“What should l be doing? What good is my feminism if l don’t help this woman?”

Sharing an email. And this has been the story of almost every married, domestic helper, who has ever worked for me.

Dear IHM,

I’ll get straight to the point. (And my terminology may be very politically incorrect.) My maid is about 30 to 35 years old. She is/was married but her husband left her for another woman. Either way, she wears a thaali. Her son is about 12 years old. She lives with her parents.

Last night her father came home drunk and beat her violently. He also injured her son and told them to leave the house. His main problem was that even after getting her married, she was still with him. l speak very broken Tamil so l got only the gist of it. Her son is temporarily safe at her sister’s house and she is sleeping in my neighbour’s house. However, l need a long term answer. She’s also very, very depressed. So l thought of finding a helpline she can call.

Obviously she needs her own place. We support her son’s education so that’s not the main issue. The question is more about what l can do to help her physically and emotionally. And how l can help her realize that it’s ok to not be with her husband etc.

What should l be doing? What good is my feminism if l don’t help this woman and l don’t ensure that her son at least knows there are options and he doesn’t need to be like his father and grandfather…


Related Posts:

Some problems seem to have no solutions…

When Is It Okay For A Man To Beat His Wife?

When life ends at twelve.

The Life And Times Of Another Indian Homemaker.

When a daughter refuses to go back.


21 thoughts on ““What should l be doing? What good is my feminism if l don’t help this woman?”

  1. Facing the same issue with my maid. She is only 22. She got married when she was 12 to a person 18 yr elder to her. She has a cute 4yr old baby girl . She stays with her mom and her dad is no more. Her husband a government school teacher left her because of dowry after 7 yrs of marriage. She had not taken divorce. I asked her to file for divorce so that at least she can get alimony. And this year her case got over. She got a good amount. I asked her to fix the money in her daughter’s name. Her mom is biased for the other daughter who is married. As my maid is a divorcee she doesn’t care about her. But irony is my maid is only taking care of her mother. Her sister is also greedy.
    She comes to me sometimes for financial support sometimes for emotional. I am not fluent in Kannada her mother tongue . I can understand what she says but i am unable to convey her.
    i really feel sorry for her. She is very caring. I am very unsure about her future. But don’t know how to help her.


  2. both of above writers want to help. what would you do for a friend? have her stay with you, while you think things over, search for a place or agency to help her. Can either of you do this? this is what we need to examine: whither feminism and whether class? Have you read the novel ‘space between us’about a parsi lady and her maid over 30 years. brings stark reality before us.
    I would say: find an organisation/ shelter for her, go out and scour the streets, if you cant have her stay with you.


    • She is not a friend. She is an employee. Would you invite someone from your office to stay with you as long as they wanted? You should not be accusing people of being classist without even understanding background relationships and personal problems. I have had a friend stay with me for two months but I would not have done the same with a colleague from work. The distinction is simple.


  3. You do not state the place where you come from. There are plenty of women’s organisation that will be willing to provide the support that your maid needs. If you let me know the maid’s city then I will try and send you a list of organisations.


  4. Are you her only employer? If so the onus is on you (and her other employers) to pay her a fair wage that ensures that she can rent accomodation somewhere?
    Since she has been kicked out of her home, and is homeless at the moment she clearly needs additional work/better paying work in order to afford renting a place so facilitate that.


  5. These are really tough situations which we wish didn’t exist. :/

    1. One thing you can do is send her to a NGO who deals with domestic abuse cases and make sure they are taking her case seriously.

    2. Another thing you can do for immediate relief is to provide her with a full time job in your own household, if you can afford it, or offer her a safe space to come and sleep at nights when she feels her father might get violent. If you can’t, try to find her a safe shelter where she can occasionally spend nights.

    3. It might also be helpful if she is taught some sort of vocational work so she is not completely dependent on cleaning houses for a living. You can sponsor some such course for her or find some organisation that does this sort of thing.

    4. Consult a lawyer, or ensure you find a NGO to do so. Engage with the lawyer so you know that your maid is getting all possible options open to her.

    5. If you are the bullying kind of person, you can also go and threaten her father with police action or worse. Sometimes, it is acceptable to use your class privilege to protect others.


    • “Sometimes, it is acceptable to use your class privilege to protect others.”

