Archive for the ‘The Women’s Feature Service (WFS)’ Category

Of Inhuman Bondage
By Rasana Atreya

As edited and published by the Womens Feature Service

The Indian economy is booming and the middle class is reaping the benefits. But one section that seems to be excluded is that of the ubiquitous domestic maids. Though they play a key role in propping up the hectic work schedule and prosperous lifestyle of the middle class, they continue to lead the lives of bonded laborers. They do not enjoy any of the benefits of the labor laws in the country.

“I have not taken a single day off in the last five years. My madam told me that if I ever do so, she will make sure that I will never work again”, says Archana ruefully. Working seven days a week, she has never taken a day off even in extreme need, for fear that her employer will make good her threat. For Archana, unemployment could mean starvation for herself, her two young daughters and paralyzed husband.

Though a maid, Archana is far from illiterate. She has a Diploma in Electronics from an Industrial Training Institute (ITI). She could not find a job in her field of training because it remains an all-male domain. The employers did not budge despite her offer to work for a lower wage. As for the government agencies that employ people with her skills, the “going rate” (read bribe demanded) is Rs. 75,000 for a job that might pay Rs 4,000 per month at best.

Archana’s mother is a maid in a village near Sholapur. And she educated her daughter against all odds. “My mother wanted for me to have a better life than her own. She would die of grief if she came to know I’m working as a maid”, says Archana.

When Archana asked one of her employers – she works part-time in five homes – if he would give her a raise, she was fired. And the employer did not bother to pay wages due to her.

Unlike in the United States, where the Department of Labor can step in with mediation services to help people resolve their employment disputes, there is no similar facility offered by the government in India.

If there are laws in India similar to the American Fair Labor Standards Act, the maids have no way of knowing. The Act requires that employees receive at least the minimum wage, and not be employed for more than 40 hours in a week without receiving at least one and one-half times their regular pay for overtime.

For Chhaya, and her mother before her, domestic work is what women do. She says of her life, “My husband demands money for alcohol and prostitutes.” She adds matter-of-factly that he beats her up if she does not bring in the money. She does not believe that laws against wife battering apply to “women like her” because, she says, even the police do not seem to think it is a big deal.

The fact that domestic maids are working eight hours or more a day, 365 days a year with no vacations or proper compensation, seems to have escaped the radar of the National Commission for Women. Surprisingly, neither the National Human Rights Commission nor even Amnesty International, deem this as an instance of rights violation.

Anjali, 16, was pulled out of school by her alcoholic father and put to work as a domestic maid. This motherless girl, who is very good with languages and electronics, was so desperate to study that she moved out of her father’s home to her cousin’s, hoping he would be more supportive. It turned out to be that the cousin, an auto driver, was no better. He made Anjali do all work in his own home and take care of his children. He also kept whatever she earned.

Anjali’s employer is willing to fund her education in a hostel because she sees the girl’s potential. But the cousin is not impressed. He says that whatever she needs in life, she can get from marriage, and that she should not dream above her station in life. Anjali says in frustration, “I just want to go to college. I want to educate my sister too. Why can’t they see that I am not doing anything wrong in wanting a better life?”

A March 2000 report by the Pune-based NGO, Social Alert, puts the number of domestic workers in India at 20 million. Ninety-two per cent of them are women, girls and children, 20 per cent under 14 years of age, and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. According to this study, Mumbai alone has 600,000 domestic workers.

PVL Ramana, Hyderabad-based sociologist and author of ‘Women in Slums‘, says that the difference between domestic workers and upper class women is that for the upper class women, work is a privilege – they can choose to work or not. Female domestic workers have no choice but to work. It is a question of survival for them.

Ramana says that his research showed that in the slums, a husband often abandons his family after one or two children. Sheer economic necessity forces the abandoned mother to seek any job that can feed her children – and more often than not, owing to lack of education, it is a job as a domestic maid.

Secretary of Pune’s Maharshi Karve Stree-Shikshan Samstha (MKSS) Ravindra Deshpande says that there are several organizations like his own that cater to destitute girls/women. When asked why women like Archana were not able to use their education to pull themselves out of the poverty trap, he said there was a need for more institutions that worked for the betterment of women.

Whether that is the only prescription out of the poverty trap is debatable. But till these women become more visible, upward mobility for these urban “bonded laborers” will continue to remain a mere dream.

February 17, 2007


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Mothers Feeling Blue

By Rasana Atreya

As edited and published by the Womens Feature Service

So strong are stereotypes about the bliss of motherhood that the popular imagination allows little space for the lived reality of many women. Many women find themselves besieged by feelings of negativity – and the consequent guilt – after childbirth.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is the cause, says Dr Prathap Tharyan, Head of the Psychiatry Department in the prestigious Vellore-based Christian Medical College. In a British Journal of Psychiatry study that Tharyan and his colleagues carried out in rural Tamil Nadu and published in 2002, they found that 11 per cent of the pregnant women monitored had PPD.

