After 7o'clock in the evening, all 25-year-old Rajani Parkash (name changed to protect her identity) can think of is getting home safely after work. She works as a domestic help in a group housing society in east Delhi's Patparganj. Her home is a mere kilometer away in Mandavali, and yet Parkash feels scared.
"Evenings are a bigger problem and they begin from right outside my home," says this mother of two. The area in which she stays is an unauthorised pocket of Mandavali and is home to mostly labourers, domestic helps and small-time workers such as masons and drivers. "There are about 15 lakh women - mostly migrants - across Delhi. Many of them work as domestic helps. Several are victims of trafficking," said Rakesh Senger, an activist working on women and children's issues.
Parkash's work requires her to walk twice daily to work. The first point of trouble is barely a few feet from her one-room quarter in the area. The general store near her house is run by a young man, whose friends are often found hanging out there and staring at every woman who passes by. Most of the times, they sing cheap Hindi film item numbers. Parkash walks past them, looking unconcerned.
Next, she has to walk past a series of roadside stalls and vendors in a crowded lane. Being touched or even molested here is not new. That's why Parkash quickens her pace to reach the main road. Here there are rows of tea kiosks and roadside barbers. The men belong to the area itself, yet they leer at her. Few of them whistle. One catcalls, "Kya maal hai… (what a bombshell)." Fuming inwardly, she ignores them all.
These are routine incidents, Parkash tells us. She recalls an incident that happened a few days ago with an 18-year-old domestic help. She was walking when a biker snatched her dupatta. "I have become more paranoid, especially on this road. Forget opposing their actions, I can't even look at these men in the eye," Parkash says, even as she tugs at her shawl to cover herself fully.
She isn't the only one who has to dress so carefully. Most other women from the area do that - the younger ones wear salwar kameez and the older ones wear saree and keep their heads covered. Winter has only added to their layers of clothing. But despite their self-imposed dress code, there is no stopping men intimidating women folk, irrespective of their age.
But it's not just the roads that are unsafe for these domestic helps. Their nature of work also makes them vulnerable, for they work in people's homes. Parkash narrated an incident which happened to her a few years ago in another apartment complex she worked in. In one of the houses in which she worked, an elderly man creepily asked her to apply oil on his head. "I quit working there," she says.
"This is not an isolated incident," says SS Shivangi, an executive near the complex where Parkash works. "Some time ago, a 40-year-old domestic help used to work at a young couple's house. The man's father used to stay with them. Once when the couple was away at work and the woman was mopping the floor, the elderly man actually groped her from behind. The man must have been around 60 and the domestic help had been treating him with respect considering his age" Shivangi said.
Unable to come to terms with the situation, the domestic help opted to lose out on the monthly R2000 and quit. "She told me she quit because nobody would have believed her. And she could have lost her job at other homes in the apartment complex," Shivangi said.
Thankfully, Parkash has not encountered such a situation at her workplace now. But the travel on the road to and from her home remains a problem. After 12 hours of gruelling work, when she starts walking home, the society area remains well lit, but Mandavali is a sea of darkness. The small road and the narrow lane to her home do not have adequate lighting, which makes it very unsafe.
"I have to be extra careful. There are drunkards lurking around and hooligans walking straight towards me. If I get late by even 15-20 minutes past 7pm, I call my husband and we walk home together," she said.
Mornings are still easy. Parkash, who leaves home around 7am, uses a shorter route which cuts through a park because the main road is usually lined by private buses. "There are cleaners and drivers standing by the buses, so I have to be careful while using the main road. The park is safer in the mornings. In the evening, I take the shorter route only when I am in a group of three-four women who are returning home at the same time. In the evenings, that park is usually full of anti-social elements and drug addicts," she explains.
Like Parkash, a number of domestic helps struggle every day in an unsafe Delhi, irrespective of the area in which they live. And these women can't afford to give up. They simply can't stop working. Nor can they move to better locations because they are unaffordable. What is least likely is that they will be able to change the way men behave -be it from their own ilk or those from the middle-class neighbourhoods they work in.
Parkash and thousands of others like her don't really have a choice.