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A. AARTHI (b. 1994), VAISHNAVI NAIDU (b. 1990), SINDHURA KALIDAS (b. 1989)

WOMEN OF SHKATI

A. Aarthi, together with her cousin Vaishnavi Naidu and friend Sindhura Kalidas as well as a small group of volunteers, started offering English lessons to Tamil domestic workers in 2018 as part of South Asian empowerment group Women of Shakti. There are about 12,000 Tamil domestic workers in Singapore, most of whom speak Tamil.

What started out as grammar exercises soon gave way to more practical lessons, from how to fill in a departure card, and the meaning of Singlish words like “kopi”, to bigger things like employee rights. “Most of the time they don’t even know what can and cannot do. Their rights are not explained to them as well,” says Vaishnavi.

It’s been a steep learning curve for the young group, who have come to learn how to tailor their programmes to what the women need, such as shorter class runs and different kinds of classes. Even offering health-based education wasn’t so straightforward. Openly signing up for a free cervical cancer screening, for example, was tantamount to declaring your promiscuity to everyone.

This community of South Asian women isn’t as cohesive as some of the other migrant groups in Singapore, but it is easy to understand why. They hail from different parts of the state, different countries even, so there are language and cultural barriers. There is also a larger sense of displacement at play. Many of the women had their education cut short, being married off as soon as they got their periods. There is also a sense of internalised misogyny because of entrenched patriarchal systems back home.

Sexual abuse is also a big problem. Interviews with domestic workers who have returned home reveal many stories of abuse back in Singapore. Even those who find romance here get stuck in toxic relationships where loyalty and commitment are expected in contrived and damaging forms.

When these women return home, sometimes after working for 10 or 15 years in Singapore, their lives are not changed that much. “A lot of the money that they earn, they give to their husband, who spends it on alcohol, or they give to their in-laws, they pay their sister’s dowry,” says Aarthi. This is on top of paying for loans they took to come to Singapore in the first place.

The cousins are brutally honest about their shortcomings, describing their younger selves as “naive girls”. They are constantly thinking about how they can do better, such as how to reach out to more women and even to their employers.

Vaishnavi says: “What we’ve learnt over the two years is that instead of doing what we think is right and what they should be doing, we often realise that the harder question that needs to be asked is what do they want? Do they really want us to be doing this for them, and does it need to be done at that particular point in time?”

Sometimes it is about continuing to ask the right questions.

To know more about Women of Shakti, visit its Facebook page @womenofshakti.sg