Surviving the Night

For women working night shifts,fear is a part of the job. The challenges they face and how they deal with it

Written by N V Shoba | Published: December 15, 2013 5:18 am

‘I never walk alone after dark’<\b>

Mausuma Begum shifts from foot to foot. Bathed in the warm yellow light of a small shopping complex in central Bangalore where she stands guard 10 hours a day,six days a week,the 22-year-old is understandably tired. Her shift ends at 9.30 pm,but she is not relieved,not yet. Every night,as she hurries out of the staff cloak room after donning her burqa,Begum dreads the walk back home,for then the guard needs guarding. “It is getting increasingly scary for women to be out at night. We walk home in a group. I live near Neelasandra; it takes half-an-hour to get home,” she says. “I never walk alone after dark.”

With her slight frame and delicate features,Begum is an unlikely security guard. “Laptop?” she asks a young man about to pass through the doors with a big backpack. She lets him go and proceeds to check the contents of his female companion’s purse. Begum landed a job at a security company two years ago. It involves long hours,not

to mention a thick skin. “Sometimes customers size me up,even misbehave. Often they don’t listen to me or walk past ignoring me,” she says.

A class IX dropout,she draws a salary of Rs 8,500 a month,the only income feeding her family of six. Her parents fear for her safety and panic if she doesn’t reach home on time. But soon,she will be able to shrug some of the weight off her shoulders,says Begum. “In three months,I will get married and move to Assam. My fiance says it is a safer place for women and maybe I won’t have to work anymore,” she says. Her younger sister will take her place as the family breadwinner and perhaps as a guard at the mall.

Of the 25 guards employed at the mall,11 are women and they work the 10 am-9.30 pm shift. Five men guard the mall by night — a shift no woman will take up in a city where even ATMs are not considered safe. As night falls and the traffic thins,the work stress is drowned by another,more pressing anxiety: how to get home safe.

‘I don’t use hospital lifts’<\b>

For the last 20 years,Mayuri Pednekar has been a nurse in the government-run Nair Hospital,Mumbai Central. She was never scared in the initial years of her career even though she used to frequently work night shifts. Now,even though her night shifts have reduced

to the count of six a month,she is always worried about her security.

“After the Shakti Mills gang rape and a molestation case in the hospital lift,I am scared to walk in the corridors or use the elevator at night,” says the 41-year-old. Last month,a student nurse was molested by a patient’s relative in the hospital lift. While the man was later nabbed and handed over to the police,security concerns are high across public hospitals.

She remembers an uneasy incident four years ago. “Once,on a bus on my way to work,a man came too close and made physical contact. I slapped him right then and raised an alarm. But despite several requests,the driver refused to take the bus to a police station,” says Pednekar. The incident convinced her that few people come to a woman’s rescue. Fortunately,she has never encountered such an episode at the hospital.

Pednekar’s husband has never stopped her from doing night shifts and can’t afford to,because they need two salaries. But she knows he and their 17-year-old son are scared every time she steps out at 9 pm only to return the next morning at 7.30. “This is the only work I am good at. If I leave this job who will employ me?” she asks. Her parents supported her profession as a nurse becau se they thought she was giving something back to the community.

During night shifts,she and her colleagues have built their own safety mechanism. “I restrict myself to a corner and stay alert. I stay awake all night to guard myself,” she says,adding that there are few security guards in the hospital and often women are left alone. She is most nervous when she is deputed in the men’s ward at night. “I am one woman with several men. I don’t know what to expect,” she says.

‘I keep a pen knife ready’ <\b>

A DRIVE from Dwarka in Delhi to Gurgaon post-midnight can get a bit unnerving if you are a girl in a cab alone with a driver and a security guard. “That the guard will save you if something happens is not what crosses your mind at that time of the night,” says Dwarka resident Kanchan Pandey,who works for Dell in Gurgaon.

There has been much talk about the safety of women working nights shifts in the BPO industry and  companies now have put several policies in place. For instance,if a woman employee is alone in the cab,a security guard has to accompany her. The cars are GPS-enabled,which means their location can be tracked and monitored.

“If the car breaks down,it takes at least half an hour for another car to reach the spot. So I don’t know how monitoring the location really helps in case of an emergency. Moreover,most of the times,the GPS in the cars don’t work,” says Pandey. She recalls an incident when four men with daggers tried to stop their cab. “But the driver stepped on the accelerator and we got away,” she says.

Pandey,who has been with the BPO industry for nine years now and who often reports to work for the 11.30 pm or post-midnight shift,says these measures alone cannot help. “Often when you are alone in the car,the driver suddenly stops and starts talking on the phone,” says the 27-year-old. She says it’s not uncommon for her to find the driver checking her out in the rear-view mirror or staring at her constantly.

“I keep a pen knife attached to a key chain whenever I am alone in the cab,” says Pandey. And that’s not all. “Whenever we know we will be the last to be dropped home or the first to be picked up,we pass on our cab number to our colleagues,” says Pandey.

The drive to the office and back is filled with anxiety,but Pandey would like to keep her job.

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