New Indian Express, October 13, 2008.
Swarna will have you know:
- Her original title was ‘Work as extreme sport’ and this article does not advocate keeping women at home in the name of protection!
- The first sentence of the article got left out. It is: Recently reported events have demonstrated that earning a living is becoming a dangerous undertaking.
13 Oct 2008 01:43:00 AM IST
The first is Saumya Vishwanathan’s murder while returning from her work at a news channel late into the night. The Delhi Chief Minister acknowledged that Delhi was unsafe and then described the victim as “adventurous” for returning home by herself at that hour. Since less adventurous Bangalore call centre employees who had office transport, met similar fate at the hands of those who were supposed to escort them safely, this comment has rightly offended many. In an earlier incident, a Chennai domestic worker was burnt alive by her (female) employer for not returning a loan and not showing up for work. The employer then tried to buy the silence of those around and inevitably got caught.
Both these people were put at risk not by entering an adventure show or participating in combat but by simply going out to earn a living. Neither of these appears to be a gender-related crime, but the fact is that going out to earn a living is a particularly high-risk enterprise for many women.
The litany of working women’s challenges is not news – unequal pay for equal work, work environments that disadvantage them by rewarding male bonding and cronyism and of course, workplace sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is defined by the Supreme Court as ‘unwelcome sexual behaviour’ including physical contact, soliciting sexual favours, sexual comments, showing pornography and any other kind of sexual overture. What makes sexual harassment abominable is that it is not an expression of interest between equals but that the abuser leverages his power within the organisation to contrive a favourable outcome. Sexual harassment also takes the form of a work environment that is uncomfortable or hostile to work in.
Since the Vishakha judgment, many organisations have created procedures for lodging and investigating complaints.
But how well these work is another question, as is the ability of a victim to access them. There is also the question of abuse of these provisions.
Other challenges faced by workingwomen relate to working conditions. A few weeks ago, when a Saravana Stores outlet caught fire, reports also emerged about the conditions in which their workers were housed and how little they were paid. They were more shocking than the safety conditions that prevailed in the store.
Getting to work and getting back from work are also fraught with risk. Street sexual harassment is a reality in every city.Walking to the bus stop, girls are accosted and propositioned. Crowded buses alone are not intrinsically dangerous, but when they are packed with male passengers who feel free to touch, pinch and fondle, the dread begins right there.
Going to work on a bike is no doubt better, but the chances of being followed down quiet stretches of road remain.
Company transport is not a foolproof solution either. The patriarchal response to these challenges is protection rather than social, attitudinal transformation.
What is it about our society that makes men behave like predators and what is it about our culture that practically condones it? But when women cannot go out to work, what happens? Workplace and street safety affect livelihood security and public health.
First of all, statistics about violence within the home belie the fond hope that women and girls (or boys) are safer at home. Silence about violence within the family is arguably louder than about workplace harassment.
Lack of economic independence locks domestic violence victims in abusive relationships.
The social environment is changing, but in the absence of alternative support, all the woman has is the age-old advice to ‘adjust’ to her situation.
Workingwomen contribute to the household income, and when that income falls, nutrition levels fall, first affecting women and girl children.
Weak, undernourished women give birth to weak, low birth-weight children.
Low birth-weight children remain sickly throughout their lives, burdening their families and ultimately, society with the cost of keeping them in good health and compensating for their inability to work.
The inability of women to contribute to the household income further devalues the girl child, reinforcing the attitudes that encourage sex-selective abortion.
The idea that girls are a burden also results in their forced marriage or even sale to traffickers, to say nothing of her not earning money towards her wedding.
Education and employment empower, but if going to work is a risk-taking enterprise, where does that leave us? The Chennai domestic worker probably took a loan from her employer because no one else would give her one.
The job, the loan and failure to repay the loan were probably all factors beyond control. Neither that nor absence from work deserve the death penalty.
Saumya Vishwanathan was a bright, dedicated professional. Whether male or female, and even in our notoriously unsafe national capital, her commute should have been safe.
As with so many other things, in discussing safety and work, our instinct is to punish women by restricting their movement rather than to proactively seek and punish those who cause harm to them. It is not a perfect universe, and people have to be careful, but how long will society and its ruling elite hide behind these admonitions? How long will we accept them as a substitute for firm action to make cities and workspaces safe? When will we go beyond protection and punishment towards re-engineering social attitudes towards women?
Swarna Rajagopalan directs Prajnya Initiatives.