18 June 2019 08:13 AM



#MeToo: Disenfranchised, Defenceless Rural Women Suffer Sexual Harassment in Silence

81.3% of the female workforce in India out of the pale of the urban movement

When Sumitra Devi, a resident of a remote village in Uttarakhand, has to collect fodder and firewood from the nearby forest, she is forced to travel in a group. The group provides her safety from wild animals, and more importantly, men. Going alone in the forest is a surefire recipe for inviting unwanted attention from men, she says.

Kanti Devi of Maharashtra has to walk a few miles every day to fetch water for her household. She avoids going to her neighbour’s place to ask for water, because the man’s gaze in that household makes her feel unsafe. “How would it look if a woman goes to the next house asking for water, when the head of the household has a different way of looking at women and has bad intentions?” she says. “Dignity is far more important than walking miles.”

In recent times the #MeToo movement has reached its high noon in India, with the exit of a high-profile former journalist from the Union Cabinet. It is sincerely hoped that the deterrence value of the movement is strong enough to discourage future perpetrators from condemnable acts on their women colleagues in workplaces. It is a hugely desirable phenomenon that should result in cleansing urban workplaces of this scourge of sexual harassment.

However, as desirable as the movement is, the current outrage largely remains confined to journalism, media, film industry, a bit of academia and a few other urban professions. The phenomenon of men in positions of power taking advantage of their position to make unwanted moves which shrink the space and hurt the dignity of women colleagues and workers is, however, far more widespread.

Tales of sexual harassment and discomfort are a dime a dozen in the villages of India. Rural women, particularly those from the Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, and tribal communities are easily among the hardest working people in this country. Their workplaces are out in the open, and their work sectors are unorganised. The levels of patriarchal insensitivity and other forms of discrimination which they face are perhaps far more ubiquitous and abhorrent than those reported in the current #Metoo movement.

Rural women fetch water for their families from public sources. In the absence of private bathing spaces, women need to take a bath right in the open, often in the gaze of utter strangers' prying eyes.

Women often trudge miles into nearby woods to collect twigs and lopping to burn at home or to sell to earn some money.

Women walk in difficult terrains to cut grasses to carry home to feed their animals.

Women work on the farms of big farmers and also tend to their farms. Several of them work as domestic workers in the homes of the rich and the powerful in their villages. Women living in rural areas that lie in the periphery of cities, commute to the cities to work as domestic workers in urban homes.

Increasingly, many hundreds of them migrate with their husbands to far off urban locations to live on footpaths as they work in insecure conditions in hostile social surroundings. Most of these activities are work activities — whether unpaid domestic work in their own homes or paid work elsewhere. Sadly, virtually none of these workplaces can be said to be secure from the evil eyes and designs of unscrupulous men, and certainly not beyond the power of their employers.

A survey conducted in 2012 by Oxfam India and the Social and Rural Research Institute highlighted that the 29% of women working as labourers and 23% as domestic workers are the most vulnerable to workplace sexual harassment. They do not raise their voices for fear of losing their job and facing the stigma associated with it.

Here are some typical narratives of infringement of personal space and unwanted sexual advances which rural women have to negotiate routinely. They may sound anecdotal, but for each of them, hundreds if not thousands of similar instances can be produced.

Rural women working in the construction industry and most unskilled labour in the construction industry from the huge force of migrant rural labourers face an almost institutionalised system of sexual exploitation at the hands of the foremen and contractors, under whom they and their husbands work.

Those who have worked with this group of workers will tell you that the choice is between agreeing to let her body be available on the call to the contractor, or simply to be thrown out of work, often along with her husband!

A survey done by an agency in Kolkata suggested that as many as 30% of women working as domestic workers have to routinely negotiate situations where male employers, often in the presence of their wife, make overtures and worse. One woman, who was among the group in which these results were presented, shared that it may be better to become a regular sex worker than to go through such experiences in the boundaries of the four walls of the houses where she works as domestic help.

The feeling behind such a statement highlights the emotional and physical trauma women working in these spaces undergo, yet have no means to make their voices heard.

Women who go into the forests or woods to collect firewood or fodder enter as a group, but go on to work in relative isolation from each other. They remain vulnerable and routinely face the rapacious eyes of those who hire them.

Dalit women in rural areas across the country often work as unskilled farm labourers or as retinue staff to the better-off people in the village. Innumerable stories from Punjab in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south highlight the same unseemly reality: that they are seen as prey and are preyed upon by the powerful almost as a matter of right. Resistance usually attracts severe reprisals inflicted at them, their husbands, their families and at times their whole neighbourhoods.

So rampant is the phenomenon that this underbelly of our rural society has long since ceased to have news value, and such atrocities on rural women have become part of the social fabric. The matter becomes newsworthy only when violence or particularly heinous behavior occurs at the hands of powerful men.

The burning need for the safety and security of women did not trickle down to the context of rural areas, maybe because they are presumed to be safer than cities and towns, but remain neglected even though rural women make up 81.3% of the female workforce in India, according to Census 2011.

The sad reality is that these women will never be able to express outrage on #MeToo and seek redressal, for they would not know the language, may not have the device and almost certainly won't have the knowhow. Moreover, the perpetrators of these acts will typically not be men of prominence and standing, but men of fairly small stature and sweep.

One hopes nevertheless that in some form or other the #MeToo movement starts helping these disenfranchised, defenceless rural sisters to improve their work environments. It is necessary and the need of the hour.

(Archana Chandola is a researcher at the Vikasanvesh Foundation in Pune).