Event: How is backlash weakening institutional contexts for gender justice globally?

Gender backlash is continually gaining momentum across the globe, and social and political institutions and policies are being dismantled. Gender justice activists and women’s rights organisations are having to mobilise quickly to counter these attacks.

With speakers from Bangladesh, Uganda, Lebanon, Serbia and India, in this official NGO CSW68 event we ask, ‘how is gender backlash weakening institutional contexts for gender justice globally?’ Speakers will discuss: stalling and lack of implementation of the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act (2010) in Bangladesh; the infiltration of conservative religious and political actors in democratic institutions in the context of Serbia and neighbouring countries; anti-feminist backlash as institutional by default in Lebanon; and the legislative weakening of institutional contexts in Uganda, examining Acts which exert control over Civil Society Organisations.

When

  • 11 March 2024
  • 08:30 – 10:00 EST // 13:30 – 15:00 UK Time

Where

  • Online – Zoom

Speakers

  • Pragyna Mahpara, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)
  • Sandra Aceng, Executive Director, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET)
  • Nay El Rahi, Activist and Researcher, Arab Institute for Women (AIW)
  • Nađa Bobičić, Researcher, Center for Women’s Studies Belgrade (CWS)
  • Santosh Kumar Giri, Director, Kolkata Rista
  • Jerker Edström, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

Chair

  • Chloe Skinner, Research Fellow, IDS

Event: Counting the cost: funding flows, gender backlash and counter backlash

Major political and social shifts are stifling the possibility of gender justice across the world. Analysing this backlash as operating on global, regional and local scales in this webinar, we ask, where is the money?

While predominant anti-gender backlash movements and actors appear well financed, those countering backlash face significant financial challenges, heightened in the context of rising authoritarianism and shrinking civic space.

In this event, we were joined by leading experts and partners from Countering Backlash and beyond. Isabel Marler from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) presented a mapping of sources of funding for anti-rights actors, and interrogate what is effective in countering anti-rights trends, while Lisa VeneKlasen (Independent Strategist, Founder and Former Executive Director of JASS), explored ‘where is philanthropy on anti-gender backlash’? Turning to national restrictions, Sudarsana Kundu and Arundhati Sridhar from our partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India focused on the impacts of funding laws for women’s rights organising in India.

When

  • 12 December 2023
  • 13:00 – 14:30 UK time

Speakers

  • Lisa VeneKlassen, Independent Strategist, Founder and Former Executive Director of JASS (Just Associates)
  • Isabel Marler, Lead, Advancing Universal Rights and Justice, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
  • Sudarsana Kundu, Executive Director, Gender at Work Consulting – India
  • Arundhati Sridhar, Gender at Work Consulting – India

Discussant

Chair

Watch the recording

Marriage equality in India: still miles to go

The queer community in India has been continuously fighting for social equality over the last few decades, given the colonial era laws like Section 377 that criminalised same sex relationships and the Criminal Tribes law that outlawed entire transgender community. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTQ+) groups have struggled in police stations, courtrooms and on the streets to access their rights as equal citizens of the country, given the widespread stigma and discrimination faced daily, not only within homes and neighbourhoods, but within private and state institutions.

The long-standing fight for equal rights

After many challenges and setbacks, the LGBTQ+ community was able to gain a few significant victories. These include landmark cases such as National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India (2014) where the Court held that the state must recognize persons who fall outside the male-female binary as ‘third gender persons’ and that they are entitled to all constitutionally guaranteed rights. This was followed by Justice KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017) in which the court held that the Constitution protects the right of a person to exercise their sexual orientation. The most recent judgement was Navtej Singh Johar and Ors v. Union of India (2018) in which the court held that Section 377 is unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes consensual sexual activities by the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019, the government of India enacted the Transgender Persons (protection of Rights) Act that recognized the right of transgender persons to have a self-perceived gender identity, prohibited discrimination and upheld their rights to residence, healthcare, education and employment.

However, there were still a lot of areas of struggle for the LGBTQ+ community in India, for example, in recognising relationship status for same sex couples. This was met with stiff opposition that led to coercive therapies, forced separation or forced marriages and state custody. In the absence of any legal recognition of long-term LGBTQ+ relationships, surviving partners were disregarded when it came to claiming insurance or employment-related benefits, nominee rights for healthcare or even share of property.

In 2022, several Writ Petitions seeking marriage equality for LGBTQ+ couples were submitted in the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. The key asks were that LGBTQ+  persons should have a “Right to Marry” the person of their choosing, regardless of religion, gender and sexual orientation; and that the Special Marriage Act (1954), which enabled two people of different religions or castes to marry, should also include LGBTQ+ couples by using gender-neutral terminology; likewise, the petitions called for changing the Foreign Marriages Act (1969).  In addition, the petitions also called for changes in the Child Adoption laws and regulations to enable LGBTQ+ couples to adopt children together; one petition asked for the right to ‘chosen families’. The final ask was for preventive and protective measures by district and police authorities to ensure the safety of adult consenting LGBTQ+ couples from the violence they faced from their birth families.

The Supreme Court ruling and its impact

The petitions were all clubbed together and came up before a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court that gave its verdict on the 17th of October 2023 (Supriyo@Supriya Chakrabarty and Ors vs Union of India), denying the claim for marriage equality. Although all five judges accepted that any two people have the right to live and build a life together and that such relationships should be protected from violence and discrimination by the State, they failed to reach a consensus on giving queer couples the status of a legally recognised “civil union”. Three of the judges argued that any legal status to such unions can only be granted through enacted legislation. Disappointingly, all five judges unanimously found that there is no “fundamental right to marry” within the Constitutional framework, a position that is in contradiction with Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that recognizes the right to marry and start a family. The court refused to propose any change to the Special Marriage Act (1954) or Foreign Marriage Act (1969) to make the terms gender-neutral, on the grounds that this would be intruding into the legislative domain.

On the issue of transgender persons, all five judges agreed with the proposition that a transgender man has the right to marry a cisgender woman under current laws; similarly, a transgender woman has the right to marry a cisgender man. A transgender man and a transgender woman can also marry. Intersex persons who identify as a man or a woman and seek to enter into a heterosexual marriage would also have a right to marry.

The minority opinion said the LGBTQ+ community has a fundamental right to form relationships and that the state was obligated to recognise and grant legal status to such unions, so that same-sex couples could avail the material benefits provided under the law. The right to choose a partner was the most important life decision. This right goes to the root of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The minority judgement went ahead to declare that not granting the same rights as those that accrue within marriage to those in civil unions would be violative of the Constitutional promise of no discrimination on the basis of sex. Regarding the Child Adoption issue, the minority opinion was that adoption Regulations discriminate against unmarried couples.

In terms of protection from harassment by families and the police, the Chief Justice of India made very compelling directions to the State to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ couples against discrimination and harassment, especially by the police. Even in the absence of formal marriage rights, this specific instruction for law enforcement agencies could go a long way in easing the problems faced by couples exercising their choice of intimate partner, especially lesbian, bisexual, intersex and trans women.  This is something that needs to be widely spoken about.

What will the future look like for the LGBTQ+ community in India?

Despite not granting new rights to the LGBTQ+ community, the judicial discourse has certainly moved ahead in terms of recognizing the various forms of discrimination acknowledged earlier in NALSA and Navtej Johar.  The Constitution Bench firmly countered the government’s claims that queerness was an alien, urban or elite phenomenon, asserting “pluralistic social fabric” and an “integral part of Indian culture”. All judges acknowledged the inequity and intolerance faced by the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the denial of access to certain benefits and privileges that are available to heterosexual married couples.

In other gains, the State had volunteered to set up a committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for the purpose of defining the scope of entitlement of queer couples who are in unions. They may pass an Act creating civil unions, or a domestic partnership legislation, or perhaps, rather than the Union Government, the State legislatures could take action and enact laws or frameworks. The possibilities are not encouraging, however, given the government has already expressed that same-sex marriages are not “comparable with the Indian family unit concept of a husband, a wife and children”.

The split verdict is a clear setback to the long struggle for equal rights of the LGBTQ+ communities, who remain unsure about how far the conservative forces will take up the directions of the Court to bring about the much-needed changes. It is imperative to continue to discuss and engage with familiar and unfamiliar groups and social institutions. This fight shall continue until no one can deny the rights that are due to the LGBTQ+ community as equal citizens of the country.

Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi

A period of crisis and upheaval is causing serious consequences for the rights of domestic workers. Conditions of economic precarity, work, and income insecurity have long characterised their lives. We are witnessing a clear backlash against domestic workers’ rights. Like other informal women workers who live and work in precarious conditions, they have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and continue to face its devastating impacts.

Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India is sharing their stories in a forthcoming storybook titled ‘Reversing domestic workers’ rights: Stories of backlash and resilience in Delhi’ and launching in August 2023.

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by by Mrinalini Godara

Contextualising backlash against domestic workers in India

One reason for the intensity of this backlash is the systemic inequalities in paid domestic work in India. Although it is one of the largest sectors of work for women in urban areas, paid domestic work has been systematically undervalued and inadequately recognised as work by the state, society, and employers.

There are deep-seated reasons for this, including the highly gendered perception of domestic work as an extension of women’s natural roles, and its performance in familial spaces. Domestic work is also mainly made up of women from marginalised groups, particularly those from migrant communities, Dalit, and Adivasi groups, and +women who have not completed a primary education.

Domestic work is therefore characterised by informality and precarity, with poor working conditions, as well as discrimination based on gender, caste, religion, and migrant status. The vagaries and stresses of urban lives lived on the margins, of the inaccessibility of public services and resources, also encompass a key feature of the living conditions for domestic workers.

Domestic workers telling their stories of backlash

The forthcoming storybook shares glimpses into the lives of domestic workers based in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) in India. Launching in August 2023, it includes live-in and live-out domestic workers, who are both young and old, long-term and new migrants, from Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities. The storybook  surfaces and makes visible the everyday forms of caste, religious, and gendered discrimination, violence, and backlash experienced by domestic workers, which took on monstrous proportions during the pandemic.

The storybook illustrates the backlash experienced by domestic workers, highlighting the worrying pushback against their struggles and their rights. This sense of ‘going backwards’ has been expressed by one of the domestic workers in the storybook as ‘10-20 saal peechche chale gaye’ – translated from Hindi to English as ‘we have gone back 10-20 years’.

This is in a sector that has barely seen any gains on their rights as workers. There has been a systematic non-recognition of the rights of domestic workers as workers across the country despite persistent claims made by domestic worker groups. The few exceptions where their rights have been recognised (such as the inclusion of domestic workers in minimum wage notifications, their inclusion as workers for welfare, or the inclusion of households as a workplace under the sexual harassment law, all in just a few Indian states) serve as a reminder for just how limited the gains have been.

This sense of going backwards has taken a range of forms which are highlighted by each of the stories collated in the storybook in the context of the pandemic and prolonged lockdowns. Stories explore the:

  • increased levels of discrimination, as well as high levels of economic vulnerability including increased indebtedness,
  • devastating and widespread loss of livelihoods,
  • decreased wages,
  • food and housing insecurities,
  • increased levels of work for those who remained or have since returned to work,
  • and worsening physical and mental health.

