Bold Steps

    Bold Steps

    The Journey Of A Domestic Workers Movement In Guwahati

    Smita Das of Boston, USA has been involved with sSTEP for the last few years. Ms. Smita visited Guwahati several times and has been working closely with sSTEP volunteers. AFNA is supporting sSTEP project financially. Walk through Japorigog in Guwahati and take a look at women walking on the street. Think about how they work and how they relax, who they respect and who they care for, what they think about and what drives them.

    Japorigog is home to the Society for Social Transformation and Environmental Protection (sSTEP), which manages a group of 250 domestic workers. Many of the women you see walking beside you work tirelessly, at their job and at home, trying to find happiness and vigor in a life of struggle: tension at work, tight budgets, difficult marriages, obligations from their villages, dreams for their children. These concerns exclude societal challenges like class and gender discrimination and seemingly impossible social mobility. And still, these inspiring women have managed to find time for their community as well. Under the leadership of sSTEP, domestic workers have formed a society for mutual support, which benefits them, their families, and their employers at once, a large cross-section of society in Guwahati.

    Rani was one domestic worker who contacted the society. She worked and lived in the home of her employer for 2 years and had not been paid for the last year. She was rarely permitted to leave the house and suffered poor sleeping conditions and frequent verbal abuse. Mina and Keshabi, elected officers of the society and staff members of sSTEP, were able to remove Rani from the situation, find her a new job, collect her back-pay for the last year, and open a bank account for her. This is one of several examples in which domestic workers have helped themselves by using their connections and recognizing their strength, newly emboldened in their homes and their community. They have also come together to register to vote, establish savings accounts, solve family disputes, encourage the education of their children, apply for BPL cards (below-poverty-line ration cards), and occasionally enjoy a rare opportunity to socialize. The society is also used as a communication network for sSTEP’s efforts to place and train domestic workers.

    Through placement, sSTEP matches employers in need of skilled help with domestic workers in need of low-risk jobs.


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    Recruitment, screening, establishment of expectations, contract negotiation, and quality control are vital components of placement. Development of these components is steady but slow. While contracts are signed and relationships are monitored to verify the satisfaction of both employers and domestic workers, domestic workers are proving difficult to recruit. Few are aware of sSTEP’s services and many domestic workers still come through connections, middle-men, and traffickers, with no one to oversee their labor conditions and no community to support them. sSTEP’s connections are strong in Mongolodoi and growing in Guwahati’s labor markets, but the message is still slow to spread, and they need assistance making connections and discerning which villages domestic workers come from. This trickle of domestic workers means that the demand far outweighs the supply, and employers are often desperate for help and eager for immediate placements. This limits sSTEP’s ability to train and properly screen domestic workers, and the organization is working to develop a more feasible procedure. sSTEP has matched 28 domestic workers with employers to date and rates are increasing with publicity. sSTEP also keeps a detailed database of potential and existing employers and domestic workers such that they can track the history of clients, match clients, and measure the success of the program.

    Over the last quarter, sSTEP’s training programs have become stronger and better attended with a strong curriculum at the foundation. Domestic workers are realizing the value of the training and spreading the word. sSTEP recently partnered with doctors from Pratiksha Hospital to offer strong child care and elderly care courses in which 32 domestic workers participated. These courses have dedicated trainers and will be offered consistently every two months. In a cooking and nutrition course, domestic workers learned about the food groups, foods to avoid for various health conditions, and dishes ranging from chicken to dahl to singhara. sSTEP is still in search of a consistent training location, donations of appliances and training materials, a strong team of established cooks to consistently teach, and experts in hospitality and hotel management to teach basic housekeeping.

    These courses serve to give domestic works opportunities for social mobility and hard skills for work and home. Trainers impart important information in a respectful and empowering way and test that the information is absorbed. Training also helps employers obtained the skilled help they require. This support is especially important to the women of the household.

    Upasana Borah Sinha joined the team in January and spear-headed the re-development of sSTEP’s training programs. As a chemistry professor at Nagaland University, she has studied the obstacles faced by female scientists, and is driven by the women she has known who gave up their careers due to domestic responsibilities. She is one of many new partners for sSTEP. The project has found great strength in its community partners and trainers: Dr. Partha Borah, Dr. Monmoyuri Dutta, and Chef Atul Lakhar, and is searching for others. Valuable advisors for project development have been Amiya Sarma, Anuradha Dutta, Mrinal Gohain, and Meenaxi Borkataki.

    sSTEP’s core team has continued to inspire and impress. Their incredible dedication, resilience, sincerity, and creativity have growth with experience. Simanta Sarma and Baijayanti Kalita manage the project, Pinky Sarma is the new project coordinator, Keshabi Devi and Mina Deka lead the domestic worker society and facilitate recruitment and placement. The team is well aware of immediate steps and hurdles, but is driven by the potential of this project. The goals of the project have grown in exciting ways to include (1) the connection of domestic workers to ragpickers and thelawalas to reduce environmental degradation, (2) financial education, as many of these women are primary bread-earners and must learn about savings, household decision-making, investment in education, and separation of assets in abusive situations, and (3) crèches for domestic workers run by graduates of the child care training to promote proper nutrition and education of their children.

    The domestic worker project depends on the support of the community, and sSTEP invites advisors, trainers, interns, and spectators to be a part of its great potential.

    Learn more about the effort at


    Side Note

    I have a 15 minute exercise for you that could change your perspective. Put together a minimal budget for a family of four. Don’t do it in your head-- take 15 minutes and write it all down and add it up on a sheet of paper. Don’t forget food, fuel, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care, let alone any kind of entertainment, education, or giving that living in Indian society requires. I worked with domestic workers for years before completing this exercise, and it transformed my point of view. It revealed how creative a person had to be to make things work, how impossible it was to be a single low-income mother and how a woman may have to stay in abusive situation to maintain financial solvency, how valuable a BPL card could be even when it saved so little, how easy it would be to be resentful, how impressive it is for a person to escape the poverty trap, and how impossible it would be if things like death, disaster, illness, addiction got in the way as they often do.

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