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Interview: Maya Sharma

Maya Sharma is Program Director at Vikalp Women’s Group, a grassroots organization in Baroda, Gujarat, that works with tribal women and transgender people. A writer and feminist activist, Maya has been a part of the women’s movement in India and researched and wrote about the lives of working-class lesbian women in Northern India over a decade ago. In this interview with Shikha Aleya, Maya speaks with a deep knowledge of ground realities about the increasing informalisation of labour and its implications for gender and sexuality, and about what labour rights and inclusion mean in real terms.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Maya, it is great to have you with us again, and thank you for this interview with In Plainspeak focusing on labour and sexuality. In an earlier interview with us in 2016, speaking of people’s movements, you had spoken of labour and women, pointing out that there is great “disparity between the formal and informal sector and women are mostly involved in the latter”. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, what would be the essential areas for immediate thought and intervention in the context of women’s labour and women’s economic and working lives as we have seen unfolding over 2020 and 2021?

Maya Sharma (MS): I think there is an increasing informalisation of labour, and unfortunately the rate of participation of women in the labour market is decreasing. So there is a need to have a policy framework that has a more integrative approach, and uses this approach to look at women. During this ongoing Covid-19 pandemic for example, we have seen families, including women and children, migrate. Entire families may move during migration and so workplaces have to consider this. They have to make space for families. When you think of work you think of adults, but we saw children as a part of this migration. This is the reality, that migration involves families. We also know that household work rests on women. So we have to ensure that workplaces integrate the needs of women. For example, why cannot transport facilities be provided? A few years ago I was at a meeting, a tripartite consultation between the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the government and union people. In that meeting there was a conversation about allowing night work for women. The union people said that women would get frustrated if there is night work. They meant that since women would be out for work, they would not have time for a relationship. So this is about looking at women as workers and yet, still looking at them using a traditional point of view.

How do we make it simpler for women? We have transport systems for women who work at call centres. Why can’t this be done by other employers, maybe with some form of public-private partnership?

We all know there is massive home-based work going on around us, such as, doing zari work on sarees and dupattas, tailoring, making masks, shelling peas, peeling  garlic, etc. Between 1999 and 2004, when I was in the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, a central trade union, India had yet to ratify the ILO’s  Home Work Convention of 1996, which came into force in the year 2000, and we have still not ratified it.

Earlier we used to talk of a non-discrimination law. The provisions for equality before law, Article 14, and prohibition of discrimination, Article 15, exist in our Constitution, and if these come into practice, and as policy, then it is an overarching thing that will make a change in everybody’s life. Clearly there is a need for protective laws, and laws which are not only on paper but practiced in everyday life, particularly for informal sector workers. And there have to be social safety nets. For example, again, during this Covid-19 experience, if there were some safety net, medical insurance, people could have availed of it. This is critical. We need to move out of the mindset of maternity leave. It’s important, but this mindset that pushes women into these marital status categories has to change!

Now a lot of work is becoming contractual. Here again there have to be social safety nets and the contracts should demand a commitment from the employer as well, it shouldn’t just be hire and fire.

I also want to talk about diversity. When we speak of women as a category, we miss out that there are diverse kinds of women in the labour market and employers use this diversity to their advantage. This advantage should be for both sides, or actually, all three sides including the State, since after all, work impacts GDP. So, for example, export processing zones only want unmarried women who can stay near the workplace and then they leave factory work because of marriage. So they don’t need to be given anything. Or for work at home, for example as nurses and caregivers, young girls are not wanted. The reasons given are that they will have boyfriends, they will be on the phone all the time, etc. See how we are being divided? Then you have single women. There are many different perspectives around single women, that they will work better, they can be exploited, sexually too, that unmarried women are ‘easy game’ and can also be overworked. Many single women are bread-winners for their families and these perspectives create a difficult, unjust environment for them. Then you have rural women. I am saying that a non-discriminatory policy would cover a lot of these issues.

SA:  Given this situation you have outlined, is there a broader and transformed perspective we need to adopt, to gender, sexuality and labour rights? How do we, as a society, as individuals and social groups, approach and build such a perspective?

MS: I think that firstly, there has to be a method to document and account for the work that is done by women and by all different kinds of vulnerable populations, for example dalit women who do manual scavenging, even the domestic work women do in their homes, for example the work we do in our own homes, there has to be some monetisation attached to it, and this should be included in the GDP. This has always bothered me, not calculating this work which is 24 hours round the clock.

Then to change the binary understanding of male, female, this traditional way of looking at binaries, men’s work, women’s work. We need to change this. Now we have some kind of legal space, some legitimacy, with the Section 377 judgement. This is a start. There’s also the whole moralistic way of looking at work, for example transwomen who dance at bars, or people in sex work. I think sex work needs to be legitimised and the conflation of trafficking with sex work has to change.