In the wake of these troubling losses, domestic workers have suffered humiliations, indignities, and vilification at the hands of their employers and the state. They have been silenced and rendered powerless. They and domestic worker organisations, such as Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), have experienced further reversals in their collective negotiating power, which has set back their struggles several years. The pandemic served as the ‘moment of revelation’ of the backlash experienced by domestic workers.

We see this in Roopali’s and Sundari’s stories, where their lives have been overwhelmed by insecurities, family illnesses, and severe discrimination.

The storybook painstakingly demonstrates that the backlash experienced by domestic workers is built on a bedrock of systemic discrimination, marginalisation, and myriad ‘microscapes of harm’. Almost all of the stories highlight that the early lives of domestic workers were constrained by disadvantage, insecurity, and hardship. These are stories of early marriages, poor educational opportunities, and very young starts to working life in a context often circumscribed by economic distress.

The spectacle of backlash

Systemic injustices and violence that are rooted in caste and religious notions of ‘purity and pollution’ and experienced in forms such as ‘untouchability’, were heightened during the pandemic. Everyday events of marriage, divorce, illness, the birth of children, death of loved ones, migration, and more, have been experienced as ‘shocks’ by domestic workers. This has been alongside more systemic shocks of forced displacement, climate change, and the pandemic have been experienced in terms of the ‘spectacle of backlash’.

There are now immense challenges faced by domestic worker organisations such as SMKU in contending with this backlash in the context of the reduced negotiating power of domestic workers, as well as shifts in the sector with employers seeking more live-in, ‘full-time’ workers. Even so, as the storybook highlights, the crucial support offered by organisations such as SMKU through immediate relief efforts (such as providing rations or enabling domestic workers to access online benefits) proved invaluable in the critical months when domestic workers were facing perilous food insecurities. Their organising efforts have provided a critical lifeline of solidarity and support for domestic workers, even as they seek to collectively re-strategise their claims making efforts to contend with the backlash.

This story is also available in Hindi.

घरेलू कामगारों के प्रत्यावर्ती अधिकार : दिल्ली में प्रतिघात और प्रतिरोध की कहानियाँ

भारत का वेतनभोगी घरेलू कामगार कार्यक्षेत्र मौजूदा समय में उतार-चड़ाव के दौर से गुजर रहा है, जिससे घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों पर दुष्प्रभाव पड़ रहा है। आर्थिक अनिश्चितता, काम और आमदनी का संकट हमेशा से घरेलू कामगारों के जीवन की कड़वी सच्चाई रही है। लेकिन कोविड-19 महामारी और लॉकडाउन की शुरुआत के तीन साल बाद, इसके विनाशकारी प्रभाव घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों के विरुद्ध स्पष्ट प्रतिक्रिया के रूप में दिखाई दे रहे है। अनिश्चित परिस्थितियों में रहने को मजबूर महिला घरेलू कामगार महामारी व लॉकडाउन के दुष्प्रभावों का ख़ामियाज़ा आज भी भुगत रही है। 

A graphic illustration with blue, white and yellow colours. There is a women and you child standing in a room full of clothes, luggage and a CCTV camera. The woman is sweeping the floor.

Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध प्रतिक्रिया की प्रासंगिकता

इस प्रतिक्रिया की तीव्रता और तीक्ष्णता का एक कारण भारत में घरेलू कामगारों के भुगतान में की गयी व्यवस्थागत असमानताएँ हैं। हालाँकि यह शहरी महिला कामगारों के लिए सबसे बड़े क्षेत्रों में से एक है, लेकिन भुगतान के संदर्भ में घरेलू काम को व्यवस्थित रूप से राज्य, समाज और मालिकों द्वारा नज़रअंदाज़ कर इसे कम महत्व दिया गया है। इसके पीछे की जड़ें काफ़ी गहरी हैं, जिसमें घरेलू काम को लेकर पितृसत्तात्मक जेंडर आधारित दृष्टिकोण है, जो महिलाओं के लिए बतायी गयी उनकी प्राकृतिक भूमिका (घरेलू काम) का महज़ विस्तार और इसका पारिवारिक जगहों पर प्रदर्शन है। साथ ही, घरेलू काम मुख्य रूप से हाशिएबद्ध समुदाय की महिलाओं द्वारा किया जाता है। दलित, आदिवासी और प्राथमिक शिक्षा से पूरी तरह दूर महिलाएँ वृहत स्तर पर इस प्रवासी कार्यबल को बनाती है।

यही वजह है कि अनौपचारिकता और अनिश्चितता घरेलू काम की विशेषता होती है, जिसमें घरेलू कामगारों को जेंडर, जाति, धर्म व प्रवास के आधार पर भेदभाव और बुरे हालातों में काम करने को मजबूर होना पड़ता है। शहरों में सार्वजनिक सेवाओं व संसाधनों तक की पहुँच से दूर अनिश्चितताओं के साथ हाशिए पर बसने को घरेलू कामगार मजबूर है।

अपनी प्रतिक्रियाओं की कहानी बताते घरेलू कामगार

दिल्ली और नेशनल कैपिटल रीजन (एनसीआर) के घरेलू कामगारों की जिंदगियों की झलक पर केंद्रित आगामी स्टोरीबुक ‘जेंडर एट वर्क कंसल्टिंग – इंडिया’ द्वारा तैयार की गयी है। इसका लोकार्पण अगस्त 2023 में किया जाएगा। इस किताब में दलित, आदिवासी, मुस्लिम समुदाय और अन्य समुदाय से घरेलू काम के साथ और इसके बाहर जीने वाले युवा-वृद्ध, लंबे समय से इस काम में लगे हुए और नए प्रवासी के अनुभव शामिल है। ये स्टोरीबुक उन जाति, धर्म और जेंडर आधारित हिंसा और इससे जुड़ी प्रतिक्रियाओं को सामने लाती है, जिसने महामारी के दौरान विकराल रूप ले लिया है।

ये स्टोरीबुक घरेलू कामगारों की प्रतिक्रियाओं के अनुभवों को दर्शाती है और अपने अधिकारों के चिंताजनक दमन और जारी संघर्ष को बयाँ करती है। इस पिछड़ेपन से जारी संघर्ष का अंदाज़ा एक घरेलू कामगार के वक्तव्य से लगाया जा सकता है जब वो कहती है कि, हम दसबीस साल पीछे चले गए

यह एक ऐसा क्षेत्र है, जिसमें काम करने वाले लोगों को उनके अधिकारों के संदर्भ में कोई फ़ायदा नहीं हुआ है। घरेलू कामगारों के लगातार जारी संघर्ष व आवाज़ उठाने के बावजूद देशभर में श्रमिक के रूप में घरेलू कामगारों के अधिकारों को व्यवस्थित रूप से मान्यता नहीं है। कुछ अपवाद हैं, जहां उनके अधिकारों को मान्यता दी गयी है (जैसे कि कुछ भारतीय राज्यों में न्यूनतम वेतन अधिसूचना में घरेलू कामगारों को शामिल करना, कुछ राज्यों में कल्याण के लिए श्रमिकों के रूप में उन्हें शामिल करना या कार्यस्थल पर यौन-उत्पीड़न के रूप में घरों को शामिल करना) जो काग़ज़ी तो है लेकिन उनके लाभ का असर बेहद सीमित है।

सालों पीछे जाने की इस भावना के रूप ने कई रूप ले लिए हैं, जिन्हें महामारी और लंबे समय तक लॉकडाउन के संदर्भ में स्टोरीबुक में संकलित कहानियों में उजागर किया गया है। ये कहानियाँ उजागर करती है –

  • आजीविका का व्यापक स्तर पर विनाशकारी नुक़सान
  • उनलोगों के काम में दबाव जो काम पर बने रहे या फिर वापस लौट आए
  • वेतन की कमी
  • भेदभाव का बढ़ता स्तर व आर्थिक असुरक्षा से क़र्ज़ का उच्च स्तर
  • भोजन और आवास की असुरक्षा
  • शारीरिक और मानसिक स्वास्थ्य बिगड़ना

इन चिंताजनक नुक़सान के मद्देनज़र, घरेलू कामगारों को अपने मालिक व राज्य से अपमान और तिरस्कार का सामना करना पड़ता है। उन्हें शक्तिहीन बनाकर चुप करवा दिया गया है। उन्हें और घरेलू कामगार संगठन जैसे ‘शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन’ को सामूहिक तौर पर वेतन को लेकर मोलभाव करने और सत्ता को चुनौती देने के आधारों को उलट दिया गया है, जिससे वे सालों पीछे चले गए है। महामारी ने घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध की प्रतिक्रियाओं को ‘प्रकटीकरण का क्षण’ बना दिया है।

हम इसे रूपाली और सुंदरी की कहानी के रूप में देख सकते हैं, जहां उनका जीवन असुरक्षाओं, पारिवारिक बीमारियों और भेदभाव के कड़वे अनुभवों  से घिरा हुआ है।

घरेलू कामगारों के विरुद्ध व्यवस्थागत भेदभाव, हाशिएबद्ध पर बसने को मजबूर और उनकी जिंदगियों में हुए ‘ढ़ेरों नुक़सान के अनुभव‘ को ये स्टोरीबुक सामने लाती है। घरेलू कामगारों की क़रीब सभी कहानियाँ उनकी जिंदगियों की असुरक्षा, संघर्ष और कठिनाइयों को उजागर करती है। ये कहानियाँ बाल विवाह, अशिक्षा और पारिवारिक आर्थिक संकट की वजह से उनके काम करने के संघर्ष को उजागर करती है।

प्रतिक्रियाओं का चश्मा

महामारी के दौरान व्यवस्थागत अन्याय और हिंसा का अनुभव बढ़ा, जिसकी जड़ें जाति और धर्म पर आधारित ‘पवित्रता’ के विचार, प्रदूषण और छुआछूत थी। शादी, तलाक, बीमारी, बच्चे का जन्म, किसी प्रियज़न की मृत्यु या प्रवास जैसी रोज़मर्रा की आम घटनाएँ भी घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एक सदमे के रूप में सामने आयी, जैसे कि अधिक व्यवस्थागत सदमे के तौर पर ज़बरन विस्थापन, जलवायु परिवर्तन और महामारी को उन्होंने लगातार अपने जीवन पर होने वाली ‘प्रतिक्रियाओं के वीभत्स अनुभवों के रूप‘ में जिया है।

अब एसएमकेयू जैसे घरेलू कामगार संगठनों को भारी चुनौतियों का सामना करना पड़ रहा है, जिसमें वे घरेलू कामगारों के मोलभाव की क्षमता के साथ-साथ इस क्षेत्र में बदलाव के संदर्भ में घरेलू कामगारों द्वारा सामना किए जाने वाले विरोध का सामना कर रहे हैं, जिसमें मालिक अब ‘पूर्णकालिक’ कामगारों की माँग कर रहे हैं। इसके बीच ये स्टोरीबुक एसएमकेयू जैसे संगठनों द्वारा महामारी के दौर में राशन की मदद, घरेलू श्रमिकों को ऑनलाइन योजनों के लाभ तक पहुँचाने में सक्षम बनाने जैसे ज़रूरी राहत प्रयासों को भी उज़गार करती है जो घरेलू कामगारों के लिए अमूल्य और इस मुश्किल दौर में उन्हें कुछ राहत दिलाने में मददगार साबित हुई। साथ ही, संगठन ने एक ऐसी जगह तैयार की जहां वे संगठित होकर अपने अधिकारों व संघर्षों के मुद्दे पर एकजुट हो सकें। संगठन के प्रयासों से घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एकजुटता और समर्थन की एक ज़रूरी जीवनरेखा तैयार हुई है, जिससे अब वे सामूहिक रूप से प्रतिक्रियाओं को चुनौती देने व अपनी माँगों को उठाने की रणनीति तैयार कर रहे हैं।

Women domestic workers in India are demanding respect. Here’s Sundari’s story

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.

