‘Imported’ housemaids

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Many Kashmiri families are employing girls from outside the state as housemaids. Most of these girls from poor families take the job to help their debt-ridden families. Aliya Bashir reports.

Many households in Kashmir today are employing young girls, in their 20s and some as young as 15, from outside the state as housemaids. These girls who usually come from poor families of central and eastern Indian states are brought to Kashmir through different agencies working both in Kashmir and outside or directly by the employers from their respective places.

Most of the maids working in different families in Srinagar or rural areas say that many accept them as a part and parcel of a family, while some maltreat them.

Bubli, 17, had always dreamed of working outside her state as there were many girls already from her place, Bihar, working away from home. She had heard lots of stories about opportunities to earn money and in some cases people taking their families and settling in places where they worked.

She came to Kashmir in 2006 through a Delhi-based agency. After attending a week’s training in Kashmir she was employed with a Kashmiri family. “My employers had to pay ten thousand rupees annually to my agency to renew my contract. They are quite happy with my work. They also pay me 1500 rupees monthly besides providing me meals, clothes and other bonuses,” she says.

Bubli regularly calls her home by phone and sends home money and other essentials. Due to the kindness of her employers, she is quite content and does not want to visit her home. Maybe she wants to save more.

“The family members of this house treat me like their own member and not as a servant. They take me along on picnics and marriage parties. I am well acquainted with their relatives and environment at home. So as long as I am happy my family is least bothered about my security,” says Bubli who had never visited her home since she came to Kashmir. “There are no plans as such to visit (my home) but my madam does insist that I should visit my family once, but my heart does not want to go back, I don’t know why? Maybe due to the attachment with my new family.”

Rani, 15, a girl from Jharkhand is employed with a family in Lal Bazaar area of Srinagar. She is one of the hundreds of housemaids from outside the valley working in Kashmir. She is shy and reluctant to speak.

“My life here is better I earn money and help my family,” she said after a lot of prodding. She prefers to stay inside. She says she is happy with her work. “I do the cooking, cleaning in the housing and wash the clothes,” Rani says.

Apprehension becomes visible on her face as one of the family members asks her to buy bread from a nearby shop. “We don’t allow her to move out of the home much. She always has to be careful while going out as we fear for her safety,” says her employer Ms Gulshan.

Abject poverty at home forced her to drop out of school and work for a living. After a lot of hesitation, she talks about her journey to Kashmir from her far-off home.

In 2009, she and her mother were selling bail-puri (snacks) at a bus stand in Jharkhand. A Kashmiri family travelling for business purchased bail-puri from them besides enquiring about an address. “We accompanied them to that shop that they were looking for. The family thanked us and gave us some money as tip. Next day we again saw the family in the market, they approached my father and offered to employ me as a maid in their home in Kashmir. Attracted by the offer of a 2000 rupees monthly salary and some money in advance, my father without giving much thought sent me with them to Kashmir,” she says.

The young woman doesn’t have any plans, at least in near future, to return to her home. She wants to stay, work and help her family and to save money for herself. “I am overwhelmed as my employers treat me well, and do not abuse or beat me. They are good people,” she says.

First time (amateur) maids are preferred as they are considered more compliant. Most of such housemaids come from poor families who have massive debts to repay. They say they are afraid of losing their jobs, of being sent back home and disappoint their families.

Twenty-one-year-old Milli’s home is in a poor village of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Her village is miles away from even the most basic amenities.

With hope, curiosity and courage, she had ventured out of her home to earn and help her family move out of the abject poverty they are in. However, five months into the job, her only desire is to return to her home.

She alleges that her employers maltreat her.

“Few months back few, a basketful of cups fell from my hands and my master deducted the money from my salary. They treat me like a slave,” she says.

Milli was hired as a maid in a family of a working couple with two young toddlers and aged parents living in the house in Sanat Nagar, Srinagar. “When I came here, I knew little about any rights nor did I have any idea of situation I would be in. I was young, naive and in an alien state with more debt than I have ever had in my life before. I didn’t have a copy of any contract. I only had the number of my agent. They don’t allow me to call or move out of the house,” Milli said.

She says she is desperately waiting for the completion of her one year contract so that she can move back to her home.

“I have a bond (contract) with my agency for a year to work for the family as they had already paid the money to my agency, so I can not leave the job midway,” she says. “My employers wake me up at 5am and whole day I have to look after household chores and their children and sleep after 11pm when everyone else goes to bed.”

The agency that placed her with the family, she says, offered to find another employer, where the workload was a little less.

“I am eagerly waiting to be free. I want to go home,” she says.

Most of the families who employ maids from outside the valley say that if these maids are treated well they can be loyal and trustworthy otherwise there are lot of problems.

However, in a rare case a maid from outside the valley married the son of her employer.

Rehana, 25, came from Jammu in 2003 to work as a domestic maid in Srinagar. She was then Naina.

Her husband, who is a businessman, says that his mother was kind hearted, but surprisingly, she was very harsh with Rehana.

She would always shout at her, and then one day, he saw his mother slapping her for just waking up late. “I was angry and I argued with my mother. I told my mother that if she was not behaving the way you want her to, instead of maltreating her send her away. She became angry and doubted my concern towards Rehana. She fired her,” says her husband, Raj.

She worked with the family for three years. She had not been employed through any agency but a family friend had brought her directly from Jammu.

When Rehana was thrown out of the house, she had no place to live so Raj managed to accommodate her in his friend’s house and later found her a job with a beauty parlour, where she is currently working. “He often used to call me and pick me up to drop me home. When his family came to know about our meetings they threatened me which became the reason for our marriage,” she says.

The couple lives in a rented house in Jawahar Nagar as the boy’s family has abandoned them. Interestingly, Rehana’s parents are quite happy with their marriage and they often come to Kashmir to see their daughter and in turn, the couple also had recently visited Jammu.

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