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Belgian Nun Promotes Cooperative Action By India's Domestic Workers

The message of the Gospel is "set my people free," says Sister Jeanne Devos who, in 1980, started a rights-based movement for domestic workers in India.

Millions of Indians, particularly women, are engaged in domestic work; commonly, lower castes serve higher castes, and it is not uncommon for the unregulated industry to involve low wages, poor living conditions, long hours and even slavery. Girls as young as 10 years old may be sold by their parents to middlemen who resell them to middle- and upper-class Indians in the cities. Even though India has strong trade unions and workers-rights laws, domestic workers are not covered by them, as the home is not recognized as a workplace.

A Belgian nun, Sister Devos, founded the National Domestic Workers Movement to give voice to these voiceless workers, and to encourage cooperatve action to improve domestic workers' rights and conditions in India.

One of the main disincentives for the government to get involved in promoting domestic workers' rights is the size of the industry and its inherently hidden nature, she said.

"Finally, we came to know from people in the ministry that it was because it's the biggest group behind closed doors," and it would be very difficult to enforce new laws.

In a 7 1/2-minute video news report for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a source of cutting-edge reporting at the intersection of religion and society, correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro interviewed Sister Devos and a few of the Indian women in the movement.

The biggest obstacle to change, they note, is the "abundant supply of impoverished women" living in villages with little prospect for economic stability and no education. The program also offers a second video of outtakes from Lazaro's conversation with Sister Devos in which she offers additional insight into the plight of domestic workers in India. You might also appreciate our feature article exploring how "Agencies of All Creeds Come Together in Times of Tragedy."

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