What would you do?
By Kirthi Jayakumar
It is common knowledge that gender-based violence is not confined to a particular region, arena, or domain, and can happen anywhere, at any time, and the perpetrator can be anyone – ranging from the state to family. Intersectionality helps us see that the experience of violence can look different for different people, whose multiple identities and contexts can present unique experiences of oppression and violence. Of those that are especially vulnerable, are women migrant workers.
When women migrate – oftentimes seeking work or after marriage – they are vulnerable to what is known as “double discrimination.” They may face violence not only at home, but also outside, because her gender and ethnic/racial/national/regional/caste/linguistic/class identity can expose her to systemic violence. Left unaddressed, this can lead to sexual violence, exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion.
I do not share survivor stories, and do not believe that I have any business speaking for anyone else. I make an exception today through this post because the young woman in question herself asked me to make this story known. A young migrant worker reached out to me recently, on the phone, after making a thirty hour journey back to her village, from my city, where she had moved along with her husband. In the time that she lived here, she worked as a domestic help in four houses, drawing a meagre salary of Rs. 6,000 in all, each month. She had four children, the youngest of whom she delivered only last December. Her husband, she tells me, is possessive, abusive, and violent. He had lost his job in October last year, and tried his hand at random work every now and then, making small amounts of money. Her house ran entirely on her salary in the time since then, until the lockdown was enforced. When things grew from bad to worse – rent was unaffordable, food was not accessible, and the threat of an illness affecting the world loomed large – they decided to go home. This meant a long train journey – one that came after several days of waiting, worried about arranging the money to pay for tickets if it came to that, and unsure of what would happen next.
She told me that she held onto my number from a time when I had visited her oldest son’s school to teach them about safe and unsafe touch and how one may report instances of child sexual abuse, although she hoped there would never be any need to reach out to me. In the time since the lockdown began, she faced aggressive degrees of violence at the hands of her husband. She didn’t have the freedom to leave home – even if it only meant to go to work – and those six hours of being away from him were no longer possible. course of the arduous thirty hour journey, her husband slapped her, snatched the limited food and water they were given by the government and some social workers, and distributed all of it to other men in their compartment. When their children slept, he forced himself on her in the toilet. She told me she reached out only to speak to someone who she believed would understand, and just listen to her. She didn’t want to go to a shelter because it was impossible for her to leave her children, with no money, and no faith in the system that had let her down. She just wanted to speak to someone.
I listened to her cry, my heart breaking steadily into several, tiny pieces.
She opened a door to a truth that most of us have not addressed: or perhaps we want to, but do not know how. A system not only failed migrant workers, but the threw the most vulnerable among them into the throes of violence. We scramble to be there for survivors, we scramble to make tools accessible, routes for help available – and yet so many, so so so many fall through the cracks. How does a system rise to respond to these realities? Why is empathy so absent in policy? What does a survivor do if the idea of “home” is shattered – but existing solutions only speak to the privileged idea of home? Where does she go?
My mind is full of questions as I write this. And voice is caught in my throat.