Although there are no figures available for India, Planned Parenthood, USA believes that one in 10 women in the US suffer from PPD.

Unfortunately, says Tharyan, there is not enough awareness about this disease, possibly because psychiatry is not addressed adequately in medical colleges across India. While awareness levels among the general public are abysmal, even those in the medical profession are not well acquainted with PPD, he says.

PPD is a biochemical illness caused by changes in the brain chemistry. It might cause a woman to become deeply despondent and weepy; she might develop insomnia, anxiety or an aversion to touching her baby. She might feel ‘out of control’ and, more horrifying for her, develop a fear that she might harm her baby. A past history of psychiatric illnesses is a good indicator for PPD, but is not a prerequisite. And being from a ‘good Indian family’ is certainly no protection either!

In addition, Tharyan says, various factors – like bearing a female child when there was pressure to bear a male child, problems with in-laws, poverty, or a lack of help in the postpartum period – could result in PPD.

‘Baby blues’ is a milder, more common variant. (Planned Parenthood estimates that about 80 per cent women suffer from it.) The blues may cause a new mother to have mood swings – from an emotional ‘high’ of euphoria, to an emotional ‘low’ of being overwhelmed. She might also suffer from loneliness, sadness, loss of identity, irritability and decreased sexuality. The blues often resolve themselves without medical intervention. PPD however requires counseling and often medication.

According to Niloufer Ebrahim, a psychologist in Pune’s Jehangir Hospital, soon after childbirth, hormone levels in a woman’s body abruptly drop back to pre-pregnancy levels. Coupled with changes the body undergoes in order to prepare for milk production and the lack of sleep, a new mother is under immense stress. This could manifest as PPD. While the hospital’s gynecologists do refer such women for pyscho-therapy, only about one in 20 of them actually seek help, says Ebrahim. “This is unfortunate because sometimes all it takes is for a qualified person to listen to the woman, take her seriously and validate her feelings.”

Considering the high incidence of this illness, which makes it a public health problem, why are women not routinely educated about PPD in India? Dr Jyothi Unni, a gynecologist at Jehangir says that time constraint is a big factor. There are many issues, like nutrition, that she needs to cover in her brief sessions with each patient.

Tharyan believes the Indian doctor’s mindset of ‘preventing harm’ to the patients is also a factor. “We interpret that to mean a situation of ‘compassionate deceit’. For instance, we often don’t inform our patients about the potential side-effects of the medicines. There are a lot of problems in communication between doctors and patients.” So, PPD is left unaddressed.

Ebrahim says, “The word ‘depression’ is always associated with ‘mental’, and people don’t realize that the mind is also a part of your body. No one’s ashamed of going to a doctor for an upset stomach. People don’t realize that being depressed is as much a physical medical condition as that, and as treatable.”

Then there is the social and guilt factor. The new mother, Ebrahim explains, is asked questions like, “You’ve had a wonderful baby, why are you doing this to your child, to your husband?” It makes the woman doubt herself, because nobody is ready to believe in her.

Tharyan agrees. “The problem is the issue of depression is not very well recognised among clinicians, who say, ‘this woman has a difficult pregnancy, so give her some time’. There is a tendency to naturalize a process that is going to be chemically disabling.”

Ebrahim says mothers need to ignore well-meaning, conflicting advice and seek help from experts, be it for breastfeeding or getting the baby to sleep longer. What they also need is a good support system that validates their feelings. The new mother needs reassurance that it is natural to be confused and stressed with a newborn. “You should be getting positive inputs from your gynecologist, from your pediatrician – Oh! You’re breastfeeding, wonderful!”

And to husbands, she has this to say: “If your wife seems to be happy one moment, crying one moment, she doesn’t need to be told millions of women have been through this. Give her a hug, get her some juice; do whatever it takes to make her feel better.”

A severe, though much rarer, manifestation of PPD is postpartum psychosis (PPP). Tharyan says that PPP might cause a woman to feel agitated, deluded or hostile. “There is no specific category of PPP per se, because people with PPP usually have a mood disorder, are bi-polar, or more likely, it could be an exacerbation of previous psychiatric illnesses.” Without treatment, women with PPP may try to hurt themselves or those around them. Andrea Yates of the United States is an especially telling example – her church allegedly told her to ignore her psychiatrist’s recommendations; lacking proper treatment and medication, she went on to drown all five of her children on June 20, 2001.

A Pune-based pediatrician had suggested that it is unnecessary to expose new mothers to “such things” that may “give her ideas”. Ebrahim retorts sharply to this. “Nonsense! Just because you know a knife can kill someone, doesn’t mean that you go run out and do it.” In fact, knowing that her anguish has medical basis, and that many other women suffer from this, would serve the new mother better; along with psychotherapy and medication, of course.

December 3, 2006
Women’s Feature Service

Printed Nationally by Indian Express on Tuesday, Dec 26, 2006

Assam Sentinel


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