Women domestic workers have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In India, Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India have been collaborating with domestic workers in Delhi and compiling their stories into a storybook, launching on 24 July 2023.

India’s women domestic workers are demanding justice. Anita Kapoor, co-founder of the Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), argues that ‘it is important for domestic workers to speak together about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the issues that we continue to face to this day.’ Here is Sundari’s* story, prepared by Chaitali Haldar, an independent researcher and trainer, with the support of SMKU.

A life of struggles in the city

Sundari was 20 when devastating floods forced her and her family to seek a fresh start in Delhi. Their financial situation was proving difficult with only her husband’s earnings, so Sundari took a few cleaning jobs. None of the work arrangements were long-term, so she was stuck in a cycle of losing jobs and searching for new ones. For women, especially those who are migrants and from a ‘lower’ caste, finding well-paid, long-term employment is difficult.

The slum in which Sundari and her family lived was demolished due to the Delhi’s so-called ‘beautification’ plans, and their lives were disrupted again. Sundari’s children were forced to leave their school as it was now too far away, and she was struggling to find new schools for them as they did not have the necessary documents. She also had to search for a new job again, now with the added challenge of being in an unfamiliar part of the city. Sundari’s sense of stability was shattered.

Sundari continued her daily struggle to provide for her family and managed, after much searching, to secure a job as a cook in a household. However, the employment did not last long as Sundari injured her leg as was let go of. Although India’s Employment State Insurance (ESI) scheme was extended in 2016 to include domestic workers, their eligibility for medical benefits is limited. Accessing these benefits under the scheme remains challenging for domestic workers.

Challenges faced due to Covid-19

At the age of 56, Sundari, as with most women in India, faced an unprecedented challenge in the form of Covid-19. Reports show that only  19% of women remained employed during the first lockdowns in 2020. During this time, it was near impossible for domestic workers to find employment. Any attempt Sundari made to secure employment was rejected, either due to her age or because she did not yet have the Covid-19 vaccine. On top of this, Sundari’s struggles were worsened by her husband’s declining health. Just before the start of the pandemic, Sundari’s son was helping her, and her husband, complete the government’s pension scheme forms. This would have enabled them to access monthly financial support from the state. However, he became addicted to alcohol and was not able to submit the forms before the first lockdown was imposed and it became impossible to submit them. This continuous cycle of financial crisis left Sundari and her family in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

It was after the lockdowns were imposed that Sundari began associating with the SMKU. They provided Sundari and her family with ration supplies and cooked meals, which was vital for them at this time.

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.
Illustration by by Mrinalini Godara

Sundari’s struggles continue

In 2022, Sundari was able to find and secure employment at a private school in Badarpur, southeastern Delhi, but she was not happy there. The school’s principal bickered continuously with Sundari and imposed numerous constraints on her, limiting her work. At the start, she often contemplated resigning but felt that she could not, due to her financial situation. Sundari was constantly reminded that if she were to abandon her employment, they would struggle to afford her husband’s much-needed medication, so she persevered.

However, over time, Sundari lost her job at the private school. At the same time, her husband’s health deteriorated significantly, requiring him to undergo treatment at hospital. Sundari spent many hours by her husband’s side, while the medical bills piled up. It was becoming difficult to manage the hospital fees and food expenses for Sundari and her husband.

From the devastating floods in her village, to the wave of displacement in the city, the challenges in Sundari’s life felt relentless. She felt stuck in a web of challenges, each one more daunting than the last.

While for many individuals a sense of normalcy has returned post the pandemic, the circumstances for women domestic workers remain exceptionally precarious. Many of them are having to rebuild their lives, intensifying their vulnerability and marginalisation.

*Name changed to protect the person’s identity

This story was originally written in Hindi (translation provided by Sudarsana Kundu and Shraddha Chigateri from Countering Backlash partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India).

सुंदरी की कहानी : गाँव में बाढ़ से लेकर शहर के विस्थापन तक संघर्षों से भरी एक शहरी महिला कामगार की ज़िंदगी

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.

भारतीय घरेलू कामगार न्याय की मांग कर रहे हैं। शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन (एसएमकेयू) की सह-संस्थापक, अनीता कपूर बताती हैं कि ‘घरेलू कामगारों के लिए यह महत्वपूर्ण है कि वे एक साथ मिलकर उन मुद्दों के बारे में बारे में बात करें जो कोविड-19 महामारी के दौरान हुआ जिसका सामना वे आज भी कर रहे हैं। यह सुंदरी की कहानी है, जो एसएमकेयू के समर्थन से चैताली हलदर द्वारा लिखित और स्वाती सिंह द्वारा संपादित की गई है।

बिहार के मधुबनी ज़िले की रहने वाली सुंदरी केवट जाति के एक निम्नवर्गीय परिवार से है। परिवार में माता-पिता, दो बहन और एक भाई है। शुरुआती दौर में उसके माता-पिता बेलदारी का काम करके परिवार का पेट पालते थे। आर्थिक तंगी की वजह से सुंदरी सिर्फ़ पाँचवी कक्षा तक ही पढ़ाई कर पायी। इसके बाद अचानक हुए पिता के देहांत ने सुंदरी और उसके परिवार के जीवन का समीकरण ही बदल दिया। सुंदरी तब पंद्रह साल की थी जब पिता के देहांत के बाद उसकी शादी करवा दी गयी। पढ़ाई करने व स्कूल जाने की उम्र में ससुराल की ज़िम्मेदारी उसके नाज़ुक कंधों पर डाल दी गयी।

गाँव में बाढ़ से लेकर शहर के विस्थापन तक संघर्षों भरी ज़िंदगी

सुंदरी बीस साल की थी जब गाँव में आयी भयानक बाढ़ से उसके परिवार से रहने के लिए छत और पेट पालने के लिए रोज़गार का साधन भी छिन गया। उनके पास रोज़गार की तलाश में अब शहर जाने के अलावा और कोई उपाय नहीं था, इसलिए सुंदरी और उसके पति अपने एक बेटे और दो बेटी के साथ दिल्ली आ गए। इस दौरान सुंदरी ये समझ चुकी थी कि इस बड़े शहर में अकेले पति की कमाई से परिवार का पेट पालना मुश्किल होगा। इसलिए उसने आसपास की कोठियों में झाड़ू-पोछा और बर्तन का काम करना शुरू किया। कुछ समय बाद  सुंदरी को अपने परिवार के साथ गौतमनगर में आकर बसना पड़ा। यहाँ भी सुंदरी कोठियों में काम करती रही लेकिन उसे यहाँ काम मिलता भी रहा और छूटता भी रहा।

इसी बीच साल 1999 से साल 2000 के बीच में सुंदरीकरण के नामपर गौतमनगर की भी झुग्गी तोड़ दी गयी और यहाँ रहने वाले लोगों को गौतमपुरी में विस्थापित कर दिया गया। ये विस्थापन अपने आप में एक बुरा अनुभव था। सुंदरी का परिवार मानो अस्त-व्यस्त हो गया। बच्चों की पढ़ाई और जान-पहचान वालों व रिश्तेदारों से नाते टूट गए। बच्चों के स्कूल से उनके काग़ज़ात भी नहीं मिल पाए, जिसके चलते उन्हें आगे पढ़ाई से जुड़ने में ढ़ेरों कठिनाइयों का सामना करना पड़ा। सुंदरी का सभी काम भी छूट गया। इस विस्थापन ने एक़बार फिर उसके परिवार को असुरक्षित ज़िंदगी जीने को मजबूर कर दिया। अब उसे एकबार फिर से काम की तलाश करनी पड़ी, जो अपने आप में किसी चुनौती से कम नहीं था। इसके बाद धीरे-धीरे हर दिन के संघर्षों के साथ उसकी ज़िंदगी बीतने लगी। सुंदरी लॉकडाउन से पहले एक कोठी में खाना बनाने का काम करती थी। कोठी में काम करते हुए एकदिन सुंदरी के पैर में चोट लग गयी और उसकी मालकिन ने उसकी मदद भी की। लेकिन इसके बाद दुबारा उसे काम पर नहीं रखा।

कोरोना महामारी से बढ़ी चुनौतियों जूझती सुंदरी

क़रीब 56 साल की उम्र में सुंदरी की ज़िंदगी में कोरोना महामारी का दौर एक बड़ी चुनौती के रूप में सामने आया, जब उसके परिवार की स्थिति बहुत ज़्यादा ख़राब हो गयी। सुंदरी के सारे काम छूट गए और घर में आर्थिक तंगी बढ़ने लगी। ऐसे में जब सुंदरी काम की तलाश में कोठी में जाती तो मालकिन उसे ये बोलकर भगा देती कि ‘पहले वैक्सीन लेकर आओ।‘ ज़्यादा उम्रदराज होने की वजह से भी लोग उसे काम नहीं देते थे। इस दौरान उसके पति की तबियत ख़राब होने की वजह से उसका काम भी छूट गया। सुंदरी के बेटे के पास एक अच्छी नौकरी थी, लेकिन उसने नौकरी छोड़कर रिक्शा चलाने का काम शुरू कर दिया था। साथ ही, बेटे को नशे की लत भी लग चुकी थी, जिसके चलते सुंदरी को अपने बेटे से किसी भी तरह की आर्थिक मदद की कोई उम्मीद नहीं थी। बेटे का अपना परिवार था, जिसकी ज़िम्मेदारी उसपर थी। लेकिन इसके बावजूद वो दो दिन रिक्शा चलाने के बाद घर काम बंद करके बैठ जाता, जिससे परिवार में लगातार आर्थिक तंगी बनी रहती थी।

कोरोना से पहले सुंदरी के पति ने अपने बेटे को अपना और सुंदरी का वृद्धा पेंशन का फार्म भरकर जमा करने के लिए दिया। पर लापरवाह बेटा उस फार्म को घर में रखकर दारू पीने में लग गया और फिर इसके बाद लॉकडाउन शुरू हो गया, जिसकी वजह से उन्हें इस दौरान वृद्धा पेंशन भी नहीं मिल पायी। कोविड के इस कठिन समय में सुंदरी का जुड़ाव शहरी घरेलू कामगार यूनियन से हुआ, जिनकी मदद से उसे और उसके परिवार को कच्चा राशन और पके हुए खाने की भी मदद मिली थी।

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are on the floor, holding their head as their husband is on a hospital bed. On the right hand side is a young version of them, sweeping the floor.
Illustration by Mrinalini Godara

