How Northeast Women Deal With ‘Risks’ in Delhi

‘Girl from Manipur molested, allegedly by Gurgaon neighbour’; ‘North East girls molested by Air India staff’; ‘Dana Sangma suicide: Amity denies discrimination’… Of late, the media have been full of reports on the insecure lives of thousands of young women who come to the Capital from India’s northeastern states to study or seek gainful employment.

According to the ‘North East Migration and Challenges in National Capital Cities 2011’, a study by the North East Support Centre & Helpline, over 314,850 people had migrated from the Northeast to Delhi and other cities between 2005 and 2009. Delhi, of course, has emerged as one of the most popular destinations – the University of Delhi is a magnet for those interested in higher studies, while the sparkling lights of the retail and BPO sectors in the National Capital Region (NCR) beckon unemployed youth.

But these opportunities apart, life in the NCR is far from salubrious, particularly for women. It is now an established fact that both men and women from the Northeast are subject to racial discrimination, even violence. Incidents of physical violence, rape and even murder are not uncommon experiences. The reasons for such bestial acts are varied. For instance, women could find themselves under attack in the patriarchal milieu of north India, because they look different, or appear “modern” and “free”.

Shang and Renu, who have been living in Delhi for over two years, prefer however not to dwell on the “dangers” too much. Ever since the two friends, who are both in their early 20s, came to Delhi from Manipur, they have simply played it safe. They live in a relatively safe middle-class colony in south Delhi with their relatives, and work at a gift shop in a high-end mall located just a few kilometres away. For assisting shoppers and keeping a cheerful demeanour all day, they take home a modest monthly salary of any thing between Rs 10,000 and Rs 13,000 (US$1=Rs 55.4). “It’s nice working here,” says Shang, with a soft smile, adding, “You will find that most showrooms here have staffers from the Northeast.”

Shang is right. Just a few metres away, at a skin and body care products counter, Jolly and Margaret, also in their early 20s, are busy at work. Dressed in white coats and aprons, the two girls pleasantly explain the benefits of the range on offer to prospective customers. For their hard work – they are mostly on their feet and have to be patient with everyone who visits their kiosk – they earn Rs 20,000 every month. Both the girls live in rented accommodation. While Jolly stays with her brother, who works in a BPO, Margaret shares her home with a cousin, who works in a shopping complex.

Ask these young women about the hardships they endure in a city like Delhi and they remark that the harassment, discrimination and bad behaviour they encounter are so ubiquitous that such behaviour has almost become “normal and usual” for them. Street stalkers, misbehaving cabbies, random bystanders who keep staring, they encounter them every day. But they have learnt to deal with the “risks” by making sure that they travel in groups, and by bonding with colleagues and friends.

In fact, these are among the most common coping mechanisms reported. For instance, all the young women we spoke to told us that they invariably had a colleague, friend or relative from their home state at their workplace on whom they depended when things got tough or emotionally draining in a highly competitive office environment. Moreover, they make it a point to live with their siblings, relatives, or friends – cultural ties help to create a sense of security. There are spin-offs of such arrangements: Sharing a flat helps save money – and although earn enough to send money home on a regular basis, savings come in handy for gifts for festive occasions.

Most young northeastern women with a high school certificate or college degree prefer to work in malls and shopping complexes because they are better in terms of physical security and work timings. Most of them get off by 10 pm and can easily take an autorickshaw back home – cheaper than hiring a cab – since they are still plying on the roads at that hour. For those doing the graveyard shifts, like BPO employees, the risks are much higher. A major source of disquiet is the transportation arrangements made by BPO employers for those on night shifts.

Khanching from Manipur, who works in an UK-based outbound insurance telemarketing company in south Delhi, starts her shift at 3.30 in the afternoon and gets off past midnight. Although she has been doing this job since 2008, hardly a day goes by when she is not on her guard. Like the other women we talked to, Khanching, who earns around Rs 18,000 per month, also lives in a middle-class neighbourhood, with her younger brother, a college student.

The problem often is that the vehicle that drops women like Khanching home cannot access the narrow lanes of many residential colonies in Delhi. So they are dropped off on the main road and often have to make their way at that late hour past groups of young men, some of whom may be drunk. But Khanching has found a way out even in this challenging scenario, “Since my cab cannot come up at my doorstep, it’s my male colleagues – also from the Northeast – who drop me.” She also showed us a bottle of Spray COP alert, which can temporarily disable an assailant. Although she makes sure to carry it in her bag every day, she has fortunately never needed to use it she says.

Among the scores of young women working in the retail and BPO sectors, are several young women entrepreneurs, too. Take the five Mizo women who run a beauty parlour in south Delhi. Mazami, who manages the salon, came to the city in 2008 and her friends joined her later. Today, at their home-cum-salon, they pitch in and do everything together. They share the rent; they rustle up meals and, of course, work jointly. The parlour opens at 10 am, and the women work through the day, cutting hair or doing facials and the like until 8 pm. Sunday is an off day – they spend it by going to church and visiting relatives across the city.

In Delhi, the beauty business can sometimes mean big bucks. Mazami, who manages to make over Rs 20,000 a month, reveals that it is also a demanding line of work. “Sometimes I get very tense,” she says. The bulk of her customers are from the Northeast. “People from our region do not feel very comfortable going to other parlours because of the language barrier. They feel free and comfortable here,” says Mazami, who is undergoing training at Jawed Habib Hair & Beauty Ltd. She has big plans for the future. “I am looking forward to expanding my parlour,” she smiles.

Her words are a reminder of the inherent resilience and never-say-die spirit of these young women. Despite the shabby treatment meted out to them, they have kept themselves and their families going. While support structures are few, those that do exist are a great help in times of trouble. There are also groups working to change attitudes and build bridges between different communities. Some run helplines and websites to register complaints.

What’s interesting is that although every woman we talked to is aware of the dangers of living in a city like Delhi, none of them is fazed. They believe they have made the right decision by migrating to the big city and making the most of the opportunities that come their way.

Women's Feature Service
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