In august this year I relocated to a new city. The relocation necessitated the development of new relationships and new associations. What it also necessitated was the hiring of new domestic staff. Can’t do without them, can we? And, if you happen to be a working professional who keeps crazy hours, then hiring house help…nay…hiring experienced and honest house help is even more vital.
For a person as finicky as I am about cleanliness and housework, finding the perfect domestic help was quite an arduous task that led to the interviewing of dozens (yes, plural) maids, short listing the most promising ones and then hiring the best suitable one. Thankfully, after a month long search I found someone dedicated who was willing to look after my house just as I would. We agreed on a sum and she commenced work.
My maid, Bhanu, is a twenty-year-old girl who is still pursuing her graduation. When she came to work for me she had been married all of four months but to a man who is considerably older than her. It was a typical case of parents being in the village and being supported by their daughter who worked in the big city. They had other daughters to marry off so succumbed to the first good offer (their views, not mine!) that came along. Now since her marriage was none of my business, I kept my nose out of it and kept my opinions to myself.
As the first month of employment progressed, we both settled into a rhythm of routine tasks. Bhanu would arrive promptly at 9:30 am every morning and quietly set about her duties. Shy by nature and soft spoken on top of that, she was perfect in every sense. She took instruction well, never refused any additional work and even helped in the kitchen on her own accord. I also got to know her a little better as we starting eating breakfast together once I realized that she leaves home at 6 am, walks 40 minutes to reach my housing society and then comes to my house after finishing work at another place. All this labour on only a cup of tea and that too early in the morning! It was only humane to share the first meal of my day with her. To me she is more a housekeeper than a house help.
The first month ended and soon it was salary day.
I counted out ₹ 6500/- in cash (the agreed upon salary) and offered it to her. She accepted the money gratefully but with a tinge of shyness, as is characteristic of her manner. Then to my surprise she returned ₹ 500/- back to me and requested, ‘Didi, can you keep this for me with you? I want to save this money. My husband does not give me any money for personal expenses.’
I was taken aback. Before I could speak, she continued. ‘Didi, I have told my husband that you pay me ₹ 6000/- per month as salary. I did not tell him about the additional ₹ 500/- that you give. If you keep this for me then I will have some money for myself if I should need it.’
‘Haan, okay Bhanu,’ I replied after I found my voice again. ‘I will keep this for you. But, don’t you have Gpay or Paytm?’ I enquired. ‘I can pay you this amount there and your husband would not even come to know.’
‘Nahi hai, Didi,’ she replied quietly.
‘What about a bank account? Do you have a bank account? I can pay this money into the account directly. It will even earn some interest.’ I enquired further. I wasn’t averse to being Bhanu’s piggy bank. I had no problem keeping her money safe with me. But, I probed because I wanted to understand the extent of her predicament and come up with a solution that would be a win-win. I also wanted to see how far her husband’s control over her income extended.
‘Nahi, Didi,’ she replied. ‘I have a bank account but my husband has taken the ATM card. He manages my account. Please, aap hi rakh lo paise. When I need it, I will ask you.’
I nodded. My heart went out to the sweet girl at her plight. There was no complaint in her voice, just a calm acceptance of her circumstances. In her opinion, what else could she do?
Now, for all intents and purposes Bhanu is an empowered woman. She has been living in the big city for a number of years and earns a decent 20,000/- per month as a domestic help in a few houses. With her income, prior to her marriage, she not only managed her personal expenses but also paid her college fees and sent money home to her parents. She had free will and control over her money. Yet, the minute that this empowered woman got married, she lost not only her free will but also her voice and the control over her own earnings. Within four months of her marriage she was subjugated. And, it’s not the subjugation that is the sad part. The sad part is that she thinks that after marriage it’s a norm to cede control to the husband. When I questioned her about this, she said, ‘Didi, my mother says that this is how it should be. He is my husband. I have to do what he says. He knows best.’
Her answer left me dumbfounded that day. I agonized over it for days.
