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Domestic Helpers in South Asia

2009 February 28
by Marwa

I presented about domestic workers in South Asia at the panel last week and didn’t get the opportunity to talk about some things I found out. The reason why I chose a particular location and didn’t look at domestic workers all over the world is because their work and responsibilities vary greatly based on the part of the world.

In South Asia, general every day work in the household comprises primarily of cooking, washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the house, dusting furniture and scrubbing the floor. Sometimes, they are employed part-time, where they come in at a certain time in the morning and do some of the household chores and leave. Often, they are employed full-time, and they also live with the family they are working for. These are tasks that are mostly taken up by female helpers. Why is it mostly females? Our immediate thought is that gender roles are stereotyped – so we relate females with household chores. Well, there are other reasons too. Families with children or girls often feel safer if they employ a female helper if the person is going to live with them. At the same time, the employers do not have to worry about the safety of their female employees as much if they are at home.

Families also employ drivers to drive their cars – and they are always male. How come? Drivers in South Asia don’t just drive, they constantly guard the car too. They stay with the car at all times and make sure nothing happens to it when it is parked in some public area. This role thus not only requires driving skills but strength/ability to protect the car, often be alone, and try and stop any violence that might occur. Men are stronger than women and thus considered more appropriate for this position. The point about safety also plays here – when the employees have to be out alone a lot, employers worry less about their safety if they are male instead of female.

3 Responses
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 1, 2009

    So Marwa–
    how do the groups you studied clarify-or-complicate the conversation acclh began @ the end of class last Wednesday: her challenge that “not only do
    social gender constructions contribute to the gendering of professions but ALSO that the professions contribute to even more gender reinforcement”?

  2. Guinevere permalink
    March 1, 2009

    You reference the safety of male v. female employees, specifically their safety when going out in public. I understand the concept of it generally being safer to go outside alone as a man than as a woman, but I was wondering if this dichotomy was more striking/severe in South Asia compared to other regions of the globe? What I’m asking is: is it especially relevant to your discussion of the issue in South Asia because it’s a bigger problem in South Asia than elsewhere or is it globally relevant to the issue?

  3. Natasha permalink
    March 2, 2009

    Interesting how security seems to be a driving force for the gender segregation in these two jobs in South Asia. The assumption here seems to be that women are less threatening and men are more threatening — and “inside” (in the house) you want someone less threatening (so they don’t threaten you) and “outside” (on the streets, etc) you want someone more threatening (so they can threaten others — really, it’s more like they can protect you).

    I think this discussion is also interesting in terms of aaclh’s discussion on gender and profession, and on a slightly different topic than Anne just mentioned. Aaclh discusses strength (thought to be (at least partly) biological) and gendered professions, which really relates to the discussion of threatening-ness (related to strength, probably also thought to be (at least partly) biological). She says: “The only think I can think when I here this strength argument is that: if it really is about strength – why aren’t the jobs STRENGTH segregated instead of GENDER segregated?” It seems like that kind of scrutiny could be applied to gender segregation in the South Asian professions too. I.e. why aren’t the jobs segregated by degree of a person’s threatening-ness, rather than by gender? And I’d say it’s because people make generalizations/labels (which are useful, to some degree) and then apply them to all people of a certain type (e.g. all men, all women, etc), even when it’s not applicable to a particular person.

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