State of women in pandemic

Featured Photo: iStock.com/Sumit Saraswat

A typical day for a woman in Assam’s Majuli district starts at 3.30 a.m. She gets up, cooks breakfast and lunch, and then goes to the field. The day ends with brewing rice wine around, which lies the spirit of community and sharing in the Mising Tribe. A majority of tribes in Majuli grow mustard, black gram, and sugarcane. Until COVID-19 hit, these cash crops supplemented their income, which is the only source of income for many households.

Located on an island on the mighty Bramhaputra, the lockdown was not the only challenge that people in Majuli had to face.  The recent flooding and loss of livestock due to African swine flu have added to their woes. With income sources drying up in this agricultural community, women have no choice but to work harder.

Dharamjeet from Ayang says, “We have come across so many cases where women just broke down while talking about their problems. Men in these communities have not been able to find jobs. The situation in families is stressful. We have come across a few cases of domestic violence. There is no doubt that women are bearing the brunt of the current situation.”

Women in Gajera Chapoli, Majuli. Photo by Ayang Trust.

Ayang Trust is working towards transforming marginalized communities of North East India by creating equal opportunities through education, livelihood, and healthcare. Ayang also runs The Hummingbird School along with a  hostel for students from class LKG to class 6. The school and the hostel were shut down after the lockdown was announced. The organization is now concerned about whether their students will return. Many older students have started supporting their families as they need more hands-on-deck for survival.

Aswathy from Ayang says, “We had called our teachers for a door to door visit to see what is happening in the community while maintaining all social distancing protocols. The teachers have told us that the children were in a lot of emotional distress. There were a lot of children who were suddenly very distant and disconnected emotionally- a lot of them seemed hopeless.”

The Ayang team has been distributing booklets with a social-emotional learning component to it on a pilot basis since August. The booklets focus on how one should process feelings and emotions – it’s a way for the team to keep in touch with the children and to keep children in contact with learning.

Ayang Trust has reached out to over 2500 families facing a crisis from COVID-19 and flood and has distributed relief packets, which include sanitation and hygiene essentials along with food items.

For women working in tea gardens in Alipurduar (West Bengal), the situation is beginning to get worrisome. The children demand food multiple times a day. There is no money to buy recharge for online education or sanitary pads. The cost of vegetables in the region has increased so much that it is unaffordable for most.

On average, women in tea gardens earn INR 175 per day. But since the lockdown, the tea gardens have been operating in low capacity – 2-3 days at the most. Less work means less money, but women also have the additional burden of taking care of family members who have returned home from urban cities.

Mamina from Rural Aid says, “The financial and care burden on women is tremendous. Earlier, children used to get midday meals in school, and now they have to provision for more food. Young girls cannot buy sanitary pads. Men are at home, and there are more mouths to feed. Many women are depressed or are getting angry because of the situation. There is a need for psychological counseling.”

Rural Aid reaches out to more than 2000 women in Alipurduar’s tea estates. As part of COVID-19 relief, the organization has been working on spreading awareness and helping vulnerable women with linkages to government schemes at the panchayat and block level.

There have also been instances of early marriages in the region, and it seems that parents are seeing a benefit in getting the girls married during the pandemic.

“Early marriage is common here. There are also cases where girls and boys elope. But this time, it is different. In a pandemic, marriages can happen with only a few guests, and this saves parents from huge expenses. It is surprising because families here are generally very particular about auspicious and inauspicious dates, but it doesn’t look like that matters anymore,” adds Mamina.

With more dependents in each family and expenses mounting, the fear of women from the region being trafficked is also relatively high. Organizations like Rural Aid are running several awareness programmes on this as traffickers are likely to take advantage of vulnerable women once train services resume.

Meanwhile, cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse have seen a sharp rise in Uttar Pradesh (UP), according to Vanangaga, a women’s rights collective. Access to a fair trial and healthcare services has been a challenge throughout the lockdown.

Shabina from Vanangana says, “Recently we helped a girl who was raped. The girl is from a vulnerable community. Since the majority of the hospitals were busy with COVID-19 patients, we were sent to a hospital in another district. When we reached there, we found that they had not received the FIR copy from the police station. It took us three days to get her medical done. The family was also pressurized to book a private vehicle for her medical. Can a low-income family afford all this?”

Vanangana has been creating videos and voice messages to promote more awareness of domestic violence in the region. The team creates and shares videos over WhatsApp. The message in the communication is simple – if any woman is facing violence or domestic abuse, she must reach out to their teams. When the Vanangana team receives calls or messages for help, they rush to help.

“We have received many phone calls related to domestic violence cases. Sometimes we have to travel far to reach and help these women. It’s a risk too because it is not possible to maintain social distancing,” adds Shabina.

Vanangana has been working closely with the judicial system and helping women from marginalized communities in Bundelkhand and Chitrakoot in getting access to justice and equal opportunities.

With relaxation in lockdown, women are being encouraged to come out of their houses, but finding work is not easy.

Shabina says, “Because of prevalent discrimination against people from the lower caste, they cannot even open a chai shop as no one will buy from them. And many women don’t have any identity proofs, which makes it difficult for them to take benefits of government schemes. We are concerned because these women are living by themselves and also have legal expenses.”

