February 05, 2005

Silent Voices, Untold Stories: Women Domestic Workers In Pakistan And Their Struggle For Empowerment

This is a socio-legal study about women domestic workers in Pakistan which suggests the use of both legal and non legal strategies so that law can be used as an effective measure for empowering these workers and for making access to justice possible for them. By using feminist legal perspectives, Islamic perspectives on women’s work and legal pluralism, the thesis questions the efficacy of law as a tool for empowering women domestic workers in their struggle against exploitative treatment in the workplace. It advances the argument that women’s lives are shaped by sharp gender and socio-economic disparities leading to unequal power relations vis-a-vis their employers, state and society. Access to justice through formal legal system is very often contingent upon the socio-economic position of the users. Women in domestic service have to negotiate the barriers of poverty and inequality before being able to employ the law as their ally. For an effective implementation of law it is pertinent to look into socio political interventions so that access to justice for women domestic workers in Pakistan could be made possible.

This study is exploratory in nature as it attempts to fill the gap in existing literature by providing information about the profile, nature, working and living conditions of women domestic workers. It provides a starting point towards an understanding of the situation of women in domestic service by listening to their voices and lived experiences.

I have used literature from North and other South jurisdictions as a template to draw analogies with the situation of women domestic workers in Pakistan and subsequently tested it through empirical work undertaken for this study. The literature reviewed points to the fact that across the North-South divide, domestic service has remained an underpaid and undervalued activity performed by disadvantaged social groups of society. Domestic servitude still exists in the formerly colonial world of the South and has re-emerged in the affluent, capitalist countries of the North. There are more commonalities than differences in this type of employment carried out globally, whether it is the developing or developed countries. It also illustrates the roles of gender, class and ethnicity in placing domestic service at the bottom of the employment ladder. The literature also suggests that globalisation has brought changes in the migration process, which is no longer male-dominated, as women in large numbers from developing countries are migrating to developed countries in search of work(mostly in domestic service).

In Pakistan during the past two decades there has been a change in the organisation of work in the employment sector. More women have entered into professions which were once considered as men’s domain. Women’s work and economic independence are now considered as essential for improving their status. However, majority of women still remain amongst the lowest earners of society. Most women are concentrated in the unregulated informal sector thus the overall increase in the number of women entering into employment does not match with an improvement in quality of their employment. With this background in mind, Part II attempts to initiate a discussion on women and work situation in Pakistan by placing them in a wider societal context. It is argued that a variety of socio, legal and cultural factors shape women’s position in the employment sector. Part II thus seeks to establish a link between the theoretical discussion on legal feminism, legal pluralism and Islamic perspectives on women’s work carried out in chapter I and situation on the ground with regard to women’s employment in Pakistan.
Grounded theory methodology is followed to collect empirical data about domestic service in Pakistan. In-depth group and individual interviews were carried out at four sites in Karachi and Peshawar, Pakistan by using semi structured interviewing techniques. A few case studies have also been included to substantiate some of the major themes arising during fieldwork. Listening to voices of women in domestic service has provided an opportunity to uncover the hidden lives of women domestic workers who work in the privacy of homes. Findings from the field work expose the nature of domestic service, dynamics of employer-employee relations and complexities of class, gender and multiple identities impacting on these relationships.

The study finally suggests a legislative framework for protecting women in domestic service and some other non-legal strategies such as recognising domestic service as a service industry, organising women domestic workers, through building networks and alliances, centres and organisations, role of state visa vis local govt, role of women’s movement and role of media.

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