Pushpa, 32, greets her neighbours cheerfully as she leads us to her single-room dwelling in the Ragigudda tin slum built on a public playground in Bangalore’s upscale JP Nagar area. Ragigudda is one of the 10 slum clusters that Stree Jagruti Samiti (SJS) works in.
In between cleaning chores at three houses and one office and then cooking at another, Pushpa makes it a point to visit the SJS office in the afternoons almost every day. She has been a member for seven years. SJS has recruited about four women as full-time activists so far. This NGO works with domestic workers who live in slums and outlines their rights at the workplace for them.
Pushpa recalls that until 2004, before she signed up with the NGO, she was paid less than Rs300 a month for about an hour and a half of domestic work every day. “Now (over the past two years) we demand that we get paid at least Rs600 as minimum wage per hour per month. Sometimes we even get paid more,” she says.
Meeting SJS founder Geeta Menon was Pushpa’s introduction to a world that recognized she too had rights. But fighting for better wages was just the beginning of several battles she has won since.
“A few years ago, the ration shop in our locality never gave us the amount of rice we were entitled to. The men who manned the store behaved like they were doing us a favour by giving out grains,” says Pushpa. “I gathered all the information about what we were entitled to with the help of activists from the NGO, and went and picked up a fight with the store man. He was scared,” she giggles. She knows he was because the next day he asked Pushpa’s husband Sethu to tell her to back off.
But that interaction only served to strengthen Pushpa’s resolve. With Menon’s help a complaint was lodged with the food and civil supplies commissioner, who then allowed Pushpa and a team to create a vigilance committee to monitor the functioning of the store and ensure that everybody was given their share at the prices set by the government.
“Though we are an organization that primarily deals with the rights of domestic workers, over time we figured that these women have peripheral issues, such as their children’s education, that need to be resolved,” says Menon. SJS sponsors part of the education of the children of its more than 500 members. “Depending on the need and financial status of the woman, we distribute what we get as donations for children’s education,” adds Menon.
SJS has also set up five computer centres where around 50 students are taught. The centres are run by 19-year-old Manikanthan V., who lives in the Sudarsahan Layout slum where the first centre was started. Manikanthan, who is physically challenged, saw the work SJS was doing in his area and requested Menon to source computers through her contacts so he could teach children and teenagers to write software programs. “People think that boys and girls from slum areas are good for nothing. Through these centres I want to show the world that intellectual ideas can come from slums too,” says Manikanthan.
Each monthly meeting of members is guided by the full-time NGO activists. The members discuss work, hygiene, financial and domestic issues. The focus is on finding solutions. “In cases where the problem is personal, as it is in domestic violence, we talk to both the woman and husband and try counselling them into being non-violent,” says Menon. Menon and the SJS activists usually hold informal counselling sessions with the couples, keeping the police out of it. Pushpa and her husband were one such couple.
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Two years ago, Pushpa, after 12 years of marriage, found her husband was cheating on her. “He chose to continue the liaison; he had to leave. “I still miss him, but I won’t accept injustice,” she says.
“My inner resolve is all I have. I think I have the power to stand up to these problems if I believe in fighting for rights.”