Women Speak – Workers’ Narrative for a Rapt Audience

On March 7th, WIEGO organized, “Women Speak – Workers’ Narrative for a Rapt Audience” in Delhi. The event showcased women working across prominent informal sector workers and allowed them to tell their stories, experiences, trials, and triumphs. Below is an excerpt from the summary of the event by Marty Chen, Senior Advisor of WIEGO. To read the full recap of WIEGO’s work in Delhi, click here.

About WIEGO: WIEGO is a global network focused on securing livelihoods for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy. Informal workers need voice, visibility and validity. WIEGO creates change by building capacity among informal worker organizations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. Visit their website here.

Women Speak – Workers’ Narrative for a Rapt Audience

by Marty Chen | March 29, 2019

On March 7th, on the eve of International Women’s Day, the WIEGO Delhi Focal City team organized (for the second year in a row) a “Women Speak – Workers’ Narrative” event hosted by the India Habitat Center. A panel of seven informal workers from Delhi City—one construction worker, three home-based workers, one street vendor and one waste picker—told their own stories, in their own words, to a large, rapt audience.

Women Speak event Delhi March 2019

All photos from this event by Rashmi Choudhary

Each woman spoke about the importance of her work to herself and her family; the difficulties she faces in her work and her life; and the importance of being organized and affiliated with a support NGO.

Hirawati Devi Women Speak Delhi 2019

Hirawati Devi, a home-based worker affiliated with Jagori, reported that she initially had to hide the fact that she was working at home from her husband and in-laws but eventually gained independence and strength through her work:

“I was not allowed to work despite having financial troubles at home only because I am a woman. If I managed to find some tailoring work, I had to hide what I was doing from my husband.”

Women Speak Delhi 2019

Usha-ben, a street vendor leader of SEWA Delhi, reported that she continued her education after joining SEWA (she passed her 10th standard exams in 2015). Usha barters utensils in exchange for used clothing from households, which she sells each Sunday at the weekly Women’s Market established by SEWA in 2009. Married at 15 to an unemployed man, Usha-ben stated:

“My dreams ended when I married but being a member of SEWA has broadened my horizon. I have been able to do things that exceeded my imagination: including taking part in an international conference.” (Usha-ben was a SEWA delegate to WIEGO’s General Assembly in Johannesburg, South Africa in November 2018).

Guruvari-bai Women Speak Delhi 2019

Guruvari-bai, a retired construction worker and member of Nirmana Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, reported how, as a migrant construction worker for nearly three decades, she moved from place to place in search of work. Now, as a retired migrant worker, she faces barriers in accessing the pension to which she contributed over those years.

In 1996, the Government of India established a Construction Workers’ Board and Welfare Fund. Guruvari contributed to that fund throughout her work life and 1.5 years after retirement, received a lump sum of 60,000 rupees and monthly payments of 3600 rupees for several months. But she has received no payments in 2019. In 2018, the Government of India introduced the General Services Tax, stopping the cess/tax on the construction industry for the Construction Worker’s Welfare Fund. The Construction Worker’s Welfare Fund has accumulated anywhere from 400 million to 2 billion rupees in contributions and taxes; the issue is who do these funds belong to—the workers or the government?

Sitara-bibi Women Speak Delhi 2019

Sitara-bibi, a home-based worker affiliated with the Centre for Equity and Inclusion (CEQUIN), was relocated to Okhla Vihar where robbers stole all their possessions. Sitara stitches clothes at home and, through CEQUIN, gets embroidery work as well. Sitara proudly noted that her daughters and other young girls in their neighbourhood received soccer/football training, and that her elder daughter, introduced in the audience, played in a soccer tournament in the USA with her local team.

“My in-laws are upset that my daughters have stepped outside the house to play soccer and no longer speak to me. But I will do whatever is necessary, including cutting ties with my in-laws, to ensure that my daughters have a better future and all possible opportunities.”

Geeta-ben, a domestic worker affiliated with Jagori, has to commute three hours every day (at a cost of 50-60 rupees per day depending on the traffic) to earn 4,000 rupees per month working in several households.

“Our employers are not bad people. They give us tea when we go, but there is a separate cup for me. (But) some people do not allow their maids to use toilets. We reach their homes on time and work inside for 8-10 hours. Our office is their home—but we cannot use their toilets. They forget they can go to work because we take care of their houses.”

Savita-ben Women Speak Delhi 2019

Savita-ben, a home-based worker, spoke about the difficulties she and her family faced when they were forcibly evicted from central New Delhi and resettled in Savda Ghevda (30 kilometers outside Delhi) in 2006. They had to lease the land on which they built their house. There was no water, no toilets, no schools, only two buses a day. Her husband, an electrician, could not find work. Formerly a construction worker, Savita began working as an agricultural day labourer but eventually took up home-based work—in part because women who had to leave the remote distant resettlement colony to seek work faced sexual harassment.

“Since we had to cross a jungle to go to the Tikri border (between Delhi and Haryana) to find work, we mostly travelled in groups. Three to four years ago, a group of men attacked four women. Three of them managed to flee but the one left behind was gang-raped.” From the audience, Savita’s teenage daughter added: “The woman’s body was thrown into a canal.”

Commenting on the public education slogan Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save Daughters, Educate Daughters), Savita, who has four daughters, stated:

“I saved my own daughters, I educated them. But, now, I cannot always afford the 10 rupees each day that they need to take the bus to college. If my daughters cannot buy a ticket, the bus driver forces them to get off the bus and they miss their classes. It is not only my responsibility to provide for their survival and education. What about the government? We receive no support from government.”

Jagruti-devi Women Speak Delhi 2019

Jagruti-devi, a waste picker affiliated with Bal Vikas Dhara, sorts and bundles at their home, the waste that her husband collects. She spoke of the difficulty of getting her children educated, and the discrimination they face as children of waste pickers.

“Even when they go to school, they are sent back saying that they are dirty and other children will fall sick. What about our children’s education?”

Despite the odds they face each day, all of the women shared their dreams for the future: steady remunerative work, dignity in work, greater independence and a better life for their children, especially their daughters.

Shalini Sinha Women Speak Delhi 2019

Shalini Sinha, WIEGO Delhi Focal City Coordinator, welcomed the audience and introduced the event; Marty Chen, WIEGO Senior Advisor, moderated the panel; and Kabir, coordinator of Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW), thanked the panelists, the audience, India Habitat Center and the organizations to which the panelists are affiliated: Bal Vikas Dhara, Centre for Equity and Inclusion (CEQUIN), Jagori, Nirmana Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, SEWA Bharat and Mahila Housing Sewa Trust. This event would not have been possible without the support of these organizations.

audience member Women Speak Delhi 2019The Women Speak – Workers’ Narratives event was organized to help change how the public and the government think about the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy. The event was covered by English and Hindi media (see below).

Positive feedback came from the audience and the women speakers. Savita-ben’s teenage daughter reported that she felt very proud of her mother. Usha-ben wrote on WhatsApp to say: “Itne samman tak pahuchane ke liye dhanyavaad” (“Thank you for bringing us to this position of respect”).

audience member Women Speak Delhi 2019
And one audience member summed up the event’s impact, writing: “It was soul stirring listening to women-workers at IHC New Delhi on the eve of International Women’s Day… Their words are still ringing loudly in my head.”

In their own voices: See videos of the women speaking (in Hindi)

Media Coverage of Women Speak