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Work ‘From’ Home And Work ‘At’ Home: How Workspaces Are Invisibilizing Women’s Domestic Challenges

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Bindu (name changed) is single, lives with her family in South Delhi, and is an employee of a Delhi based start-up. During this lockdown, she is working from home. She shared, “Working from home is hard for me. I have to divide my time between household chores and office work. There is a lot of expectation to support the family when there is no domestic help available. Making time for these chores is difficult. If this is the case with me, I am wondering how single mothers and working mothers are managing.”

Bindu is one of the woman professionals I interviewed to understand how the lockdown period is working for women.

Work ‘From’ Home And Work ‘At’ Home: How Women Had It Worse

After the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, many female employees decked social media walls with plans for reconnecting with old friends, rekindling hobbies, and in the team calls, they shared experiences of innovative cooking with minimum groceries and vegetables, extra quality time with kids and the fun of connecting through Skype/Zoom from home.

The initial week was relatively a smooth sail. In the subsequent weeks, women were overworked, stressed, and were logging in four hours more than before. Peak mail hours crept up an hour early; days were packed with back to back virtual meetings and telephone calls; working hours subsumed the lunch and tea breaks, and global calls extended till late evenings and early mornings.

Before the lockdown, work from home was a perk for office goers in India. Many women professionals thought ‘work from home’ will give them a flexible working environment. Unpaid care work has been the women’s responsibility but with the enforcement of physical distancing, caretakers are no longer available, and ‘working from home’ doubled the burden combining household chores and office work.

Gendered identities as daughters, daughters-in-law, wives, and mothers are centred on their role as caretakers therefore, women spend more time on unpaid care work than men. Negative gender norms on ‘undervaluing women’s labour irrespective of her employment status, bounced back during the lockdown.

“My mother-in-law felt that it was disrespectful for me to continue with my office work when the whole family is having free time together. I should have served delicacies for the family when the office has given me the luxury to work from home,” says Leena, a banking professional. The gendered narrative of breadwinning male and caregiving female continues to prevail in our societies.  Moreover, society judges women on their household work performance even if they are the earning members.

Maternal care is seen as the sole responsibility of mothers.

Abuse, Added Responsibility And Arguments: Lack Of Sensitivity

Maternal care is also seen as the sole responsibility of mothers. Women working from home have to now manage the children amid their team calls and reporting. Preetha, a school teacher from Kerala shared that during my e-learning classes, I have to monitor my children also. “I cannot focus on my professional responsibilities when children are also at home. I have to balance both,” she added. Working mothers also squeezed time from office hours to handhold small children on their virtual learning sessions. Society’s bolstering of women’s inherent capacity of ‘child care’ put the double burden on her during this lockdown period.

Sheela, a finance professional from Bangalore shared, that after a week of lock-down she was verbally and emotionally abused by her in-laws and husband for prioritizing office work over household chores. “It ended in heated debates and I was beaten up. I ran out and sought help from my neighbours. Later my relatives got in touch with my in-laws and I moved to my uncle’s place which was in the next lane. Now I feel better.”

For April, 315 domestic violence complaints were registered in the National Commission for Women portal. The registered cases only reflect the tip of the iceberg, as a substantial number of cases are unreported. From those reported, the reasons for domestic abuse are yet to be explored.

Though offices experimented with reducing core working hours, it did not help women professionals. Sindhu, a PR officer based out of Chennai, shared that the workload has increased with continuous calls and there are regular checks by the supervisors. “Some managers are sensitive to the challenges, but some just  ignore them.”

Her official performance also gets affected if she cannot meet her targets, especially when she has to compete with the male team members. For those residing in tiny apartments, the living room/bedroom became office spaces. With both partners working from home, women have to adjust to the unfit co-working space. The virtual meetings served an official purpose, many female team members held back their responses and preferred muting to avoid the cacophony from their chaotic working space.

Latika, a development sector professional based out of Delhi, remarks, “NGOs are in pressure to rework the previous intervention strategies to more field-based relief work. We are expecting a huge cost cut and there is a pressure of performance as it is also time for annual appraisals.” The feeling of insecurity has fuelled an emotional pressure on working women. Many offices offered no personal space to connect, share struggles, weave new thoughts, and feel energized.

During the lockdown period, working women witnessed a shoring up of the negative norms that undervalued them in the domestic spaces. Workspaces also invisibilized the domestic challenges of female employees. Women are going through domestic violence and have limited access to support services. The lockdown left many of them with a loss of autonomy, shrinking personal space, professionalism, besides the trauma of domestic violence. There is an urgency to have a collective reflection on the gendered dimension of lockdown on the lives of women professionals.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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