      Class privilege is largely part of the reason why many impoverished families and women suffer in this way. It doesn’t strike me as very fruitful to reinforce the same system that is one of the causes of the situation just to temporarily take care of one person’s problems, while still creating a dichotomy that will cause many other women to suffer.

      I’m sorry, I know that the advice was suggested in a well-intentioned manner, but it’s sort of like plugging a hole in the wall with a sledgehammer and then having to deal with the cracks that turn up elsewhere because of it.

      The rest of your advice is sound, however. The only thing I would add would be to get her maid out of the living situation as fast as possible. Being in such an abusive environment isn’t good for her or her mental health, and that needs to be dealt with. I’m not sure about the state of women’s hostels or women’s only housing where you are, but it would be worth it to get her set up somewhere like that. I know that a single woman living alone, even with a child, isn’t well-received in India, so please keep that in mind when searching for housing options.


      • You have a point there. But fact remains that such men who get violent don’t allow their women to even leave in peace. If LW can facilitate it just by being present and clearly informing the man of her maid’s rights, I don’t necessarily see it as problematic. It can see how it would be a problem if LW consistently went and told the husband how to treat his women, but she is not going to do that. She is going to use her education and independent status to help the woman leave in safety and perhaps, get the police to move their butts.

        I agree with your point on it being difficult for single women in such circumstances to survive in India.


        • “If LW can facilitate it just by being present and clearly informing the man of her maid’s rights, I don’t necessarily see it as problematic.”

          I wouldn’t necessarily tag this as “class privilege” then. It’s privilege yes, but class privilege is an entirely different thing all together. I get both yours, and Boiling’s point, and the key is to not come off as over-bearing and holier-than-thou (by acting as though class/caste is a determiner of how one would treat women), but simply state that treating someone this way is unacceptable. Of course, he could just comply out of a fear of getting into trouble and not truly because he wants to change, but I guess we take the victories where we get them.

          “Reinforcgin the system or not, it is an effective method for such situations.”

          While I really like the rest of your comment, I disagree with this. Class privilege is also an instrument of patriarchy and reinforcing the system will eventually only normalize the abuse that comes out as a result of it and make things worse. Find ways to help under privileged women, yes, but reinforcing the same system that is part of the reason why they are under privileged is not going to work. Oppression is not isolated into separate boxes labelled “sexism” and “class privilege”. It’s much more tangled and complicated than that.


      • Reinforcgin the system or not, it is an effective method for such situations. She need not scold but more than her, if her husband call the father and spoke to him nicely but sternly, the father may heed the advice.


  6. Want to share here how my mom used to handle such things, some might be relevant, some not. Our house used to be on a way to a street from where most of the domestic helpers for our area used to live. My mom was so determined to help these maid ladies and wanted to make sure their kids get good education. She strongly believed that she needs to help them to learn some thing – like tailoring or if possible education or both. She used to tell i need to help them catch the fish..not give some cash in their hand one time (i dont cash to give is another point :-), but want to help them too, she said). She would pay for their vocational courses and have seen the happiness in her face when someone found a job in one of the factories in the nearby industrial estate. Apart from listening to their woes, she patiently taught them how not be so submissive to abuses. You need to be strong emotionally and financially she will tell them. I can find out ways for u getting stable financially but emotionally you have to stand up for urself she would tell.

    I have seen her call the men and talk/shout to them to understand how they abused the women. Some men would cooly say, i was drunk, didnt know what i said. Not that all of these men changed by just listening to her, the point she made was I am going to know if you do that again and i will go the police if you repeat.

    There have also been occasions when she approched NGO’s who provide shelter to women with or without kids in distress and got them enrolled there. Such places provide them more emotional support when they see similar friends and they realise they are free from such abuse.

    She always says spread the awareness, they don’t know what resources are available to them.


  7. I second the suggestions about finding her vocational training. I think that this may give her a sense of financial security and independence and perhaps do wonders for her self-worth. My suggestion would also be to find and try and get her to meet other women from her strata of society who have been through similar situations and come out on top. Speaking to and taking guidance from women who she can relate to may help her understand that it isn’t the end of the road for her. I know it will take some research and work on your part, but I think it may be worth it.


  8. Other have given excellent practical suggestions. I would like to add that you cannot change people unless they want to change. You could listen to her problems and explain to how how patriarchy reinforces some situations and how she could work on counteracting them, but she should be willing to accept it, if she still sticks to her thali, then it is her choice.

