08/05/2010, 00.00
INDIA
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Belgian nun helps two million domestic workers in India regain dignity and rights

by Santosh Digal
In 1985, Sister Jeane Devos founded the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), an organisation that now has 53 branches in 23 states. Domestic workers are often denied their rights, underpaid and treated like animals. A domestic worker in Tamil Nadu recounts how she was not treated as a human being but thanks to the NDWM, her situation improved.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – In India, the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) has been able to improve the conditions of some two million domestic workers, whose rights have been traditionally denied. Founded in 1985 by Sister Jeane Devos, a Belgian nun with the Order of Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the NDWM is affiliated with the Labour Commission of the Bishops’ Conference of India.

“We broke a wall of silence, slavery and exploitation,” Sr Jeane said. “Our movement has grown and we can change the situation of domestic workers through solidarity, dignity, justice and empowerment.”

The NDWM operates 53 branches in 23 Indian states. Its goal is to secure the recognition and protection of domestic workers.

Mgr William D’Souza, archbishop of Patna, said that steps have been taken in the right direction “to create a just society where domestic workers are treated as people with dignity, where their rights are defended, where their contribution to the economy and to development is recognised, where their voice is heard.”

At present, the situation for many domestic workers is truly appalling, something that Seetha Lakshmi, a domestic worker in Dindigul (Tamil Nadu), knows all too well.

“I was getting 50 rupees a month (US$ 1.1) and I was never treated like a human being,” she said. “I cried every day.”

“In 1992, I heard about NDWM and so I turned to them. We talked about wages, hours, and days off. When I spoke to my employer about this movement, my situation improved,” she said.

Over the years, the NDWM has carved a space for itself in Indian society and has found support among political leaders.  

“Women and child domestic workers suffer exploitation and discrimination in various ways and forms,” said the former governor of Maharashtra state, Sanayangba Chubatoshi Jamir. “Together with migrant workers, they form the most vulnerable group of people in society who are often denied their basic rights as human beings,” he added. Therefore, “it is gratifying to note that NDWM has been lending its voice to the cause of women and child domestic workers.”

Thanks to the NDWM, the International Labour Organisation has been developing labour standards for domestic workers.

“Great things have happened to domestic workers,” Sr Jeane said. “We shall continue to move with faith in God and the Spirit that guides the movement.”

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