Ex-maid on a mission to help children read

Ms Ristanti Ningrum, 30, unpacking books from Singapore for her library in Indonesia.

At first glance, Ms Ristanti Ningrum seems like any other Indonesian maid.

Yet, the 30-year-old has a unique and inspiring story to tell.

After almost a decade in Singapore, she recently went home and set up a children's library with more than 300 books collected from friends here.

"We come to Singapore to work and contribute," said Ms Ristanti, who now farms in her village in Madiun while running the library. "I wanted to bring home something for my own community."

Her case is proof that maids can achieve more than we think, said Ms Bridget Tan, chief executive of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).

"They seek self-actualisation too," she added.

Ms Ristanti, who speaks fluent English, became inspired while reading to her former employers' three-year-old son.

"Because of reading, he knew the alphabet and numbers from a young age," she said. "I hope children in my village can be like that too."

Her library - a 5m by 2m room at the side of her house - is a treasure trove of more than 300 English and Bahasa books for two- to 12-year-olds.

About 20 children visit a day. Though most go to school from the age of five, Ms Ristanti hopes to supplement their learning with classes at her library.

Contributing to her community is nothing new for the former maid. In Singapore, she used her days off to volunteer at charities such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

In 2011, the high school graduate used her rest day to study for a business diploma at a college in Geylang.

She went on to appear at events such as the International Labour Conference for Domestic Workers in Geneva. These achievements would have been impossible without a supportive employer, she added.

Not all maids are as fortunate. Many are overworked, underfed, verbally abused or made to take on extra duties. Home receives about 20 calls a day from domestic workers seeking help.

In 2011, the International Labour Organisation put forth a set of recommendations for better domestic working conditions.

It proposed regular work hours, overtime pay and annual paid leave. Maids should be free to negotiate with employers whether or not to reside in the household.

"Live-in domestic work should be slowly abolished," said TWC2 treasurer Noorashikin Abdul Rahman.

"Live-in arrangements blur the line between work and non-work and cause workers to be trapped and isolated. It also burdens employers with the responsibility of managing workers, in which many fail, leading to stresses in employer-domestic worker relations."

She said domestic workers should have the option of being housed in dormitories.

Ms Ristanti's life has been made into a documentary called Reading Across Worlds by photographer Bernice Wong and videographer Ng Yiqin. It will debut at 6.30pm next Monday at the NTUC Centre in One Marina Boulevard.



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