    Support her in terms of improving her skills to get a better job, salary, approach NGOs etc. Other have given very practical suggestions which are useful.


  9. @ all: thank you for listening. l genuinely care for her and l was very upset when l w rote to lHM

    Im not sure where you’re getting classism from my post. I’ve mentioned that she has a safe place to sleep and her son is also safe. l have also mentioned that the first order of business is to find her a place of her own.

    I’m looking to do *more* than the basics. l want her to know her options and not need my help ln the future because s he’s empowered.

    @desi daaru
    good question. she’s paid fairly and my neighbour and l both support her in need

    @ Fem
    l wish l could bully him but language issues :-/ l have not called an NGO but my friend has enplainid the option to her and given the number. Since she wilt be moving out, the choice to call must be hers.

    @ P
    Your mother is an inspiration! 🙂

    l Will speak to her today about vocational training. l sometimes think if we all could just empower our domestic help, our society would be so different…


      • Agreed. We don’t even need to go look out for organizations to donate to. One family helps one maid’s/driver’s/peon’s family. We could coordinate with our neighbors–other people who the same person works for. That itself will improve the situation a lot. If we can do more, that’s great. But this is the least we can and should do!


  10. Hello LW: Here are a bunch of thoughts on the issue based on my experience,

    Family comes first: When my maids have got abused, they are aware that it was illegal. But they are also adamant that leaving the family was not possible. For many reasons, having a family provides a great level of respect and security, something I couldn’t see, but I had to respect it. Harangues and threats to the abuser, only made me feel like I was doing something, but it was not a solution. Their behaviour did not change.
    Getting the police involved: For one of the maids, it took the death of her daughter by an abusive husband, for the police to be involved. Despite being aware of the abuse for > 5 years, it was tolerated – in the name of society, the kids etc. No one likes cops coming to their home, so getting the police involved needs considerable thought. Also, during the enquiry of death, the maid discovered that they didn’t keep sufficient documentation of the abuse; something the husband’s family was easily able to refute. So, if this is the route your maid wants to take, make sure you capture pictures, and statements early on and build an evidence pile.
    Financial security: Abused maids often don’t want to leave their family, because that’s the only roof over their head. I get my maids started with a recurring deposit at the post-office so she gets into the habit of saving and having a resource that is not accessible to her family, to fall back on. Rather than do it at the bank, I chose the post-office, because they are better at dealing with illiterate clients. Also, I didn’t want to be a necessary instrument to her savings, which banks would have forced upon us (guarantee, introduction letter). Whether or not she worked for me, she has access to her own account. I also found out about health insurance schemes that she could apply for. Unfortunately I moved cities and was not able to facilitate her application. Family (marriage, religious ceremony) and health are two potential reasons that may require large amounts of cash, instantly. Family, you can’t do much, except that if the savings are tied up and not readily accessible, it can delay or prevent improper usage. For health, there are schemes available that provide insurance to cover major ailments.


  11. My advice, empower her, do not force, threaten anyone, she needs to change her mind herself . keep talking , supporting be there for her . I had a help who was abused by her husband a drunk, and no amount of talking and helping did any good. she diligently went back to him. however it was not wasted, she had a daughter who approached me when she was 12 worried about her life – hated her family life and her parents and came to me. sure i could money or my send her to an ngo or keep her with me, but that wouldn’t have worked. what we did was v simple. i talked to her mom about sending her to work at my place int he evening, paid her well and told her parents ( who always needed money) that i wanted her to watch my kids and i prefer someone literate. ergo, she went to school during the day,came straight to my place in the evening, washed up, did homework and yes did some work to o. she cleaned up after dinner, helped out mami with next day prep, took care of the garden etc., and when the driver went home he made sure she and her bicycle reached safe.
    today she is working for a newspaper , journo/editor something.. living by herself, her mom died and dad ??? who knows or cares. more important she is confident and ready to face life , free spirited and currently contemplating marriage 🙂

    i give her gifts for diwali and pongal and she gifts me for my b’day This b’day she got me a lovely phulkari dupatta and chinkari kurta from her trip up north. she has broken the shackles but her mom didnt. nothing one can do it’s a choice they make.


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