Also, we have to ensure the inclusion of vulnerable people. There should be room for all vulnerable populations. It’s so ironical that the work that the vulnerable population does is always seen as unimportant and is paid less. Inclusion means many things, you need to have work spaces that are friendly to diversity. India has terrific people in traditional art and craft, musicians who sing about genealogy, people who rear animals like goats, sheep, camels, and others in occupations not widely known. In Rajasthan, there are sheep which are reared for different purposes and even the grass they are fed is different. Such knowledge needs to be documented and passed on. Some kind of study should be done about them, and their knowledge passed down instead of being passed over. There are policies in place, but art and craft needs protection. Perhaps that indigenous knowledge and skill can now be used for livelihood training.

SA: You’ve touched upon many themes that require greater reflection, thanks Maya. In an interview available online, you have pointed out that sexuality in the women’s movement has historically mostly been in the context of violence against women. Expanding this concept, how may one engage in critical thinking about labour and economic justice, the many ways in which violence manifests?

MS: I think in all this, the state has to take on the responsibility of sensitising people. There is so little research done. Take suicide for instance. India is one of the topmost countries where people die by suicide. The rate is very high in this country. Not enough research has been done around vulnerable populations to understand this. There has to be research and surveys done. Right now when we talk of this, we have stray incidents of violence that we recall, but we need to have proper studies on labour and vulnerable populations. I can’t find studies, I can only refer to some lived experiences I know of.  We need data for a proper policy framework.

Do you remember, this famous case of a sailor working in the navy, Sabi Giri, who transitioned in 2017? She had gender confirmation surgery.  She was dismissed from the navy, she lost her job because she identified as a woman and the navy said women are eligible for service only in certain departments. There are people now losing jobs because of gender, because of being gender queer. This is a form of violence. Sexual innuendos and harassment at workplaces, these are forms of violence. You need to ensure that these work places are safe. Though there is a law that there have to be sexual harassment committees at workplaces, there are very few cases that have been resolved amicably. The #MeToo movement has clearly brought out the problem. No matter what class, what job, one faces this violence. There have been instances when the family has gone to the workplace because of a person being transgender, to talk to the employer to stop payment and remove them. So the authority of the family, in this sphere, is another way violence manifests without being questioned. With increasing informalisation, the divide between the workplace and personal life is reducing.

SA: Given the overall context and the aspects you have highlighted, what are the positive changes and good practices you have observed, that foster social and economic justice using the lens of gender and sexuality?

MS: I think it is critical to understand that positive changes and good practices are not automatic. These come with their own pain and challenges. Learning to make change possible in a collective or a group of people is a big challenge. People, as we all know from experience, are the hardest to deal with and the best resource for change.

If we look back at the rough road that led to the reading down of Section 377, it was not an easy journey. It was a fraught journey of criminalisation, re-criminalisation, and de-criminalisation, that went on in the courts for well over a decade. But what an amazing, diverse set of people came together to achieve this. Parents, students, academicians, out and proud queer folks, activists, dancers, authors! And the documents and research submitted were just incredible! Not that the stigma has decreased, it still sticks. But this, being visible in the legal landscape, and socially with the pride marches for example, visibility through individual resistance, all this has led to big changes, such as companies giving or openly speaking of inclusion through jobs and workspaces that include and are sensitive to members of the queer community.

Networking with allies and understanding the necessity of engaging with them, building bridges, is an instance of learning from the past. To join hands with other vulnerable communities, listening to narratives of diverse experiences and then working out a path together is integral to the way forward.

SA: Please say more about your insights on this way forward. If we are to reshape the notion of safety and inclusion to include everyone, what are the best possible policies, processes and outcomes that we could identify?

MS: I would say, of course, ensuring the implementation of laws. But not always looking to the courts or the state, rather to build a strong swell of voices grounded in daily reality, so that we have a rounded comprehension of the diversity of this reality. Power often resides in knowledge. Knowledge gives the ability to negotiate for more equity and entitlements.

Also, when thinking of the way forward, one resource is actually to look back, and learn from past lessons, then to reinvent and adapt to changing times. To illustrate this, the discussions and meetings held amongst various groups to share experiences and strategise prior to the passage of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act helped arrive at the realisation that criminal procedures are not only time consuming but may not always be the best way out. The law was conceived with close consultations amongst community groups and lawyers. So domestic violence was also sought to be resolved by ADR, the Alternative Dispute Resolutions mechanism, to help bring adversarial positions towards harmonious resolution. This is based on the understanding that to always look to law cannot be the answer, especially due to delayed processes, the incomprehensibility of legal language, the legal space being so alienating, and so ADR mechanisms overcome these barriers and put power in the hands of the people. Now this method has found its way into various other interventions, for example when intervening in cases with families, when queer couples elope, or with employers when they look at work and job profiles using rigid binaries.

Though there is a distinct change, we need to push for more. Close the gap between the urban and rural populations, using all these lenses, gender, sexuality, opportunity, safety nets, labour rights, economic inclusion. Finally, I want to say, while the queer movement has brought about many changes, there is a need to make sure that all identities find an equal space for articulation of their experiences. Amongst the queer community, lesbians and transmen, for example, must have more voice and visibility. We have to look closely within categories to see what we are missing, the lived experiences that are less known.

Cover Image: Courtesy Author

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