Statistically speaking, the numbers of domestic help employed in India is around 4.75 million, (of which 3 million are women) but this is considered as severe underestimation and the true number could be anywhere between 20 million to 80 million workers! Now, by definition, these are empowered women because they are venturing outside their homes, earning their own money and supplementing the family income. But, even though they are able to financially contribute, are they really financially independent? Will they not continue to be financially dependent till the men in their lives recognize them as empowered and give them the independence and free will to use the money that they earn?
Bhanu finishes her housework and leaves for work at 6 am. She reaches back at 4:30 pm and again sets to work at her home. Her shanty needs to be cleaned, food needs to be cooked and there are tens of things that need attention. Once that all is done she tends to her husband after he gets home from work.
A few days back she came and said to me, ‘Didi, I have my university exams in January so I will take leave for 1 week.’
‘What subjects do you have, Bhanu?’ I questioned.
‘Didi, BA degree hai. I am studying History and Economics.’
‘But, Economics is not an easy subject, Bhanu. You need time to study. When do you get the time?’ I asked. I was curious. After working a full day like she does, I can all but manage to drag myself to bed at the end of the day. How was this girl managing to study and that too such difficult subjects?
‘Didi, raat raat ko jaag ke padhti hun. Din mein time nahi milta, Didi. Isliye raat ko padhti hun jab husband so jaate hain.’ (Didi, I stay up at night and study. I don’t get time during the day. I study after my husband sleeps at night)
‘But, Bhanu… don’t you find economics difficult? Do you even understand what you are studying?
‘Dikkat hoti hai, Didi (it’s difficult, Didi). But, what can I do? I don’t have time for tuition or the money to pay for it.’
My heart clenched at her words.
‘Bhanu, from tomorrow get your economics book with you when you come. Stay back an extra half hour. I will take time out from my office work and help with housework. That will give us about an hour each day in which I can tutor you.’
Bhanu’s eyes welled-up at my words. ‘Didi, but you have office work also. I don’t want to disturb you.’
I laid a hand on the girl’s head. ‘It’s no trouble at all,’ I assured her. I felt a strange sense of pride at Bhanu’s efforts and the strength and calmness with which she is trying to scale the obstacles in her life. I am glad that this small-statured, docile girl has the mental fortitude to endure so much and still keep smiling. Later in the day when I relayed the conversation to my husband, he said, ‘I am proud of you for doing this.’ I shook my head. ‘No, don’t be proud of me. Be proud of Bhanu. She is only a year older than our elder daughter and yet she has faced so many hardships.’
Since that day, everyday like clockwork Bhanu finishes her work in record time and takes out her books. Her enthusiasm towards her education is thrilling to watch. It’s evident in the hard work that she puts in to understand the concepts that I teach her. She is a smart girl. She asks intelligent questions and does not take any theory at face value. She quizzes me and that often prompts me to read her chapters in advance so that I can answer her queries in the limited time that we have.
But, it does lead me to ask – What do you think is empowerment of women? How does this empowerment come?
In my opinion, empowerment does not come from merely giving a woman the freedom to do things. It does not come from allowing her to study after marriage. It does not come from allowing her to work after marriage. A man allowing a woman to do anything is the very definition of subjugation and not empowerment.
Empowerment comes by recognizing a woman as an equal in terms of her stature within the family. It comes when the equation at home is balanced and treats a woman like an equal partner in the marriage. Empowerment is synonymous with inclusion. When a woman is included and her opinion is sought in day to day matters that involve life and the family and when she is consulted for decisions; that is what empowers her. When a woman is respected and accepted for who she is and what she stands for; that is empowerment. And, this empowerment starts at home because empowerment comes not from teaching a woman to be empowered. It comes from teaching the men, who subjugate empowered women, to change their archaic, patriarchal and often misogynistic mindsets. And, until this change in the thinking to men leads to the evolution of equilateral thinking, women, sadly, will continue to lose control of both their lives and their finances. They will remain subjugated.
If you have a Bhanu at your home or know of a Bhanu who could use your help, please reach out to her. I am sure that like my Bhanu, she too is a strong girl who is only weakened by the hardships of life. Your assistance can shape her future. Your empowerment can in turn empower her.
Think about it, will you?
Image – The guardian