What Is Our Social Purpose?

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On the day that the Martha Farrell Foundation was invited to speak at the Royal Roads’ webinar, we had celebrations for our organisation – and our parent organisation PRIA – celebrating 39 years of empowering work. A lot of MFF’s methodologies and principles flow from PRIA, and it was a very interesting event because our colleagues spoke at length, about all the work that has been done over the years, and how this theme of resilience came through in every strain of the conversation.

We talked about challenges faced back in the 80s, the 90s and over the last two decades. We read problem statements from our annual reports such as “Those in power control our knowledge” and “Powerful men continue to dominate all spheres of our lives” and so on.

It really goes to show that the issues aren’t new. COVID-19 has only exacerbated what was already there.

The need for resilience was always there, but now more than ever, given the setback due to the pandemic. It became so apparent – MFF’s role, in reimagining and rebuilding that resilience within ourselves and with the communities we work with.

Globally, we’ve been set back by decades in the work that was done to end gender-based violence. But the fact that we’re still all hard at the work, together and with doubled vigour, to overcome these challenges drives home the point that resilience, like knowledge, flows between an organisation and community, rather than from the organisation to the community. They hold us up, and we hold them up.

For Martha Farrell Foundation, a key case in point is the community of domestic workers we work with. We’ve worked with them for over half a decade now, on the issues of gender empowerment and protection from sexual harassment at workplace.

India has nearly 4 million domestic workers, who are not under the purview of any Labour Law, given the informal nature of their work.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, is the only law that recognises them as employees and offers protection; however, implementation has been virtually nonexistent.

Consequently, conversation among the community about this topic is equally nonexistent. We realised that the women had normalised the issue to the extent that in our initial conversations, they would not even admit to having faced instances of sexual harassment at work.

It took us many conversations, in various informal settings, before they began opening up, and discussing instances that they hadn’t even though of as sexual harassment at workplace, initially. There, our input made them stronger and helped them articulate their stories. In 2018, they in fact, stitched their stories of sexual harassment into a Sari (a traditional Indian dress), and that was one of the first real documents we got our hands on, on this issue.

That was followed by a National Level consultation led by domestic workers, with various stakeholders, where we had active conversations on the Law, the challenges that prevent them from accessing the provisions of the Law, and charted out the next steps.

Such was the impact that in the height of the pandemic, in June last year, domestic worker representatives joined us for a roundtable discussion, to bring out how urgent the need for intervention and safety became, and articulated their demands for a safer world of work, a more secure life in the form of a manifesto.

This was significant for us, not just because of our commitment to the cause, but their interaction and faith in us, is what kept us going in that period, where we – who are always used to being on the field – were suddenly in our homes, and couldn’t step out to do what we do. It gave us strength and energy to take forward our work undeterred.

And it’s brought the movement to end sexual harassment of domestic workers so much further. Early this year, the domestic workers led a campaign where they articulated their demands for a safe workplace in postcards, signed by 3000 of them, sent to the Union Minister of WCD in India.

That in itself is such a big feat, at a time when their resilience for this cause should have been tested the most, given the much, much heightened economic and social insecurity brought on by the pandemic. I’d like to show you a short video we developed to support and amplify their campaign:

And before you go ahead and share that video and amplify their voices, I’ll just leave you with this thought: the video, this campaign, the movement; none would be possible, if the people we worked with hadn’t kept us going and we hadn’t kept them going. We’re now looking at scaling this impact, it’s a long term commitment from both sides, and it makes it far easier to deal with the fear and confusion that this pandemic has created. We’re all the stronger for it.

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