Four years ago, 15-year-old Kavita came to New Delhi from a small village in Jharkhand with dreams of a better life. Now, on a hospital bed suffering from stab wounds and dog bites, she hardly dreams of anything at all. Police rescued Kavita – severely malnourished and nearly naked – from a home in the national capital where she worked as a domestic helper.
She told police that her employer, a 50-year-old woman and executive with a multinational corporation, frequently assaulted her with knives and beat her with broomsticks. The employer also refused her adequate clothing for fear that she would try to run away, and she was prohibited from having any contact with her family. Kavita’s ordeal came to an end last week with a coordinated raid on the residence in which she worked that involved local police, officials from the Delhi government’s Women’s Commission and activists from the NGO Shakti Vahini (Power Vehicle).
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“Her face and body were severely bruised and wounded. Her eyes and earlobes were swollen, and she had a fractured skull,” said Rishikant, a member of Shakti Vahini.
“She will need plastic surgery to repair one of her ears,” Rishikant added. Kavita’s ordeal is not an isolated case. It is the experience of thousands of women, mostly tribal people, who migrate to urban areas to escape a life of poverty in the villages of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, activists say. Earlier this year, a couple in Gurgaon, a satellite town of New Delhi, locked their maid in their home for days while they went abroad for holiday. Newly arrived villagers often seek the help of agents to get them placed in well-to-do homes to serve as cleaners, nannies, cooks and even nurses for elderly family members. But such positions are not registered, and the villagers recruited for them receive no benefits and have no fixed working hours, pensions or holiday time. Even salaries depend in many cases on the mercy of the employer, say some workers. Rajeshwari, 45, says she has no fixed position but visits several homes each day as a house cleaner. “I work from morning to late evening in eight houses. Each pays me about 1,500 rupees (US$25) per month,” said Rajeshwari, whose husband is dead and who took up the work to help support her three children.
“Things are not easy. Employers treat us like slaves. Some don’t even give the money on time and I have to fight for it,” she said, adding that though she takes leave on festivals, some of her employers are reluctant to give her any time off, whatever the reason. Rising inflation and a change in lifestyles among India’s middle and upper-class families has seen more husbands and wives take on jobs to cover rising living costs. As a result, there is growing demand for domestic help, particularly among joint households that often employ up to three housekeepers for various jobs. India has about 3.7 million domestic workers, according to a National Sample Survey. "Most are poorly educated tribal people like Kavita who have few opportunities in their home villages," says Father Chetan Chandran, a priest and advocate for domestic workers’ rights. The priest, a member of the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, said economic conditions and the rising demand for domestics has also fuelled human trafficking. Agencies work as intermediaries between employees’ families and potential employers, often promising high salaries and good working environments, but who instead send them to hostile and unsafe homes. “There needs to be a placement agency act to regulate their affairs," said Rishikant. Fr Chandran said many of the agencies are not even registered with the government, and even with those that are, there are no systems for checking their activities.
Rishikant, whose NGO rescued 130 girls from abusive employers last year alone, estimated that 90 percent of domestic workers are tribal people who “don’t know which door to knock on when they are in trouble”. A growing number of volunteers and activists have been pushing for new legislation to secure the rights of domestic workers, reduce incidents of abuse and ensure dignity and job security. The violence endured by Kavita and others has long standing mental consequences, says Pallavi Tomar, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist. Emotionally detached employers find it easy to harass their weak employees. “It is like a pleasure-driven activity for them, but they don’t understand the long term impact of it on the victim,” she said. The employer who brutalized Kavita is now behind bars, but Kavita will require months or longer to heal physically and mentally. “It is high time we had a law to help these people. As human beings they too are entitled to a life of dignity,” Tomar said.