Kanta Madaame in her home in Nagpur, India. Photographed by Priyanka Borpujari, December 2010
Fifteen years ago, Kanta Madaame had escaped the clutches of her violent husband, and headed to the nearest big town with her three little children. The 35-year-old farmer from a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra then found herself as a daily wage labourer. It was not easy to adjust to a new life, in a new city, doing work for others rather than growing her own food. She found work as a house help, and began to prefer the new work, as opposed to working in the sun on the farm.
Madaame was mocked by people from her native village, whom she met in the city of Nagpur. They could not digest that she was washing someone else’s used utensils and clothes, and swabbing their floors. But she knew there was no other option. She earned Rs 400 a month (ZAR 71) for working in several homes.
Madaame heard about a network of people like her, she knew that she could not be disconnected from it. The network of domestic workers has 100,000 registered members like herself, and her long-standing network with the network has made her its key member. The network establishes their identity as domestic workers and helps them leverage the need for better frameworks within which we can do our work.
Registering the network as Vidharbha Molkarin Sangathan (Network of House-helps in Vidharbha) wasn’t easy – it was the result of long marches, demonstrations and patience. Finally, the success in registration meant a framework for the accountability of their working conditions: annual increments, allocation of provident funds, four days of leave in a month, a bonus for the festival of Diwali, health insurance, and the belo-poverty-line (BPL) status that would ensure subsidised ration. Some of these battles have been won.
Earlier, Madaame would get just two days off from work in a month, but being a member of the network gave her the courage to demand another day off. The three days off does not cover sick leave. Yet, she does not call in sick; she saves her off days for those important network meetings and programmes. Like many others, she religiously attends the International Women’s Day functions organised by the network, when they discuss their rights as women and a sense of sisterhood is forged. “The sangathan has given me strength and courage like no other. I now have the courage to fight back if someone picks on my work, because I know I do my job well. I may have been fired from several jobs because people do not want a maid who talks back. But I stand my ground, and my soul knows best,” she had told me, when I had met her three years ago in her small house in Nagpur, which has been her home for 15 years.
Once a tarpaulin and mud house, she learnt the value of saving from an earlier employer, who encouraged her to open a bank account. The savings slowly built up; she now owns the property where her concrete, brightly painted house now stands in a large slum in Nagpur.
Even today, she leaves home just before 9am and gets back home by 6.30pm. Jobs at seven households today collectively fetch her Rs 4,500 a month (ZAR 799). And that’s how she educated her children: she got her daughter married, the older son is studying in the capital city of New Delhi to prepare for the ambitious civil service exams, which is one of the toughest in the world. Her younger son is studying in Nagpur and lives with her.
The network also promotes the need for educating the girl child, and Madaame finds it surprising that women are more sceptical about educating their daughters. “Will educating her fetch a job?” they ask, to which Madaame – who did not go to school as a child – retorts back that the need for education is beyond securing a job. “I tell them that education makes one street-smart – something every woman ought to be to survive in this mean world,” she had explained. The other baddie in the slum is alcoholism, and there have been several nights when Madaame has taken on the drunk men who were abusive to their wives, and then sheltered the women in her little house until dawn. “I could empathise with those women – I have been through it all,” she says.
When her elder son grew up and understood his mother’s life story, he enrolled her into a school. “Today, I have a certificate with me with states that I successfully cleared my fourth class exams,” she smiled shyly.
Priyanka Borpujari is an award-winning independent journalist based in India and writing on issues of human rights in South Asia.