The lockdown is having an unfortunate outcome for adolescent girls, many of whom are first-generation learners. Girls who had enrolled for their educational programmes at Vanangana centres have asked for exemption as they have found work as daily wagers. Given the situation, supporting their families earning INR 100-150 per day and it is more important.

“Many girls have been married off during the lockdown, and no one knows if the girls have consented to the marriage – it’s cheaper to organize a marriage during the lockdown as only a few guests visit,” adds Shabina.

For women in the Bangalore-based ASHA Foundation that works with HIV affected and infected women, the lockdown has been daunting. HIV infected women are HIV+, whereas HIV affected women are those who had or have a partner who is HIV+.

Dr. Glory from ASHA Foundation says, “At least 30 HIV positive women who are widows, and who were working as housemaids earning between 4000 to 6000 every month, have lost their jobs. The house owners are worried that they may get COVID-19 from the maids, and maids are worried that they will get it from the owners of the house.”

HIV positive people need to take ART (Anti-Retroviral Treatment)  lifelong and with more than 95% adherence. This helps to make the viral load undetectable and brings up the CD4 counts.  If such people who are doing well on ART get infected with  COVID-19  they will respond as normal healthy people do. However, if they are not on ART and CD4 counts are low, then they can have serious complications with COVID 19 infection.

Dr. Glory says, “It was a challenge at first to arrange medicines for HIV+ women during the lockdown because they could not travel to our office. Because of the prevalent discrimination, the women were hesitant to give addresses to have the medicines home-delivered — they didn’t want the community to know that they are HIV+.”

ASHA (Action, Service, and Hope for AIDS) Foundation was established in 1998 by Dr. Glory Alexander and like-minded people. Over the years, ASHA has made vast strides in advocacy, capacity building, research, preventive services, awareness, treatment, care, support, and rehabilitation of HIV affected and infected persons with a particular focus on women and children.

One of the consequences of the lockdown is that ASHA  Foundation will not be able to hold its annual camp for HIV+ children. Every year more than 100 children – most of them orphans – join the residential programme that allows them to work on their self-esteem, confidence, and understand the importance of adherence to medicines. The lockdown has also put on hold their adolescent health education programme that reaches out to over 50000 children in semi-urban and rural areas that focuses on issues like friendships – real and virtual, love, infatuation, marriage, companionship, fidelity, pregnancy, smoking, and drug abuse.

The situation is different for women in Cuddalore, located on the coast of rural Tamil Nadu. Here, women groups – a Self Help Group (SHG) and a group of teachers – have found work, but are still facing resistance from families.

Nisha from Kanavu says, “The SHG group we work with makes items like bags, laptop sleeves, and during the lockdown, we also started making masks so that women can continue to have a source of income. But they have been facing resistance from their families mainly because children and other family members are also at home, and women are seen as primary caregivers.”

After the lockdown was announced, Kanavu had shut its production unit for a few days. Later, they found an opportunity to stitch masks with support from a partner organization.

Kanavu works on nurturing leadership in disadvantaged schools and communities in addition to developing teachers’ skills in content and pedagogy through termly training programs and regular workshops. Incidentally, the teachers that Kanavu is working with have been facing resistance from family members since having access to a smartphone.

Nisha says, “One and half months into the lockdown, we figured that we should have a medium-term solution so that children do not lose out on their education. Urban children can access education through online platforms, and that inspired us to think if we can replicate that for children that we work with.”

Through a survey done at the time of COVID-10 relief distribution, they found that 700 out of the 1500 families don’t have a smartphone. Kanavu started fundraising for smartphones for these families and the teachers.

Around 60 teachers from five Affordable Private Schools in the region are working with Kanavu to provide online classes. On average, they spend 6-7 hours on the smartphone to share and receive updates from students.

Nisha says, “Maybe families fear that women will go out of their control, access unnecessary information, or presume that they are maybe talking to someone. The notion that the more you learn, the less you want to respect us could be one reason for their reaction.”

Despite facing opposition, the teachers have been successful in reaching out to around 700 students through their newfound access to smartphones.

“Our teachers used to meet at least once a month, share their learnings and challenges on personal leadership or pedagogy – it’s a space that makes them feel empowered. After the lockdown, we are doing the same through the online medium, but of course, nothing can replace in-person meetings,” adds Nisha.

Support for women groups by the government has been restricted to public health responses. But the gendered impacts of the pandemic in other areas are visible on the ground. While many NGOs were able to develop mechanisms to help women groups cope with the crisis, social distancing norms have limited their ability to work efficiently. The situation of adolescent girls from marginalized communities is likely to deteriorate. For them, livelihood and supporting families will take priority, or they could become a victim of early marriage – resuming school seems difficult for now.

You can reach out to:

Rural Aid on ruralaid03@rediffmail.com

Ayang Trust on ayangtrust@gmail.com

ASHA Foundation on ashafblr@yahoo.co.in

Kanavu on cadp.assefa@gmail.com 

Vanangana on vanangana.chitrakoot@gmail.com