विस्थापन और आर्थिक तंगी से ज़ारी सुंदरी का संघर्ष 

साल 2022 में सुंदरी ने बदरपुर के एक प्राइवेट स्कूल में काम करना शुरू किया पर वो इस काम से खुश नहीं थी। स्कूल की प्रिंसिपल उसके साथ बहुत किच-किच करती थी। उसे हर बात पर रोक-टोक लगाती थी। ऐसे में सुंदरी के मन में बहुत बार ये ख़्याल आया कि वो ये काम छोड़ दे। लेकिन इसी ख़्याल के साथ उसके ज़हन में अपने बीमार पति और घर की आर्थिक तंगी की तस्वीर सामने आ जाती, जिसे याद करके सुंदरी के मन में ख़्याल आया कि अगर वो ये काम भी छोड़ देती है तो पति की दवाइयों का खर्च कैसे लाएगी। इसलिए उसने बेबस होकर अपने इस काम को जारी रखा।

किन्हीं कारणवश कुछ समय बाद सुंदरी का वो काम भी छूट गया। इससे उसकी आर्थिक स्थिति और भी ज़्यादा बुरी हो गयी। उसका पति बहुत बीमार है और हॉस्पिटल में उसका डायलिसिस चल रहा है। सुंदरी को भी अपने पति के साथ हॉस्पिटल में ही रहना पड़ता है। खाने और हॉस्पिटल के खर्च का जुगाड़ करने में उसके ऊपर क़र्ज़ का भार लगातार बढ़ता जा रहा है। ऐसा लगता है मानो सुंदरी की ज़िंदगी से कठिनाइयाँ कम होने का नाम ही नहीं ले रही है, ढलती उम्र के साथ उसपर चुनौतियों का भार लगातार बढ़ता जा रहा है। गाँव में बाढ़ से लेकर शहर में विस्थापन के साथ ज़ारी संघर्ष में खुद को सँभालना, पति की बीमारी और ग़ैर-ज़िम्मेदार लापरवाह बेटे के साथ सुंदरी की ज़िंदगी उलझ-सी गयी है।

Women domestic workers in India are demanding respect. Here’s Roopali’s story

Women domestic workers have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In India, Countering Backlash partner Gender at Work Consulting – India have been collaborating with domestic workers in Delhi and compiling their stories into a storybook, launching July 2023.

India’s women domestic workers are demanding justice. Anita Kapoor, co-founder of the Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – Urban Women Worker’s Union), shares how ‘it is important for domestic workers to speak together about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the issues that we continue to face to this day.’ Here is Roopali’s* story, prepared by Chaitali Haldar, an independent researcher and trainer, with the support of SMKU.

Life uprooted

Roopali’s life was disrupted when she was just 12 years old and studying at school. Her home, in the slum of Gautamnagar in Delhi, India, was identified in 1999 as one of the informal settlements to be demolished in the name of redevelopment and so-called ‘beautification’ of the city.

The experience was terrible for Roopali and her family. After their home was demolished, they ended up living next to a railway track with just a tarpaulin sheet as a roof. They were also miles away from the parents’ place of employment and Roopali’s and her siblings’ school.

‘The warp and weft of relationships, friendships, solidarities with our neighbours and families that wove the fabric of our lives together for so many years had been torn asunder by the relocation.’

After months of trying, Roopali’s family were eventually able to buy a small plot of land after fighting through the bureaucratic red tape of government departments. Even though they had lived in a slum before, they had access to basic services such as water and electricity. In the new location they were deprived of the most essential services. Their daily commute to work was 20 kilometres and Roopali’s and her siblings’ education was severely disrupted.

Roopali and her sisters were blocked by their older brother from going to school as he argued that it was ‘too far away’. At the age of 15, Roopali ended up going to work with her mother as a domestic worker, a job that Roopali would do into her adult life.

Connecting with a domestic workers’ union

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Roopali was working in three households. She lost these jobs at the start of the pandemic lockdowns and wasn’t even paid the salary that she was owed. During this time, it was near impossible for domestic workers to find employment.

How can one secure employment if there are no jobs available?

It was during this time that Roopali began associating with the SMKU in Delhi. They were providing an open and safe space for domestic workers to access relief and support during the lockdowns. At the time, the government’s Covid-19 welfare services were only accessible online. SMKU ran an information centre which provided people the latest information on support and relief measures. Through SMKU’s support, Roopali was able to obtain both ration and an e-ration card.

Currently, Roopali is working as a cleaner in a family home, earning around INR 4,000 per month. She was supporting her entire family whilst her husband was looking for work during the pandemic. But this is just a temporary job and she is at risk of losing it once the family find a ‘permanent’ replacement. Since Covid-19, there are fewer jobs available and more employers are now wanting domestic workers to be ‘live-in’ and available 24 hours a day.  Roopali is facing this all in the midst of health issues, which have become acute after she experienced a serious workplace related injury, that have led her into significant amounts of debt that she and her husband are struggling to pay off. Her current employer is also threatening to fire her if she takes any more time off due to her health conditions. Roopali feels stuck in a spiral of insecurity and old beyond her years.

I feel distressed. Sometimes I feel defeated by life’s circumstances.

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are sitting at a dressing table looking at themselves in the mirror, with a sad expression on their face. There is a plaster on their head and the table is covered in bills.
Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

Credit: Mrinalini Godara

Roopali works closely with the SMKU, taking part in activities organised by them, encouraging others to join the union, and sharing her joys and sorrows with her fellow women domestic workers.

*Name changed to protect the person’s identity.

This story was originally written in Hindi (translation provided by Sudarsana Kundu and Shraddha Chigateri from Countering Backlash partner organisation Gender at Work Consulting – India).

रूपाली की कहानी: सम्मान और अधिकार की माँग करती शहरी महिला कामगार

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are sitting at a dressing table looking at themselves in the mirror, with a sad expression on their face. There is a plaster on their head and the table is covered in bills.

महिला घरेलू कामगार कोविड-19 महामारी से बुरी तरह प्रभावित हुई हैं। भारत में, काउंटरिंग बैकलैश पार्टनर जेंडर एट वर्क दिल्ली में घरेलू कामगारों के साथ सहयोग कर रहा है और उनकी कहानियों को आगामी स्टोरीबुक में संकलित कर रहा है, जो 17 जुलाई को लॉन्च होगी।

बिखरी-सी ज़िंदगी

भारतीय घरेलू कामगार न्याय की मांग कर रहे हैं। शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन (एसएमकेयू) की सह-संस्थापक, अनीता कपूर बताती हैं कि ‘घरेलू कामगारों के लिए यह महत्वपूर्ण है कि वे एक साथ मिलकर उन मुद्दों के बारे में बारे में बात करें जो कोविड-19 महामारी के दौरान हुआ जिसका सामना वे आज भी कर रहे हैं। यह रूपाली की कहानी है, जो एसएमकेयू के समर्थन से चैताली हलदर द्वारा लिखित और स्वाति सिंह द्वारा संपादित की गई है।

बिखरी-सी ज़िंदगी

उत्तर प्रदेश के बदायूँ ज़िले की रहने वाली रूपाली वाल्मीकि समुदाय से है। तीन बेटे और एक बेटी के साथ उसके माता-पिता सालों पहले काम की तलाश में दिल्ली आ गए थे। दिल्ली में परिवार का पेट पालने के लिए पिता नाली-सफ़ाई का काम करते थे और माँ कोठियों में घरेलू काम करती थी। रूपाली का परिवार अस्सी के दशक में गौतमनगर आकर बस गया। साउथ एक्स की एक कोठी में धीरे-धीर उसकी मम्मी काम करने लगी। पापा को एक ऑफ़िस में काम मिला। उनकी ज़िंदगी चल रही थी। लेकिन इसी बीच रूपाली के पापा का देहांत हो गया। इससे उनके घर की स्थिति बहुत ज़्यादा ख़राब हो गयी।

साल 1999 में जब रूपाली बारह साल की थी और पाँचवी कक्षा में पढ़ती थी, तब ‘सुंदरीकरण’ के नामपर गौतमनगर की झुग्गियों को तोड़ने का सिलसिला शुरू हुआ। इस दौरान उन्हें झुग्गियों से विस्थापित कर गौतमपुरी की बस्तियों में बसाया गया। ये पुनर्वास अपने में बहुत भयावह और तकलीफ़देह था। सालों पहले बसाए बसेरे तोड़ दिए गये। लोगों के रोज़गार चले गए और बच्चों की पढ़ाई बंद हो गयी। दिसंबर की सर्दी में रेलवे लाइन के पास त्रिपाल-पन्नी डालकर रूपाली के परिवार को कई महीनों रहना पड़ा। रूपाली की मम्मी उसे पढ़ाना चाहती थी, लेकिन बड़े भाई ने ये कहकर मना कर दिया कि ‘स्कूल के लिए कौन इतनी दूर जाएगा।‘ इसके बाद उसके परिवार को एक प्लाट को लेकर डीडीए, इंजीनियर और अन्य विभाग के चक्कर काटने पड़े, तब जाकर एक प्लाट का टुकड़ा सात हज़ार रुपए देने के बाद उन्हें मिला। उनकी ज़िंदगी मानो बीस साल पीछे चली गयी थी, क्योंकि सिर्फ़ मकान आने से ज़िंदगी थोड़े ही बदल जाती है। उनकी ज़िंदगी का ताना-बाना बिखर गया था। रिश्ते-नाते सब एक-दूसरे से अलग हो गए थे। भले ही वो झुग्गी-बस्ती थी पर उसकी मम्मी का काम, घर के पास था। स्कूल पास था। पानी-बिजली थी। यहाँ आकर उन्हें इन बुनियादी सुविधाओं के लिए वंचित होना पड़ा और बहुत परेशनियाँ झेलनी पड़ी। रूपाली पंद्रह साल की उम्र से अपनी मम्मी के साथ कोठियों में काम करने के लिए साउथ एक्स ज़ाया करती थी। उसके बाद पंद्रह साल की उम्र में ही उसने अपनी मर्ज़ी से शादी कर ली। ये शादी सिर्फ़ दो साल तक चली। क्योंकि रिश्ते में बहुत तनाव और हिंसा बढ़ गयी थी। वो अपनी मम्मी के घर नौ महीने तक अपने बेटे को लेकर रही। फिर उसने अपनी पसंद से दूसरी शादी कर ली और इस शादी से एक बेटी है। आज रूपाली का बेटा 18 साल और बेटी 9 साल की है।

चुनौतियाँ: शहरों में महिला कामगार होने की

रूपाली आज भी साउथ एक्स में काम करने जाती है। साउथ एक्स में वो पहले चार कोठियों में काम करती थी, जिसमें अब काम कम हो गए है और उसकी महीने की पगार भी मात्र दो-तीन हज़ार ही रह गयी है। इन्हीं पैसों से वो अपने परिवार का गुजर बसर करती है। एकदिन कोठी में काम करते हुए रूपाली को सिर में किसी नुकीली चीज़ से चोट लग गयी और ज़्यादा खून निकलने की वजह से वो बेहोश गयी। इलाज में क़रीब तीस-चालीस हज़ार रुपए खर्च हुए, जिसका भुगतान मालकिन ने किया। लेकिन इसके बाद उन्होंने रूपाली को दुबारा काम पर नहीं रखा। सही तरीक़े से इलाज न होने की वजह से इस चोट के बाद से उसे दिमाग़ से जुड़ी समस्याएँ होने लगी। अक्सर काम के दौरान उसकी स्वास्थ्य से जुड़ी समस्याएँ सामने लगी, जिसका असर उसके काम पर भी होने लगा। काम कम होने लगे और आमदनी भी घटने लगी।

