Servant Sisters

Hande Togrul
4 June 2008

A guest post by Hande Togrul (, graduate student at the University of Utah.

Here I am as a seven-year old, dressed up for the first day of school, standing next to my evlat-lik–not my mother, or my aunt, or my sister, but my live-in pseudo sister–my caregiver. In the town of Mersin in Eastern Mediterranean Turkey, where I grew up, evlat-liks were customary members of many households, playing a role similar to that of didis in India, amahs in China, rejevaks in Haiti, or mammies in the antebellum United States. My family did not always treat Bahtiyar abla (abla means elder sister in Turkish) in a kindly way, and I always tried to stand up for her. She joined our household as a six-year old girl to become a domestic worker with few opportunities and little control over her own working conditions.

Both the International Labor Organization and non-governmental organizations like Oxfam and Save the Children are calling attention to the plight of underprivileged women and girls (and some men) around the world working as caregivers and domestic workers. I am conducting dissertation research on this topic in Turkey, and a brief article describing some of my field work, titled “As if she is family: the marginalization of unpaid household workers in Turkey” has been published in Oxfam’s journal, Gender and Development.

I go back and forth between the high ground of theory and messy realities of daily life. I don’t want to demonize or to romanticize my pseudo-sister’s experience. I want to understand its causes and consequences, and develop better policies for care provision.

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