India's GoGo Girls Seek Wowonet.org For Dignity, Respect and Rights
NEW DELHI: Has anyone ever paused to think about where the hardworking saleswomen employed in the many neighbourhood stores in the city go to ease themselves because there is no toilet facility available on the small, cramped premises?
Does anyone care for the vast majority of working women who bear the anxiety of having to everyday negotiate poorly-lit subways and roads that pose a serious threat to their safety?
And as if these problems are not enough to deal with, there are offices where female employees have to put up with sexual harassment without raising their voice because there is simply no redress system in the form of an Internal Complaints Committee in place.
It is challenges like these that make the work-life experiences of most working women nightmarish – and it’s these reasons that have contributed to the initiation of wowonet.org, a new online community that brings women from diverse careers together with the idea to enable them to pool in their ideas and resources to create the right work environment free from discrimination and hostility.
Raza Haider, Convenor of the Wowonet network, explains, “The prime objective behind setting it up is to create an online constituency of working women that would then act as a pressure group to engage with policy makers for rights and entitlements.”
Set up by Siksha, a Delhi-based non-government organisation that evolves unique social campaigns and strategies to catalyse change, empower communities and create a process of public discourses, Wowonet is targeting to bring on board one million working women, from powerful top executives who call the shots in corporate boardrooms to those labouring at the bottom of the work chain, including the saleswomen and domestic workers.
Most women take on multiple roles of homemaker, wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law while meeting tough demands of a fast-growing competitive environment in their workplace. To successfully tackle the varied challenges, they need gender-friendly work spaces that are enabling and supportive – something that is rare to find today. Moreover, even though women in India constitute approximately 26 per cent of the rural and 13 per cent of the urban work force, their contribution to the economy is not adequately acknowledged or recognised.
According to Divya Gaur of Wowonet, “In the years to come we want to build Wowonet into an inclusive network that represents the legitimate and long-neglected concerns of around a million women. By doing so, we will cultivate a constituency of working women who can then speak for themselves and bring about changes through affirmative action. So far, 162 women have registered online. However, since all women may not be Internet savvy or have online identities, we are equally open to paper registration that can be done by simply filling a form. The registration system has been tied to a social good activity – for every woman that links up with Wowonet, we are pledged to give one rural woman a sanitary pad. For the time being we have joined hands with our partners in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to distribute pads that go by the brand name ‘Sakhi’, which are made by a Self Help Group in the Mangolpuri slum of west Delhi. We hope that this will not only induce more women to come on board but will also give a boost to our Live Safe Campaign that focuses on menstrual and reproductive health.”
Apart from providing working women with an influential voice, Wowonet wants to ensure that their contributions to India’s economy become a part of social consciousness. “We want January 3, which is the birth anniversary of the 19th century social reformer Savitribhai Phule, to be observed as the National Day of Working Women in India. Phule gave India its first girls’ school in Bhide Wada in Pune. At a later stage, we will be evaluating the unrecognised but huge contribution of homemakers to the economy as well. Then there are plans to launch a country-wide campaign, ‘Date with Digits’ to empower women to handle their finances confidently and negotiate their wages and remuneration better. The thought behind this is to demolish the myth that women can’t take financial decisions such as filing income tax, applying for loans, making investments and buying property or handling bank accounts independently. It is high time women realised that they encourage patriarchy by letting men handle their hard-earned money,” points out Gaur. At 40, this gritty professional handles her finances independently. She remarks, “I do not know why such a big deal is made when a woman buys a house without taking help from anybody, as I did, and then sells it. I see no reason why I should rely on my father or brother-in-law to manage my accounts.”
Till date, Wowonet has received an encouraging response from women working in diverse areas, be it the corporate sector, academics, politics, domestic work or even sex work. Anita Kapoor, 40, founder member of Shehari Mahilla Kamgaar Union (Urban Women Workers Union) chose to associate with Wowonet.org as she finds it a promising forum for change. The activist has spent nearly 14 years fighting for the rights of domestic workers living in a resettlement colony near Badarpur in south Delhi. “I decided to register myself with this network to ensure that our members get support to fight for justice. They are indiscriminately exploited as they are part of the unorganised sector. While part-time domestic workers have to report to several employers and are poorly paid, those who are full-timers are almost treated like bonded labour. Some even suffer sexual exploitation silently as they have nowhere to go. Of course, they do not have any leave benefits, medical facilities or insurance.” A key factor that has induced Kapoor to connect with Wowonet is that “this online group has women belonging to the upper and middle classes and they are willing to lend us their ears and support our endeavours to stand up for our rights and entitlements”.
Former Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who was present at the formal launch of this network recently, has thrown his weight behind this initiative. He says, “Every woman [whether she is a homemaker or employed] works. However, for the understanding of economists and policy-makers, women wage earners in the organised and unorganised sectors do need exhaustive research and support. The network will be the key to making authentic data available to undertake gender sensitive planning.”
Clearly, for working women in India, wowonet.org is not only a well intentioned move to establish fair working conditions but it offers a much-needed platform from where they can influence positive change.
(Women's Feature Service)