care work for the family, she is, ironically, seen as being ‘under their care’) is still a challenge in most societies. As long as issues of sexuality are hushed up, there will be a general lack of acknowledging and articulating these needs.
While I was having a conversation with Anita, one dominant thing came up, with no surprise: she said she doesn’t quite know what she does (when she masturbates), but that she does it because it gives her pleasure. It struck me that the lack of conversation around sexuality makes us so unaware of the little things we do, consciously or unconsciously, for pleasure. I should actually not be surprised that Anita, staying away from home, in need of money, with little understanding of concepts of sexuality and of sexual desires, too, didn’t give much thought to how and why she was pleasuring herself.
Anita and I also talked about issues of marriage, caste and sexuality in her village. She shared that her village follows the dowry system in marriages and the girl doesn’t have a say in who she marries. If a girl elopes, her family is made to give money and donate a cow to the Panchayat (the local governing body many parts of rural South Asia) as punishment. This is how control over the sexuality and agency of these young women coming from various villages is a process carried forward from their home community to their employers. Moreover, the status of belonging to an informal labour force with no or little recognition of their issues and rights makes domestic workers give in to the expectation of treating their employers as all-powerful family/community elders.
The all-powerful employers take advantage. There are many minors and young adults being abused, controlled and exploited in well-heeled homes across the country, and the lack of general awareness of workers’ rights adds to the silence around this. However, not everybody takes things lying down. Some house help have been strong and able enough to file police cases of rape and assault against their employers.
The amount of money most full-time domestic help (and even part-time ones, for that matter) earn is still negligible compared to the work put in, and the benefits that are afforded to them (vacations, healthcare, pensions) are dependent on the generosity of the employer and are ad hoc at best. The disposable incomes of the more privileged afford them a convenient lifestyle in which they can employ domestic staff to take care of their littlest needs. In India, this is layered over by a system of feudal thought, where people who work in the home are regarded as ‘servants’ and are not seen as entitled to human rights like any one else – least of all to labour rights and sexual rights.
Cover image courtesy of Stock Pictures