Invisible neighbours

Pooja Shinde (name changed), a domestic helper, since the age of 10 has been working in the brick kilns and in the unsafe fields back in her hometown which is now Jharkhand. She later found refuge in her late teens in a city with a group of women engineering students who allowed her to stay with them in lieu of assisting in the household chores and cooking services.  She moved to Mumbai with one of her ‘madams’ who found a job here after her engineering course and settled down in the city following her marriage to an eligible bachelor.  Pooja continued her services to this family by taking care of their only son till eventually, they emigrated to New Zealand for a better future.

An event that marked Poojas life was her marriage with a local person with no steady income living in a slum.  She soon became the sole earner in the family supporting her alcoholic partner and 2 young daughters. Now she happens to work for me for almost a decade.  Her story right from her childhood has been one of hunger, excessive work in the fields, homes as a domestic helper who are considered multipurpose workers as they were required to massage the legs of older visitors visiting the host family. All these experiences in her teens and in the later years up until now life has taken for her a violent turn with verbal and physical abuse almost every day caused by her partner.  All these life stories and accounts were merely packaged in nice little books or research papers either stacked up in libraries or found in a plethora of websites which I referred to during my academic tenure.

photograph of person sweeping the floor
Photo by Riya Kumari on

Images of daily violence, for example, rape, sexual assault,  inhabited a larger space in the press and in the media which I considered require a more ‘serious examination’ pushing the daily or routine ‘violence’ incidences to the oblivion.  They don’t make news and continues to be so.  My own initial response to Pooja has been ‘ I will pray for you… things will change for the good soon….’  As days and a couple of years progressed these words were depleted of its meaning and sounded empty and hollow.  Raising awareness to her and referring her to redressal avenues empowered her but caused her more problems in the family.

She would come for work sometimes with a swollen eye and marks on her body.  When probed she would say apart from physical abuse, food grains and other utilities were thrown into the drain as a mark of protest on the part of her partner to dissuade her from seeking legal help through the organized Mahila Mandals in the slum communities.  These violent actions were the outcome of her dragging her partner to the Mahila Mandal summons.  The man has falsely accused her of having illicit relationships.  The advice provided to her is separation from the partner.  Pooja then plunges herself into the pool of guilt, “what if my daughters have to grow up without a father”, “will I and the girls be safe in the slum”.    Over the years of struggle and taking one step towards her freedom one step at a time, albeit not much change in the family, her partner is growing to recognize Pooja’s authority and her identity. I discovered that there were several other domestic helpers who belong to this invisible cohort of domestic violence, a daily experience. Its time to address these issues faced by them, at our own individual levels, rather than pretend nothing is wrong saying things like ‘sab theek ho jayega’ while continuing to extract their services for a pittance.

By Manju J Mathew

Manju J Mathew is a qualitative researcher and development practitioner assisting NGOs in qualitative research, process documentation and report writing.  Manju is passionate about researching and working with invisible groups, domestic helpers, refugees and the displaced.  

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