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No one to turn to? Poor Indian women 'learn to ignore' sexual abuse at work

by Annie Banerji | @anniebanerji | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 October 2020 14:32 GMT

A woman sweeps a street on a foggy winter morning in Agartala, India, January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

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The informal sector employs 95% of India's female workforce - from street vendors and factory workers to domestic maids

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, Oct 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From lewd comments to demands for sex, women working in India's vast informal sector rarely report sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs, labour rights campaigners said on Wednesday, three years after the #MeToo movement began.

From street vendors and factory workers to maids, 95% of Indian women work in the informal sector and many are exploited regularly, despite a law ordering employers to set up committees to resolve harassment complaints, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development did not respond to repeated requests for comment. It launched an online complaint box for sexual harassment at work in 2017, which received about 600 complaints in its first two years.

Shalini, a maid who was sexually harassed by a security guard for months while working at a private residence on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi, said ordinary women were too scared to speak out.

"Some families blame the woman and start beating her. If you tell your employer, then they will fire you ... Police are the worst. They ask really inappropriate questions," said Shalini, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

"With no one to turn to, most women just bottle it all up inside. They learn to ignore or normalise it," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that in her case, the guard was transferred after her family complained to his employer.

The #MeToo campaign led to complaints of sexual misconduct by prominent journalists, film stars and executives across India but had little effect in remote, rural areas where sex crimes are rife, according to women's rights activists.

"The #MeToo movement helped to shine a light on violence and harassment at work, but the experiences of millions of women in India's informal sector remain invisible," said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW South Asia director.

"India has progressive laws to protect women from sexual abuse by bosses, colleagues, and clients, but has failed to take basic steps to enforce these laws."

A woman walks through an alley in a residential area in New Delhi, India, April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis


Reporting of sex crimes increased in India after the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in 2012, with the introduction of tougher penalties, including a 2013 law to combat sexual harassment at work.

Although the groundbreaking law mandates employers with at least 10 workers to set up women-led complaint committees with the power to fine or fire those found guilty of harassment, it remains largely an idea on paper, local researchers found.

Only about 30% of 655 districts surveyed said they had formed committees, found a 2018 study by the Martha Farrell Foundation, a women's rights group, and PRIA India, a research centre.

"The implementation of the law has failed in the informal sector," said Anagha Sarpotdar, chairwoman of a complaints committee in Mumbai, India's most populous city, adding that lack of awareness about the system led to few reports.

Shalini Sinha, country representative for WIEGO, a network which helps informal workers, said it was important to form and bolster associations, self-help groups and trade unions to empower women.

"These can strengthen women so that this sense of isolation that they feel while trying to report sexual harassment is not there," she said, adding they can also raise women's awareness on their rights.

But Shalini, the maid, said she still would not report sexual harassment, even though she knew her rights, as "people like me do not get justice".

Instead, she jots down her employers' phone numbers, addresses and her work hours in each home so that her family knows where she is at all times.

"Some employers are good, some are bad. But because of previous experiences, there is always a fear inside me," she said.

Related stories:

#MeToo campaign excludes India's most vulnerable women, activists say

Fearing loan sharks and slavery, Indian workers ask gov't for cash aid

Indian street vendors 'shattered' as coronavirus wrecks trade

(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.