अभी के समय में रूपाली साउथ एक्स में एक कोठी में काम करती है, जहां उसे सिर्फ़ कुछ ही समय के लिए रखा गया है जब तक उसकी मालकिन को दूसरा कुक नहीं मिल जाता। कोविड के बाद से घरेलू काम में आए बदलाव के बारे में रूपाली बताती है कि ‘कोविड से पहले हम घरों-कोठियों में झाड़ू-पोछा और बर्तन का काम करके वापस अपने घर लौट जाते थे। लेकिन कोविड के बाद से सभी लोग चौबीस घंटे के लिए काम पर रखने लगे है, इसलिए खुला काम (रोज़ काम पर आने और वापस जाने का काम) करवाने के लिए अब कोई तैयार नहीं होता है।‘’

मालिक को चौबीस घंटे घरों में रहकर काम करने वाला कामगार चाहिए होता है, जो अब रूपाली के लिए अपने स्वास्थ्य से जुड़ी समस्याओं और परिवार की ज़िम्मेदारियों की वजह से कर पाना मुश्किल है। यही वजह है कि अब घरेलू काम के क्षेत्र में पुरुष कामगारों की संख्या बढ़ने लगी है, क्योंकि वे आसानी से कोठियों में चौबीस घंटे काम करने के लिए उपलब्ध होते है और ये चलन कोविड के बाद से ज़्यादा बढ़ा है, जिसकी वजह से महिला घरेलू कामगारों के रोज़गार के अवसर कम होने लगे है।

रूपाली ये भी बताती है कि, ‘कोविड से पहले कोठियों में घरेलू कामगार होने की वजह से भेदभाव होता था, लेकिन काम करने वालों की जाति नहीं पूछी जाती थी। लेकिन अब अगर काम खोजने जाओ तो पहले जाति पूछी जाती है।

कहाँ रहती हो? किस जाति की हो? जैसे सवाल अब अक्सर घरेलू कामगारों के सामने खड़े होते है। आगे शर्त होती है कि – ‘अगर बाथरूम साफ़ करेगी तो बर्तन नहीं धोएगी। ज़्यादा छुट्टी नहीं मिलेगी। वग़ैरह-वग़ैरह।‘ इस नाप-तौल के चक्कर में अब उन्हें काम नहीं मिलता है। कोविड के दौरान बढ़ी बेरोज़गारी की वजह से अब घरेलू कामगार महिलाएँ अपनी कोई भी बात नहीं रख सकती है, उन्हें हर शर्त और कीमत को मानकर काम करना पड़ता है। क्योंकि कोविड के बाद काम के मौक़े कम हो गए।

A hand-drawn illustration of a domestic worker. They are sitting at a dressing table looking at themselves in the mirror, with a sad expression on their face. There is a plaster on their head and the table is covered in bills.

Illustration by Mrinalini Godara.

यूनियन से जुड़ाव और एक उम्मीद

कोविड दौरान रूपाली का जुड़ाव शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन से हुआ। उस समय शहरों में कोविड के चलते साइबर कैफ़े जैसी सारी दुकाने बंद हो गयी थी और दूसरी तरफ़ सरकार की कल्याणकारी योजनाएँ ऑनलाइन हो गयी थी, जो मज़दूरों की पहुँच से बाहर थी। तब शहरी महिला कामगार यूनियन ने ज़न सूचना केंद्र के माध्यम से सरकारी योजनाओं से जोड़ने के लिए मज़दूरों के ऑनलाइन फार्म भरने व नाम चढ़वाने का काम शुरू किया। इसी दौरान रूपाली यूनियन की सदस्य गुड़िया से अपने राशन कार्ड में नाम चढ़वाने के लिए मिली। तभी से रूपाली का संगठन से जुड़ाव बना। उस समय रूपाली को यूनियन से दो से अधिक बार राशन मिला, जिस मदद से रूपाली  बहुत खुश हुई। इसके बाद रूपाली  संगठन से जुड़कर अपना योगदान राशन की लिस्ट बनवाने और महिलाओं को यूनियन से जोड़ने जैसे काम के ज़रिए देने लगी।

रूपाली के पति की कमाई क़र्ज़ उतारने और इलाज के खर्चे में चली जाती है। वहीं बीमारी की वजह से रूपाली को नए काम नहीं मिल पा रहे है, जिसके चलते उसे और उसके परिवार को बुरी तरह आर्थिक तंगी का शिकार होना पड़ रहा है। अपने मौलिक अधिकारों से वंचित सम्मानजनक ज़िंदगी से दूर रूपाली ने बचपन से जिस भेदभाव और संघर्ष को जिया है वो का भी लगातार क़ायम है। ऐसा लगता है मानो रूपाली एक जाल में फँस चुकी है, जहां चारों ओर समस्याएँ है। उसकी आवाज़ और मनोभावों से ऐसा लग रहा था जैसे पैंतीस साल की उम्र में वो बेबस और लाचार बुढ़ापा जीने को मजबूर है। लेकिन सबके बीच जब वो यूनियन में आती है तो उसके चेहरे पर एक अलग-सी चमक होती है। यहाँ वो अपना सुख-दुःख दूसरी महिलाओं से बाँटती है और दूसरी महिला कामगारों की मदद करती है, जो उसके चेहरे पर मुस्कान की वजह भी बन जाती है।

Domestic workers in India demand justice

Domestic workers in India are demanding justice and respect. Anita Kapoor, a founding member of the Shahri Mahila Kaamgar Union (SMKU – an unregistered union working with domestic workers in the Delhi-NCR region), shares the experiences and demands of domestic workers through their own words for International Domestic Workers’ Day. 

We, the domestic workers, are on the margins of society due to the utter neglect of society and the Government. Our situation was further worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdowns. We were swamped by death, illness, hunger and helplessness. We left our livelihoods in the cities. We walked thousands of kilometres to return to our villages on hungry stomachs. Where was the government then?

Domestic workers were accused of being carriers of the virus. Our employers began to look at us with eyes of hatred. Where was the government then?

In the name of the pandemic, we, women domestic workers, became unemployed and injustice was inflicted upon us. Where was the government then?

Who gave the police an open license to harass us on the streets when we were struggling with these worries?

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

The Covid-19 lockdowns ruined our lives

We worked hard to earn a livelihood and a life of dignity, but the pandemic pushed us to a situation of utter helplessness. Many domestic workers lost their livelihoods and income and had no idea when they would be reinstated. Not only did they not have monthly incomes, but they also lacked rations and health services due both to the lockdowns and to poorly designed support measures. This was the time that domestic workers and their households needed support the most, and yet we found that our appointed representatives did not extend their hands in support.

The methods used to deal with the pandemic perpetrated caste violence, economic, exploitation and religious atrocities. The education of children was wrecked. Bodies were flowing in rivers. There were long queues at cremation grounds and graveyards. There were oxygen shortages in hospitals. Large companies were given debt relief. The economy was in tatters. but crowds for elections were exempted. People were permitted to join the Kumbh Mela. The courts and systems of justice were closed. Instead of the parliamentarians being open to hearing people’s issues, parliamentary sessions were cut short and anti-people farmers’ laws and labour laws were passed. The regime was absent.

Our employers exploited our vulnerability during the Covid-19 pandemic to decrease wages and convert our working status to full-time live-in workers. For us, it was not the Covid-19 virus that was the problem, but the violence inflicted on us by our employers – the decrease in our wages, the non-stop 24-hour workday, the hateful looks, the cruelty – these were our real struggles.

These have been lasting effects on domestic workers, undoing all the progress we made in the past decades. Previously, we had the power to voice our demands, even if it was only for four days of holiday and a 500 INR bonus during festivals. But the pandemic robbed us of even that limited bargaining power and the capacity to organise.

The issue of unemployment is rife in our sector.  The demonetisation of the Indian currency in 2016, followed by the pandemic, has caused us to sink under the weight of indebtedness and economic burdens.  Our husbands and even our children do not have secure employment. We feel the burden of running our households. As a result, we are not always in good physical or mental health.

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

Our demands

Given the situation and challenges faced by domestic workers, we have several demands for the Government. We demand appropriate wages, a day’s leave in a week, fixed hours of work in a day and the assurance of provident fund, pension, workers’ social security, etc. We demand a regulator for the employers so that the many atrocities and forms of violence against workers stop.

It is important for domestic workers to speak together about what happened during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the issues that we continue to face to this day. It is important for us to document and investigate these issues and demand accountability from the government. In this work, we all have a collective responsibility. Across India, various organisations are conducting public hearings calling for accountability. Allied domestic workers’ unions must also join hands with the National Platform for Domestic Workers to put pressure on the government to concede our demands. We must investigate government policies by setting up public inquiry committees in different places. This is our fundamental constitutional duty. It is our responsibility to undertake. All the people of this country have to join in these efforts.

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

The voices of domestic workers proclaim:

“COVID is a symbol of the violence and atrocities against domestic workers”
“Respect, dignity, love and rest – this is our demand as workers”
“Pay us the right price for our work- this is our slogan as workers”
“Let us gain our rights as workers – this our demand as domestic workers”
“Domestic work is work! Recognise domestic workers as workers!”
“Fix minimum wages for domestic workers now!”
“Fix our hours of work now!”
“We are workers, not slaves!”
“On the issues of livelihoods, the government will be investigated by us/ its own citizens”
“On the issue of domestic workers, the government will be investigated by us/ its own citizens”
“We will ensure accountability for what happened with us!”

This blog was produced in collaboration with Countering Backlash partner, Gender at Work Consulting – India, and originally written in Hindi (translation provided by Sudarsana Kundu and Shraddha Chigateri).

भारत में घरेलू कामगार न्याय की मांग करते हैं

समाज और सरकार की उपेक्षा की वजह से हम घरेलू कामगार आज भी हाशिए पर रहने को मजबूर हैं। लेकिन कोरोना और लॉकडाउन हम घरेलू कामगारों के लिए बेबसी भरे एक बेहद चुनौतीपूर्ण समय के रूप में सामने आया।

इस कठिन समय में हम मौत, बीमारी, भुखमरी और लाचारी से जूझ रहे थे और शहरों में अपनी मजदूरी छोड़कर जब भूखे पेट हजारों मील पैदल चलकर अपने गांव वापस आ रहे थे तो सरकार कही नहीं थी ?

इस महामारी के दौर में जब हमारी छोटी-सी आजीविका भी चली गई और काम कराने वाले लोग हमें घृणा की नजरों से देखने लगे तो भी सरकार कही नहीं थी?

घरेलू कामगार को कोरोना के वाहक बोलकर, कई कामगारों का काम, आमदनी ख़त्म कर दी गयी और उनके ख़िलाफ़ नफ़रत फैलायी जा रही थी उस समय सरकार कहाँ थी?

