Ruth Manorama. Credit: Wolfgang Schmidt

Ruth Manorama: “Without equal treatment, it is impossible to reach social justice”

India has approximately 100 million Dalit women. Sixty million of them are employed in domestic labour. 2006 Right Livelihood Laureate Ruth Manorama has dedicated her life to achieving equality and social justice for them, both at the national and international level.

On the occasion of the World Day of Social Justice, we interviewed her on the situation of women in vulnerable situations in India and asked her which actions are needed in order to achieve justice.

Ruth, what do you perceive to be the main challenge towards the achievement of social justice for Dalit women, domestic workers and women in vulnerable situations in general?

Social justice and equality are fundamental aspects for Dalit women. These two concepts go together: without equal treatment, it is impossible to reach social justice. They are also very important components of the Indian constitution and are enshrined in its preamble.

Yet,  the Indian government has been denying equal treatment to Dalit women for ages. We have been denied justice, we have been humiliated, treated violently and seen our rights violated. We never got freedom, even though it is essential.

The attitude of policymakers represents one of the main obstacles to reaching social justice. They argue that it is hard to check whether the rights of these women are respected in the workplace, given that they usually work for private actors. Policymakers don’t see the point of even fixing a minimum wage because they think that it won’t be possible to monitor the implementation of such measures anyway.

And what role does intersectionality play when it comes to achieving social justice for these women?

The majority of domestic workers come from the marginalised community in India. They are mostly Dalit women, women from other lower castes and Muslim women. They lack social security measures, such as fixed wages. Even cities such as Bangalore do not provide better working conditions. Dalit women are therefore poor and uneducated, but they are discriminated against primarily because they are women. This exposes them to sexual harassment and brutality in the workplace, as well as at home. At the same time, they feel the pressure of economically supporting their family, and because of this, they accept all conditions, even the most unfair ones.

The poverty cycle plays a fundamental role in the life of Dalit women and domestic workers. They don’t have access to education, hence they cannot obtain well-paid jobs.  Even though education is free, they are unable to send their children to school due to the collateral expenses linked to it (materials, clothes etc.). Thus, their children remain uneducated, perpetuating the poverty cycle and the absence of opportunities which comes with it. When we look at the situation of Dalit women, we therefore have to consider different aspects: their wages, the working place, their lifestyle and so on. However, policymakers seem to ignore the importance of intersectionality.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic worsen the situation?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic workers were often accused of carrying the disease hence prevented from working. The State did not enforce any compensation mechanism during the 2 years of the pandemic. Therefore, Dalit women, who already live below the poverty line, were further damaged by Covid, and the absence of provisions. In addition, they did not receive adequate information on Covid-19 nor benefit from protective measures. In this vein, I demanded the government to grant at least 10,000 rupees to them, which isn’t much, but a symbolic move to show that there is a political will to help.

Do you think access to the formal sector would better protect Dalit women, domestic workers and other women in vulnerable situations?

Currently in India, the informal sector counts about 94 per cent of workers. Sure, certain types of formalisation are well needed. Legislation is a must. An enforcement mechanism is needed, and implementation is crucial. There are currently a lot of measures planned by the government (e.g. free rice programs) but none of them provides an effective solution to poverty, caste discrimination or economic exploitation. This is the reason why I have formed the Karnataka Domestic Workers Union, a union of domestic workers. We’ve been fighting for so many years, just to obtain a minimum wage. When it comes to gender discrimination, harassment and violence, there is no difference between the formal and informal sectors. Both are equally affected.

What reforms should States promote to ensure that domestic workers and the disadvantaged can be better protected?

There are two important international conventions on the matter: ILO Convention NO.189, which regulates the treatment of female workers, and Convention NO.190, adopted in 2019, which focuses on harassment in the workplace. Yet, the Indian Government did not sign any of them and therefore does not have a legal obligation towards them. I think it is fundamental to urge the authorities to sign these treaties, and promote policies that finally advance the interest of Dalit women and domestic workers.

Finally, how, in your opinion, do we achieve a more just, peaceful and equitable world?

A lot can be done. First of all, legal standards must be implemented. Then, women should be able to file complaints and get redress for harm suffered.

It is also important to promote education programs that teach the importance of equal treatment of each member of society. People should learn that equality results from an obligation. Even our Constitution clearly states that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of class, caste, gender, or sex. I think that it must prevail in the minds of all people, in India and elsewhere, that these workers deserve justice.