We've been discussing, a lot of other bloggers and I, the plight of our sex -- women and girls -- in our society.
Various bloggers, mostly women, came up with various reactions. I'm putting down a list of things that they -- we -- can all do, to actually live out our principles in practice. Because I'm sorry ladies, but just saying that something is wrong does not make it right. Nor will it help to speak to the women who are discriminating against their own daughters, daughters-in-law, nieces etc. But there are certain things that we can all do, modified to suit our individual circumstances, and these will make a difference, I promise you that. I am only writing down ways which I have personally seen work.
1. Keep your clothes aside for the maid. In particular, keep clothes for her girls. And when you do, keep the ones which are neatly mended, which you know will last another year or two's wear, which you think still look like nice clothes that young girls would like to wear. Buying them new clothes (except for occasions like Durga Puja or Diwali) is a bad idea, particularly if they have abusive family members who are alcoholics or drug addicts. Chances are high that your new gifts will be taken away and sold. And gifting things which are obviously expensive or which will not suit the family's economic status is not a good idea either, because
a) it smacks of charity, which some of them do mind
b) it frequently gives your maid ideas about her importance in your life. You don't want her thinking she's indispensable, do you? I'm talking of part-timers here, who can wreak havoc in your life if they think they've got you dependent.
When I say clothes I don't mean necessarily clothes only. It helps to ease the 'burden' of clothing the girls in your maids' family. But other things can also make a difference. My own part-timer has a 4 yr-old daughter and is very proud of her. When Rahul got a million toys for his rice ceremony I gave her a teddy bear he had received for her daughter. I make no bones about my own partiality for little girls, so she was amused as well as appreciative of the gift.
2. Teach them. If you have full-timers or women coming in to spend the day with you, encourage them to bring their daughters after school or after they finish their workday. In this time, even if it's only an hour, give them books or sewing or teach them fancier cooking than a normal cook would know. Decide how much time you can give them. Most women are grateful for a safe place to bring their daughters and they usually don't have any problem if you offer to help the kid with her homework or teach her a skill. Pay her a small token sum for the kanthas she stitches, or the tears she mends. Let her take a little bit of the dish she has cooked to taste at home. Not enough to feed the family, just enough to taste, to show off her skill.
3. Treat them with the same respect you demand for yourself in your office. I know this one's a toughie because it's very difficult to instill our work ethics into the average domestic part-timer. But still, try to get some facts across. That she has to come to work on time if she expects to be released on time. That you will pay her that little bit more than she gets in her other jobs if she gives you loyalty, honesty and cheerful hard-work. (We are talking of Rs. 50, perhaps 100 more than the going rate? You pay more for the odd cab ride.) Get her to understand the perks of her job -- handmedowns, maybe the occasional food treat, free medicines. Remember her problems. My own maid does not eat at my place but on the very rare morning that I do make some special breakfast, say dosas, or if I'm baking, I do offer her some of that. And when she comes in soaking wet on a rainy morning, I try to get her to have some tea. It's good for her and obviously, I don't want her ill. Simple management skill really. And pretty good PR!
4. Learn to ask on other people's behalf. If you know a maid who is looking for a job or needs some help that somebody else you know can give, learn to ask. Keep in mind that your maid can and may just let you down. So ask with discrimination.
5. Respect the single girl living by herself. Her reputation matters, not because of her marriage potential or because she's like that. It matters because landlords won't rent their places out to her, because the sweepers and odd-job men will try to browbeat her or be suggestively lewd around her if she's got 'that kind' of a reputation. So if you have one living around you and she provides you with some delightfully scandalous piece of gossip, please, please do not pass it around. You do not know the harm you can do her and your facts are probably all wrong. Stand up for her, if possible.
I stayed by myself all through my five college years, in an awful setup. I stayed in a single-bedroom flat next to my paternal aunt's flat. She owned both and was therefore my landlady. Since I was only 18 when I entered into this arrangement, it never struck me that I should have demanded my own key to the apartment gates. That it was illegal not to provide me with one. Each time I came home after ten I was forced to call, to wait until I was provided with a key. If my aunt was away, I had to wait outside until she came home.
Months away from my Master's final exams I took on a theatrical job that made me adopt call-centre hours. I used to reach home at nearly two a.m. and the other residents in the apartments raised hell. They put pressure on my aunt (who didn't try too hard to resist) to make me leave. After years of complaining about my male visitors, how I was bringing ill-repute to the building, they finally managed to force me to leave. And I was out on the streets with a few weeks to go for my finals. I could have used a neighbour who spoke up for me. Instead the women of the building got together and decided I should go.
6. Learn to give your maids the respect they need without losing your focus as the employer. A polite request for your morning tea works better than grumbling because she is late. The way I see it is, if I give the respect then only can I demand it. I know of a couple of households with young girls as full-timers. In one household they are told upon entry that they will be treated as family, that they must call the householders mama and mami, that they must treat the house as their own. The maids start out grateful. Then, when they realise that being treated like one of the family means getting yelled at as well, by these people who are after all not family, they start to become grumpy and unhelpful. Needless to say, the maids change often in that house. The folks started out with excellent intentions -- but your employee is your employee, and your family is your family. Some formality, some respect, a measured distance works better in the long run than a lot of bonhomie and the consequent building up of false expectations.
That's it. My point is basically encapsulated in the last point -- they are your employees and you are the boss, so treat them the way you want your boss to treat you. I personally find this hard to follow when my maid is absent or late on days on end. But then I remember that I only do this if I'm under pressure elsewhere, and that I really appreciate some understanding at such a time. So I usually point out to my maid that she's come late three days in a row, upsetting my schedule, and ask her to please make more of an effort. Usually this works. If she thought I hadn't noticed she would probably try it for longer. The times it hasn't worked are those when she has had excellent reasons, usually an illness. So I really can't complain. We all expect casual leave as our right as an employee. So I try to allow my maid one unexplained day's absenteeism a month. Not that I've told her so, but for one day's absenteeism I don't raise hell either.
You'll find that treating a woman with respect and a young girl with consideration can make them find the world a better place in which to give birth to baby girls. The tricky thing is to walk the thin line between charity and a helping hand. Teaching them to be dependent on your handouts is obviously self-defeating. Your maid may continue to ill-treat her daughter-in-law, but perhaps she'll go easier on her own daughter.
These are not hard and fast rules, of course. These are things that I have seen other women do, and they have made a difference. Sometimes the girls don't realise how they have been helped but that does not take away from the good work these women have done.
We don't live in an ideal world and I don't believe in expecting somebody else to change my world for me. But if I try to treat somebody else with respect, at least that gives me the right to demand that they show me some respect in turn. And if more people respect each other, I do believe we can lay the foundations for a more comfortable society.