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

एक तरफ हम इन समस्याओं से जूझ रहे थे तो दूसरी तरफ सरकार ने सड़कों पर हमें परेशान करने के लिए पुलिस को खुली छूट दे रखी थी।

कोरोना महामारी के दौरान घरेलू कामगारों की मुसीबत और लाचारी सबसे ज़्यादा सामने आई। घरेलू कामगार महिलाओं को कोरोना महामारी के बहाने बेरोजगार करने, हमारी रोज़ी-रोटी का साधन छीनने जैसे अन्याय करने का काम हुआ।

महामारी के नामपर घरेलू कामगारों को काम से निकाल दिया गया। लेकिन उन्हें वापस काम में कब बुलाया जाएगा इसका किसी कामगार को इसका कोई अंदाज़ा नहीं था। उनके हाथ मासिक वेतन नहीं पहुँचा और इसके साथ ही राशन और स्वास्थ्य सुविधाओं का अभाव भी रहा। आमतौर पर यह समाज का वो तबका था, जो अपना श्रम देकर सम्मानपूर्वक जीवन गुजर बसर करता था। पर इस महामारी ने उनको भीख मांगने जैसे माहौल में लाकर खड़ा कर दिया। जब घरेलू कामगारों को ज़िम्मेदारी ज़न-प्रतिनिधियों की सबसे ज़्यादा ज़रूरत थी पर किसी ने भी इस तबके की तरफ़ मदद का हाथ आगे नहीं बढ़ाया।

बच्चों की शिक्षा ध्वस्त हो गई। नदियों में लाश बहती रही, श्मशान घाटों एवं कब्रिस्तानों पर लंबी कतारें, अस्पतालों में ऑक्सीजन की कमी, संसद सत्र में कटौती व संसद में लोगों की समस्याओं पर चर्चा के बजाय श्रमिक और जन-विरोधी कानूनों का पास होने का सिलसिला चलता रहा। एक ओर तो, देश की अर्थव्यवस्था का धराशाही होना, नदारद प्रशासन, बंद कोर्ट कचहरी एवं लोगों के प्रतिरोध पर तालाबंदी जैसी समस्याएँ हैं। वहीं दूसरी ओर, चुनाव में भीड़ के लिए छूट, कुंभ में जाने की छूट, सरकारी संस्थानों की बिक्री एवं पूंजीवादी बड़ी कंपनियों की कर्जमाफी जैसे मुद्दे हैं, जिनसे जनता जूझती रही।

इन सबके बीच वो घरेलू कामगार जो किन्हीं कारणवश शहर में बच गए थे, उनकी आजीविका की मजबूरी को समाज के संभ्रांत तबके (कोठी वाले) ने ‘आपदा में अवसर’ मानकर पूरा फायदा उठाया। उनमें से कई घरेलू कामगारों को कोठी वालों के घर में रहकर बिना रुके 24 घंटों तक काम करना पड़ा। उनकी मजदूरी बढ़ने की बजाय और कम होती गई। कोरोना महामारी के दौर में ऐसे शोषण बहुत से घरेलू कामगार लोगों के लिए असहनीय था। इनके लिए कोरोना समस्या नहीं थी, बल्कि कोठी वालों का अत्याचार, मजदूरी में कटौती, दिन-रात बिना रुके काम करवाना, घृणित निगाहें एवं क्रूरता इत्यादि समस्याएं थी।

आज भी घरेलू कामगारों की स्थिति पहले से बदतर है। बेरोज़गारी की स्थिति आज भी जस की तस बनी हुई है, जिससे हम अपनी जिंदगी के करीब 20 साल पीछे ही गए है। वे घरेलू कामगार, जिन्हें ‘चार छुट्टी या दिवाली पर 500 रुपए ही बोनस चाहिए।‘ – यह बोलकर लेने का हक मिला था, उस हक़ को इस महामारी ने छीन लिया। उनकी मोलभाव करने एवं अपने काम के अनुसार मज़दूरी की बात रखने की शक्ति एवं संगठनात्मिक शक्ति भी कम हुई है।

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

2016 में नोटबंदी हुईं इसके बाद साल 2020 में कोरोना महामारी ने घरेलू कामगारों की ऐसी कमर तोड़ी कि वे आज भी इससे उभर नहीं पा रहे है। वे आज भी आर्थिक बोझ के नीचे दबे हुए है । आज युवा बच्चों या पतियों का नियमित काम नहीं है। घर चलाने का बोझ परिवार घरेलू कामगारों पर आ गया है, जो उनके शारीरिक एवं मानसिक स्वास्थ्य को भी प्रभावित कर रही है।

घरेलू कामगारों के सामने आने वाली स्थिति और चुनौतियों को देखते हुए हमारी कई मांगें हैं। हम उचित वेतन, सप्ताह में एक दिन की छुट्टी, एक दिन में काम के निश्चित घंटे और भविष्य निधि, पेंशन, श्रमिकों की सामाजिक सुरक्षा आदि के आश्वासन की मांग करते हैं। घरेलू कामगारों के लिए एक नियामक हो जिससे कामगारों के साथ होने वाले अनेकों तरह के शोषण और अत्याचार पर रोक लगायी जा सके।

इसलिए घरेलू कामगारों के लिए यह जरूरी हो गया है कि, कोरोना लॉक डाउन के समय आज की परिस्थितियों में जिन समस्याओं का सामना करना पड़ रहा है। उन्हें एक साथ कहना, उनकी जांच करना और समस्याओं को दस्तावेज में तब्दील करके सरकार की जवाबदेही तय करना अनिवार्य है। इस कार्य में सभी की सामूहिक भूमिका अहम है। देश के कोने-कोने से विभिन्न संगठन इस तरह की जनसुनवाई कर रहे हैं। ऐसी स्थिति में सहयोगी संगठन के साथ मिलकर घरेलू कामगारों के लिए राष्ट्रीय मंच  ( NPDW)  को  भी अपनी बात मनवाने के लिए सरकार पर दबाव डालना चाहिए। जगह-जगह सार्वजनिक जांच समितियां बनाकर सरकार की नीतियों की जांच करनी चाहिए। यह जांच संविधान के तहत हमारा मौलिक कर्तव्य है, जिसे करना हमारी जिम्मेदारी है  । देश के सभी लोगों को एक साथ मिलकर यह काम करना चाहिए।

Illustration by Chaitali Haldar

घरेलू कामगारों की आवाज़ें

“कोविड एक निशानी है, शोषण और अत्याचारों की”
“इज्जत, गरिमा, प्यार, आराम
हम कामगारों की यही है मांग”
“हम कामगारों का यही है नारा
कामों का दो दाम हमारा।”
“घरेलू कामगारों की यही पुकार
हमारे काम को मिले काम का  सही अधिकार।“
“घरेलू काम भी एक काम है
हमें भी कामगार का दर्जा दो दर्जा दो”
” घरेलू कामगारों के मुद्दों पर, सरकार को अपनी जांचेंगे”
“आजीविका के मुद्दे पर, सरकार को अपनी जांचेंगे”
“घरेलू कामगारों का न्यूनतम वेतन तय करो, तय करो।”
” घरेलू कामगारों के काम के घंटे तय करो, तय करो”
“हम कामगार है, गुलाम नहीं”
” हमारे साथ जो हुआ उसका हिसाब हम करेंगे”

Conference: Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South

Anti-feminist backlash is gaining momentum. It is essential for feminist organisers, activists, and researchers to collaborate to effectively counter this backlash.

The eruption of feminist responses to this backlash is evidence of just how important the concept of backlash is to feminist theorising and mobilising. Around the world, journals have devoted entire issues to the study of backlash. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Working Group on discrimination against women and girls released a paper on gender equality and gender backlash, arguing that in light of the ‘increasing misuse of the concept of gender [and] attacks on gender (equality) and women’s rights,’ it is ‘important to take stock of these developments, to counter the anti-gender attacks, and to clarify the use of the concept in relation to [OHCHR’s] mandate’.

In 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution ‘on experiencing a backlash in women’s rights and gender equality,’, and The New York Times published an article on backlash with the following tagline: ‘The rise of authoritarianism has catalyzed a rollback of gender violence protections and support systems’.

But it is essential that we do not overlook local specificities of backlash. In Lebanon, anti-feminist backlash extends beyond its normative definition as a hostile reaction or response to progress made within or by the women’s movement. Instead, anti-feminist backlash is embedded across institutions and social structures in Lebanon. This makes anti-feminist backlash less of a targeted response to a singular event; rather, anti-feminist backlash is systemic and diffusive in several contexts in the Global South.

This timely and important three-day hybrid conference, live from Beirut, Lebanon, and hosted by Countering Backlash partner Arab Institute for Women (AIW), will bring together feminist and gender experts to share, produce, and build knowledge on anti-feminist backlash. They will compare counter backlash strategies and build cross-sectoral and transnational alliances among anti-backlash actors in the Global South.

The sessions will be led by leading organisations, researchers, and activists from Countering Backlash, the Middle East region and beyond, including: the Lebanese American University, BRAC BIGD, the California State University, the Institute of Development Studies, Nucleus of Interdisciplinary Women’s Studies of the Federal University of Bahia (NEIM), Sakeena, University of Belgrade, and more.

Date and time

20 – 22 June

Location

In-person: LAU Beirut Campus, Arab Institute for Women, Beirut, Lebanon

Online: WebEx

Languages

The sessions will be conducted in English.

Find out more about each day of the conference below.


20 June

Join us on 20 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Brazil, Inida, Palestine, Tunisia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 20 June sessions


  • Keynote Speech / 09:30 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Maya Mikdashi

  • Panel 1: Backlash: Understanding Power Dynamics / 11:00 12:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Lydia Both – Program Director at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES)
    • Speakers:
      • Elif Savas: “Gendering the Far-Right: A Comparative Perspective” – Ph.D. Student, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst
      • Hasina Khan: “Muslim Women’s Rights in the Context of Muslim Personal Laws in India: Between State Repression and Patriarchy” – Founder and Member of the Bebaak Collective 
      • Isis Nusair: “Anti-Feminist Backlash, Counter Strategies for Resistance and Modes of Building Transnational Alliances” – Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies & International Studies, Denison University
      • Caroline Ramos: “Redpill Movement in Brazil: Straining a Re-thinking of Identity Politics Under Neoliberalism” – Researcher in Gender and Women’s Studies, American University in Cairo (AUC)

  • Panel 2: Backlash Against Gender Rights: Exploring Global and Regional Perspectives / 13:30 – 15:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Lina Kreidie – Academic Director of the Tomorrow’s Leaders Gender Scholars (TLS) Program, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Amel Grami: “Learning from the Anti-Feminist Backlash in Tunisia” – Professor of Gender Studies, University of Manouba
      • Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu: “Masculinist Backlash and KADEM” – Visiting Faculty Member in the Core Program and the Director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kadir Has University
      • Islah Jad: “The Backlash Against the CEDAWISTS: The Case of Palestine” – Associate Professor and Lecturer on Gender Issues and Politics, Women’s Studies Institute and Cultural Studies Department, Birzeit University
      • Abir Chebaro: “Misogynistic Discourse and Other Types of VAWP as Tools for Backlash on Feminism in Lebanon” – Gender Consultant and Activist

  • Panel 3: Linking Backlash and Crises: Why Now, Why Here, There and (Almost) Everywhere? / 15:30 – 17:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Sohela Nazneen – Research Fellow, IDS
    • Speakers:
      • Nay El RahiResearcher and Activist, AiW-LAU
      • Jerker EdstromResearch Fellow, IDS
      • Nurseli Yeşim Sünbüloğlu Visiting Faculty Member in the Core Program and the Director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kadir Has University
      • Teresa Sacchet: “How Far is the Concept of Backlash Helpful in Analyzing Gender-Based Political Violence? Reflections from Brazil” – Professor and Researcher of the Graduation Program in Interdisciplinary Studies on Women, Gender, and Feminism, Federal University of Bahia

