“If people are punished, then physical and sexual harassment of women workers might come under control.”
Women garment worker and SFC-trained Community Paralegal, Karnataka, India
When Sisters For Change began a legal empowerment program for women garment workers in Bangalore, India, our partners in Munnade selected Saraswati (not her real name) to be trained as a Community Paralegal. This is her personal story of change and a reflection of the impact that our programmes have on the women with whom we work.
Saraswati is 36. She was born into a poor Dalit family in rural Karnataka, the seventh of seven children. Her mother died when she was nine and her father couldn’t afford to care for her, and certainly not educate her, so he arranged for her to be married without a dowry at the age of 13. She begged with him to let her stay and go to school. She promised she would be a good student. But he told her it wasn’t possible, that it was better for her to be a good wife.
When Saraswati moved to her husband’s home in a nearby district, her new family – her husband and in-laws – started abusing her as soon as she arrived. Her husband – 17 years older than her – was a drunk. He beat her, shouted at her and derided her. Meanwhile, his parents made her do all the work in the house, starved her of food and told her she must get pregnant and bring them a boy. After one year, when she had not yet conceived, they took her to a doctor who rebuked them for pressuring her, as she was still a child. The family ignored him and took her instead for pregnancy rituals at nearby temples. Saraswati gave birth to her first child, a son, when she was 15. She had her second, a daughter, just two years later.
By this time, Saraswati’s husband was spending most of his time away from home, coming back irregularly and not bothering with his wife or children. Given his dereliction, Saraswati’s in-laws did not see why she should stay. They evicted her and her two children from the house and told her that she and her daughter were too much of a burden to them.
To feed her children, Saraswati found a job as a farm day-labourer. She returned to her father’s house but received no welcome. Her father told her there was no place for her with him and said she must return to her husband.
Saraswati refused to go back to be subjected to further abuse. But her daughter was still very weak and Saraswati knew she would die living rough and without food. So Saraswati decided to leave her daughter behind when she left her father’s house and set off alone with her son to find work in another district. For 12 months, living on the streets in a makeshift shack under a tree, Saraswati eked out a life for herself and her small son. At night, she watched him play in the street with other boys.
Then one day, word came that a cousin living in Bangalore had heard of her situation and was willing to help. He offered her a place to stay in his house. So Saraswati moved to the city – Bangalore – for the first time. To pay her way, she enrolled in a tailor training school and soon started work as a tailor in a garment factory. She was respected for her hard work and diligence. She tried to make sure she would not come to the attention of any supervisors, but several made unwanted sexual advances to her, especially those who knew she was separated from her family and husband. Despite her own problems, she was kind and tried to help other women workers when they experienced hardship or abuse.
One day when she was leaving work, Saraswati saw a group of women outside the factory gates. They were from a union. They talked about workers’ rights and labour laws and providing support to women workers. Saraswati became a member and immediately offered her services.
When Sisters For Change began a legal empowerment program for women garment workers in Bangalore, the union nominated Saraswati to be trained as a paralegal. We trained her in women’s rights, domestic laws to prevent harassment and violence against women in the workplace, and how to support and advise women who have suffered abuse. And we gave her tools to manage complaints, checklists for dealing with management and police, advice on cases that she had taken up, and taught her how to take surveys to find out about women’s experiences.
At the end of the programme, Saraswati told us she had always wanted to study law but had never before been given that chance; she had wanted to help women workers but didn’t know how to make the workplace safer. Now, thanks to her training, she was able to support and advise women garment workers in the factory units where she works, holds factory management accountable for the proper investigation of complaints of sexual harassment and abuse, and advocate for worker rights. In a few short months, she had become a leader able to mobilise women in collective action and begin to change the discriminatory and patriarchal culture of the place where she worked.