NEW DELHI — Indian women said their silence about sexual harassment remains strong among many female cooks and nannies, even as most news of the #MeToo movement is playing out among their professional colleagues in film, politics and journalism.
More than a dozen women have accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, and dozens of other men in Asia and Western media have been suspended or fired as they are fired for alleged inappropriate touching or sexual propositions. But there have been no similar revelations about the occupations where many female Indians work — domestic workers or cooks.
Even as New Delhi reported a sharp increase in sexual harassment cases this year, few have reported similar workplace sexual misconduct.
“It’s pretty low down,” said Divya Ramanan, director of the Delhi-based NGO Center for Women’s Rights. “People are ashamed. It’s the dirty little secret.”
The mostly male domestic help workforce is flourishing in booming cities, and their wages continue to grow. Domestic workers are commonly expected to be monogamous, a fact that has fueled some gendered mistreatment. The increasing likelihood of their families giving birth to the next generation abroad means they see their jobs as a family’s most important responsibility. But domestic workers’ invisibility has led to myths and outright lies about their working conditions.
“They’re the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” said Kavita Sundaram, a poet and writer who works with unemployed women.
For domestic workers, harassment, particularly rape and sexual abuse, are ongoing and often are not reported. Thousands of domestic workers don’t have documents documenting their status, so they cannot easily seek help if their employers threaten to throw them out. Poor wage transparency in India complicates any investigation. India ranks among the worst countries in the world in the work that people do for little pay.
“It’s very difficult to treat domestic workers like what they are,” said Yapieria Cham, founder of a charity that helps domestic workers. “They are vulnerable. They are powerless. They don’t have good information. They are very vulnerable to human traffickers and poverty.”
Women who call or post on a largely WhatsApp-based chat group that consists of domestic workers around the country describe the anxiety of organizing themselves, and the ways in which they are often used as pawns, to their families and employers.
Satyayani Shastri, a cook for four years in New Delhi, talked about how the demand for good Indian food is the key to her ability to make money.
“If I don’t cook, my boss does not pay me,” she said. “I am not waiting for them. My father cannot take care of the kids and everything with me.”
The #MeToo movement has been international, but in India, female cooks and nannies have been on the sidelines.
Kati Vullia, a young English teacher in Delhi, said that her initial reaction to the news of Weinstein’s misconduct was to feel sad, then frustrated at the absence of any similar action among young women in her cooking industry.
“If I were to meet women in the kitchen, you can imagine my emotions,” she said. “They’re too afraid of being judged.”
Corporate sponsors often assume the cooks and nannies have the skills to work in high-pressure environments, she said. But young girls often leave cooking when they turn 16, she said, as that step toward independence is always understood to mean great opportunities.
Although the stories of incidents of sexual harassment are few and far between, since the new #MeToo campaign began last week, several women have reported abuse by male kitchen workers.