21 June

Join us on 21 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Tunisia, and more.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 21 June sessions


  • Panel 4: Countering Backlash Against Gender Rights: Innovative Practices and Lessons Learned / 09:00 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Zina Sawwaf – Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, Social & Education Sciences Department, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Deepta Chopra: “Innovative Strategies to Counter ‘Cyclical Backlash’: Women Protestors in Shaheen Bagh” – Senior Research Fellow, IDS
      • Diana Ishaqat: “Lessons and Experiences: The Anti-Feminist Backlash at the Protection of Orphan Women in Jordan” – Communications and Fundraising Manager, Sakeena
      • Faten Mbarek: “Can Intersectional Movements be a Solution to Counter Anti-Feminist Backlash – Case Study from Tunisia” – Assistant Professor, University of Gafsa, and the Head of Department of Sociology, Higher Institute of Applied Studies in Humanity
      • Sriya Satuluri: “10 Steps Forward And 3 Steps Backwards: A Journey Towards Creating a Gender Just & Violence Free World” – Social Worker and Mental Health Professional, Swayam

  • Panel 5: Misogyny, Morality, and State Repression: Anti-Feminist Backlash in Pakistan, Malaysia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh / 11:00 – 13:00 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss – Director of the Title IX Office, LAU   
    • Speakers:
      • Azza Basarudin: “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Malaysia” – Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, California State University, Long Beach
      • Tina Beyene: “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Ethiopia” – Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, California State University, Northridge
      • Khanum Shaykh: Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Case of Pakistan – California State University, Northridge
      • Maheen Sultan & Shravasti Roy Nathan: “Reform of the Hindu Family Law under a Muslim Majority State: Intersectional Backlash Dynamics: The Case of Bangladesh” – Senior Fellow of Practice and Co-Founder of the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation, BRAC University / Research Associate, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development

  • Panel 6: Workshop: Grasping Patriarchal Backlash: Briefing and Interactive Gameplay – Chess / 14:00 – 16:30 (UTC+3)
    • Facilitator: Jerker Edstrom – Research Fellow, IDS

22 June

Join us on 22 June for the Anti-feminist backlash in the Global South conference. You can sign up to exciting sessions and hear from leading gender-progressive researchers and activists from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Morocco, Serbia, UN Women, and more.

All times are UTC+3.

Register to attend the 22 June sessions


 

  • Panel 7: Backlash in the Media: Analyzing the Role of Traditional, Digital, and Alternative Media Outlets / 09:00 – 10:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Diana Mukalled – Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Daraj
    • Speakers: 
      • Omar Khaled: “Voices of Change: Exploring the Impact of Alternative Media Platforms in Combating Hate Speech Against Feminism in Lebanon” – General Manager, Spot Cast in Lebanon
      • Nađa Bobičić: “Anti-Gender Discourse in Serbian Mainstream Media” – Research Associate, University of Belgrade
      • Israr Hasan & Sharin Shajahan Naomi: “Online Misogyny in Bangladesh: Facebook as a Site of Anti-Feminist Backlash” – Research Associate, BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University / Gender Expert, BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health

  • Panel 8: Breaking Barriers: The Struggle for Gender Rights and Freedoms / 11:00 – 12:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Gretchen King – Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism and Communication, Department of Communication, Arts & Languages, LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Sanae Ansar Ech-Chotbi: “Anti-Feminist Cyberviolence as Perceived by Activists: The Case of Morocco” – Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for Communication and Digital Media, University of Erfurt
      • Nastaran Saremy: “Woman, Life, Freedom Movement in Iran and its Regional Connections” – Ph.D. Student in Media and Communication Studies, Simon Fraser University
      • Iffat Jahan Antara & Pragyna Mahpara: “Silencing Dissent: How ‘Piety Policing’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ are Undermining Gender Justice Activism Online in Bangladesh” – Senior Research Associate, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development / Researcher, Gender and Social Transformation Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development

  • Panel 9: Case Study on the Feminist Civil Society Platform in Lebanon / 12:30 – 13:00 (UTC+3)
    • Speakers:
      • Representative from the Feminist Platform (TBD)
      • Marianne Touma & Rima Al Mokdad: “Presentation of the Study Findings on Backlash in Lebanon” – UN Women
    • 12:30 – 13:00 (UTC+3)

  • Panel 10: Reflections on Backlash: A Conversation / 14:00 – 15:30 (UTC+3)
    • Moderator: Nay El-Rahi – Researcher and Activist, AiW-LAU
    • Speakers:
      • Sohela Nazneen: Research Fellow, IDS
      • Tessa Lewin: Research Fellow, IDS
      • Jerker Edstrom: Research Fellow, IDS

 

Who wins when human rights are set against each other?

Activists and development practitioners have historically used human rights to advocate for changes in law and policy to protect the rights of vulnerable communities or groups. More recently, academic research on human rights, and development practitioners have noted how ‘gender-restrictive groups are succeeding at using the language and legal tools of the human rights framework to present their anti-rights efforts as right-affirming initiatives’.

Significant efforts have been made to understand how these gender backlash narratives are built, such as research on forms of resistance and backlash, co-option, discourse capture and more. One such narrative tool to build gender backlash is when anti-gender-rights actors create a false narrative showcasing one community’s rights as being detrimental to another’s. This constructed narrative of a competition between the rights of two marginalised communities limits the frame of discourse to these communities, thus protecting existing power hierarchies.

This blog is based on original research for the dissertation for my M.A Gender and Development degree at the Institute of Development Studies. My work, since then, with Young People for PoliticsRejuvenate, and CREA has also been instrumental in writing this blog. In the paragraphs below, I expand on the role of ‘competition of rights’ in serving gender backlash agendas. Here is what I’ve found:

How is the narrative of ‘competing rights’ staged?

Rehana Fathima, a feminist activist from Kerala, India, uploaded a video of her children drawing on her naked upper body as a political act against sexualising women’s bodies, calling for action to reinterpret female bodies. My research on this ‘political act’, and responses to it by the State and other institutions, illustrate the ways in which her feminist gesture was eclipsed by a discourse on child safety.

In encouraging her children to draw on her naked upper body, Fathima was seen to be forwarding her own political agenda at their expense; she was accused of ‘sexual abuse’. My study revealed ‘censure’ from sites of legitimate authority, and ‘discourse capture’  were tools used to stage this competition between Fathima’s right to gender justice and her children’s right to safety.

These trends are seen globally; a more recent example is the trans-exclusionary stance promoted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SR VAW). In November 2022 the SR VAW urged the Members of Scottish Parliament in a public letter to reconsider the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill (GRR), which proposed simplifying the process of gender self-identification for trans persons. The SR VAW argued that the proposed reform provides an opportunity for perpetrators of violence to identify as women and access women-only safe spaces, thus risking further perpetration of violence against already vulnerable cis women.

In both cases, the accusations are not supported by any evidence, but are taken as legitimate concerns due to the authority of the inquirer. This narrative creates a false co-relation between the advancement of rights of one group with risks faced by another. It twists and repurposes the narrative shifting focus from the original cause – in Fathima’s case desexualising female bodies, and in the case of the Scottish GRR self- identification for trans persons– allowing for discourse capture. Additionally, backlash actors form intentional alliances to ensure cohesive action leading to this form of discourse capture. In instances where such overt alliances are not formed, such as in Fathima’s case, there continues to be cohesion across backlash actors because the narrative is built on gender norms coded into the socio-cultural, political, and economic institutions.

In the competition of rights, anti-gender-rights activists identify one group as ‘in need of protection’ and create a moral panic. Fathima’s children were assumed to be incapable of understanding the political act they helped create. Hence, none of the stakeholders engaged with the children to assess if they had consented to participating in Fathima’s political act, which is a valid concern with regards to upholding the children’s rights. In case of the SR VAW, the letter had the support of multiple trans exclusionary feminist and women’s rights groups. The SR VAW decided to represent their concerns, while disregarding the many representations made by feminist collectives who support self-identification for trans persons and oppose the arbitrary correlation between right to gender self-identification and increased risk of violence against cis women. Through this form of narrative building one group is identified as more vulnerable (i.e., children and women respectively in the above cases) and as having homogenous needs.  Their rights are considered to be more valuable than those of persons belonging to less normative groups. This narrative of competing rights separates groups into neat boxes, ignoring the many intersections and critical ally-ship across marginalised groups and communities.

Piercing the smokescreen of competing rights

This form of narrative backlash not only disrupts progressive gender rights agendas but is built on and promotes existing gender normative and oppressive structures. While creating counter-narratives is essential, it is also critical to proactively build popular narratives that delegitimise, or create an adverse environment for, the work of backlash actors. Here are four recommendations:

  1. Human rights are indivisible: Rights are inseparable by nature and the rights of one community cannot be upheld by denying the rights of another.
  2. Nothing for us without us: All gender-rights discourses must ensure deep representation from the communities of rights holders themselves. Diversity and dynamism in representation is essential to counter backlash.
  3. Gender is never binary: Discourse on gender rights and development initiatives for gender-based rights must consciously include agendas that challenge gender binaries and represent non-normative forms of thought and action; it must not be depoliticised
  4. Be an ally –step up and/ or make space: Rights movements cannot exist in silos; therefore cross movement ally-ship is an important aspect of countering gender backlash. Gender rights are intrinsically linked to all human rights. We must learn to step up and give up our space in support of each other across movements.

Mothers vs Children: Co-opting Child Rights as Gender Backlash

This paper examines how progressive rights frameworks are used as gender backlash tools to suppress feminist activism. The author engages with the events following Rehana Fathima’s political act ‘Body and Politics’, which faced strong backlash in the form of censure through law, and discourse capture. […]

Read More

Digital spaces must be safer for Muslim women in India

Internet use in India has the widest gender gap in the Asia-Pacific region. Data shows that women are far less likely to use the internet than men (with less than 35 per cent of Indian women having ever used it), and that they are also less likely to own a mobile phone than men. This digital gender gap means that women and girls are actively deprived of educational and employment opportunities – and this in a country that has seen declining female labour force participation rates, made worse during and after the pandemic.

The growing gender divide in digital participation comes not only from a lack of access but also as a result of women and girls being actively pushed out of participation in digital spaces by worsening cyber violence, an issue further inflamed by Covid-19.

In this blog, we share just some of these attacks made against women and girls online in India, and suggest ways that India can change this to #EmbraceEquity.

Islamophobic hate getting worse in the country

Women from minority groups are disproportionately affected by worsening cyber violence, owing to, among other reasons, little-to-no sociolegal remedies. Islamophobic hate on online spaces erupted during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic (which led to the closure of the sites of protest against the CAA-NRC in India) in 2020, with Muslim women often being seen as easy targets online by perpetrators. Research in early 2022 reported on the Islamophobic and gender-based backlash faced by Muslim women in the wake of the CAA-NRC protests, and how this spread rapidly through social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. This was done in the form of cyberstalking, bullying, harassing, spreading offensive hashtags, memes and trolling, doxing, morphing of photographs, and death and rape threats, among others.

A report by Umar Butler in 2022 analysed over 3.7 million Islamophobic posts made globally on Twitter between 2019 and 2021 and found that much of this gender-based Islamophobia was directed at prominent Muslim women in the public sphere. Indian journalists Rana Ayyub and Arfa Khanum Sherwani were the second and fourth most mentioned Twitter users, respectively. The report concluded that ‘Twitter is critically failing to protect Muslim public figures from religiously motivated harassment’.

Islamophobia and Misogyny in custom-built digital space

One of the most noteworthy cases of online gender-based violence against Muslim women in India –as well as Pakistan – took place in 2021 and 2022 in a series of three events. In May 2021, a YouTube channel live-streamed a video where the YouTuber named ‘Liberal Doge’ ‘rated’ Pakistani women. Analysts found that the same group of people, all Indians, were behind the July 2021 Sulli Deals app. The term ‘Sulli’ is an offensive term referring to Muslim women. This was a GitHub-hosted app that allowed men to ‘bid’ on the profiles of Muslim women, all of whom were active members of public life and well-known women in their respective fields.

While the platform could not actually ‘auction’ off people,  it is widely agreed that the main function was to harass and humiliate the women who were featured and whose photographs and public information was leaked. GitHub suspended the app in January 2022, but another app emerged called ‘Bulli Bai’ (Bulli is another offensive term used for Muslim women), which contained photographs of prominent women in their 60s and 70s.

Closing digital spaces is silencing women

While both apps were eventually taken down and arrests made, the impacts of this targeted harassment have had potentially longstanding effects on Muslim women and girls. Hasina Khan, founder of Bebaak Collective – an association for the rights of religious minority women and part of Countering Backlash – spoke about what online backlash means for Muslim women and girls across India. Based on Bebaak Collective’s internal findings, social media had become an important platform for Indian Muslim women to perform their identities and have their opinions heard, something many of them cannot do in offline spaces. Khan believes that these apps were created specifically as a misogynistic attempt to silence prominent Muslim women.

Unfortunately, she adds, they somewhat succeeded. Many of the women featured feared for their lives and either censored themselves on social media or removed themselves entirely. Many were coerced by their families to do so. For those women who were not yet targeted, the fear of being targeted in the future led to more self-surveillance. Certain extremist groups identifying as Muslim also used this opportunity to further censure Muslim women in public spaces.

What social media access means for women

The closing of digital spaces can have dire effects on the ability of minority communities to participate in civil society. Social media, often known as ‘an equaliser’ due to its ability to reach a large number of users, may have quite the opposite effect for the same reason by giving predators greater access to different communities.

Yet, social media has the potential for countering gender backlash in ways that complement offline strategies. During the CAA-NRC protests, social media became a key tool for supporting offline movement-building, perhaps why internet shutdowns were one of the first forms of retaliation against protesting groups at the time. Even after the first Covid-19 lockdown forced people to stop organising in the streets, the internet continued to provide a platform for protest activities. For instance, protest art moved from murals and posters to digital art. An example is Akshat Nauriyal, a new media artist who experiments with augmented reality, who created an Instagram filter which reads ‘I reject CAA, NRC, NPR’. Between December 2019 to February 2020, the filter had over 150,000 impressions.

A screenshot of an Instagram filter. In the bottom of the image, a persons forehead is just visible, and above their head is a square graphic that reads 'I reject CAA, NRC, NPR'.

Credit: Filter created by Akshat Nauriyal. Shared with permission from Nauriyal’s Instagram handle.

Looking ahead

India must look at closing the digital gender divide, while considering carefully how minority communities can be represented and included in digital spaces in a way that is safe and free from online abuse.

Borrowing from the strategies devised by the Associations for Progressive Communications’ (APC) ‘that contribute towards ending violence against women through building women’s leadership and ensuring women’s rights and safety online’,  we suggest five ways that India can embrace equity:

  1. We must gather evidence of tech-related violence against women. This can be via screenshots and reporting on social media, tagging cybercrime units’ handles, or filing a police report.
  2. The lack of women’s representation in Indian policy-making is leading to gender-related issues being overlooked, especially about cyber violence. We need to build women’s leadership to engage with national policymakers judiciary, and other key actors. With them, we can identify remedies that may be available in current laws and develop new policies that seek to protect women’s rights, safety and security.
  3. Current policies remain under-representative of women’s needs, and existing spaces need to be occupied by women from different backgrounds. It is necessary to build women’s ability to influence digital businesses such as social networking platforms, web hosting companies and mobile phone operators, to develop corporate user policies and practices that respect women’s rights.
  4. Awareness regarding the potential violence that women and girls may face online remains low and should be a focus but in a way that does not discourage them from accessing these spaces. There must be constant campaigning to create an online environment and culture that affirms everyone’s right to safety and security.
  5. Empowering civil society can ensure that no harmful behaviour is tolerated in any space, including the online space. It is also crucial to strengthen the institutional capacity and to change the practice of women’s rights organisations to become leaders in addressing technology-related violence against women.

In a rapidly digitising world, safe accessibility must be ensured to all sections of the population to be able to participate in digital public life. As UN Women put it, ‘the need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education is therefore crucial for a sustainable future.’

Event: Agency and activism – experiences of countering backlash against gender justice

Gender-progressive policies around the world are facing significant backlash. Gender justice activists and women’s rights organisations are having to mobilise quickly to counter these attacks.  

The rise of racist, misogynist, populist and neo-nationalist governments, ideas, and political practices in the last decade has only further incited this backlash against gender-progressive policies. This is also leading to an increase in physical, verbal, and digital violence against women, those in the LGBTQI+ community, and human rights defenders. 

This backlash is being challenged, documented, and researched by  Countering Backlash and SuPWR – both hosted by the Institute for Development Studiesin several countries of Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. Research of backlash against gender-equality policy gains in the focus countries include Uganda’s 2019 Sexual Offences Bill, Bangladesh’s Domestic Violence Act, and discrimination against transwomen in Peru’s labour market. They also look at Pakistan’s laws (and non-existent laws) about un-paid work for home-based women workers and India’s Shaheen Bagh protests.  

This event for International Women’s Day 2023 discussed how organisations, informal collectives and individuals are standing up and fighting to protect and further gender-progressive policies. We were joined by those working in the midst of national and regional struggles in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Uganda, and Peru.  

By watching this event, you will understand the nature and source of obstacles that gender justice actors face, what it looks like in policy areas, and how they are attempting to counter this backlash.  

Panel 

  • Maheen Sultan, Senior Fellow of Practice and Head of Gender and Social Development Cluster, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)
  • Pragyna Mahpara, Senior Research Associate, BIGD 
  • Amon Mwiine, Researcher, Centre for Basic Research 
  • Zehra Khan, General Secretary, Home Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) 
  • Deepta Chopra, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
  • Maria Grados Bueno, Post Graduate Researcher, IDS 

Chair 

Event recording

Backlash against student activists during #MeToo in Kolkata, India

Student politics in Kolkata is dominated by left-leaning organisations who look at the world in terms of ‘class struggle’ and claim to be supportive of all democratic movements – including women’s movements and anti-caste struggles. However, some scholars such as Arundhati Roy have critiqued this claim, arguing that social equity does not always extend to caste.

Kolkata’s female students faced caste and gender backlash during the #MeToo movement. This blog explores how this backlash operates against female students in Kolkata’s public universities during the #MeToo movement, from my recently published paper ‘Caste and gender backlash: A study of the #MeToo movement in tertiary education in Kolkata, India‘ . Here is what I found.

#MeToo and Anti-caste

There is a strong anti-caste critique of the #MeToo movement in India argued by Dalit- Bahujan- Adivasi (DBA) feminists. It manifests in gaps of the Indian feminist movement and with female student activists belonging to the two social identities in the universities.

In my recently published paper, I show that politically left-leaning (or ‘Leftist’) male-dominated political organisations in Kolkata’s university campuses use these gaps to their advantage as tools of gender backlash. They uphold established power structures on campuses, silencing and removing both categories of women – DBA and Savarna – from spaces of power and quashing their #MeToo incidents and demands for redressal.

The #MeToo movement led to these institutions strengthening and developing the proper functioning of the universities’ Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the formation of Gender Sensitisation Committees against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), and stronger redressal bodies on campuses and in political organisations.

But even with these committees, my research shows that female students continue to constantly receive backlash when sharing their #MeToo posts on social media, calling out perpetrators in general body meetings and demanding justice.

How caste and class are used as tools of gender backlash

Backlash to gender equality can be viewed through two broad approaches. The first is as an immediate reaction to progressive change made or demanded by women. The second is inherent discrimination in power structures that affect women’s experiences of backlash differently. My research uses both of these approaches to explore gender backlash.

Two clear themes emerged from my interviews with female student activists belonging to both DBA and Savarna groups. These were the centrality of power and misogyny, and how they operate together to create gender backlash. All the respondents said that the powerful positions in the Leftist political organisations on campuses were held by Savarna men, although the organisations were by principle pro-working class. Issues of sexual harassment and gender sensitisation were most often avoided by bringing up the caste and class of female party members whenever men felt that their power was being challenged.

Respondents described how the leaders of political parties they worked in insisted that they were elite middle-class women and that issues such as calling out perpetrators of sexual harassment online and in general body meetings were middle-class issues and actually did nothing for DBA women.

When I described my experience with the harasser, he confidently dismissed the allegation and retorted with accusing me and other Savarna female members of planning to form a group to falsely accuse men in the party of sexual harassment, malign the party’s image and beat up the men. He kept repeating that urban elite feminists like us do nothing constructive for the women’s movement and marginalised women.

This type of backlash silenced Savarna feminists and did nothing to serve the interests of DBA feminists on campuses. It ultimately removed the crucial need to address sexual harassment from their political activities.

Respondents repeatedly emphasised that Leftist organisations in the universities tend to integrate caste within class, and target their position in society to reverse any attempt to address critical issues like sexual harassment. Being upper caste (and, according to the male leaders, automatically upper class), the groups first need to address the issues of the working class and then gender.

Intimidation through threats of physical and sexual violence and marginalisation using the position of caste and class in society creates effective backlash against upper-caste female students, ultimately silencing them and stalling any progressive change. Dalit respondents mentioned that Savarna women are pitted against Dalit women strategically by Savarna male leaders. Similarly, Savarna women are pitted against Savarna women within the party which is also a subtle form of backlash.

Bridging the rift

The purpose of this study using conventional and alternate conceptual approaches to backlash was to reveal that they can be understood in unison in this case and might also be relevant in understanding and further analysing backlash.

The intersection of gender identity and the position of caste and class in society plays a crucial role in generating gender backlash. Feminist movements must include an analysis of caste and class to understand the needs and aspirations of women belonging to DBA and upper-caste backgrounds.  Anti-caste and anti-class movements need to examine patriarchy and sexism[19] [20]  within their movements.

Both movements should focus on the actual life situations and experiences of women. Concepts of gender backlash that focus on power, and why and how backlash occurs, should also look at the intersection of gender identity and the position of caste and class in society to better understand different groups’ experiences.  Concepts of backlash focusing on intersectionality should look at how power is exercised to generate gender backlash. This combined understanding will contribute to strategies for dealing with backlash and make efforts to mitigate it through activism.

We must bridge the rift between Dalit and Savarna feminists and be inclusive. Only then can the valid narratives emerging within the two different groups of feminists which generate gender backlash come to a stop.