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The Pandemic Has Made Women Migrant Workers The Most Vulnerable Group

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In what is being known as the greatest exodus of people in the Indian subcontinent since independence, migrant workers in millions had to leave cities to return to their home towns. The pandemic-induced lockdown has led to loss of jobs and security for migrant workers owing to their non-binding status as most of them are engaged in informal labour relations.

Covid-19 has exposed the deep-seated inequalities in our society, with women, especially migrant workers, bearing the maximum brunt. A strong, gendered perspective is required in our Covid-19 response across all aspects — prevention and containment of the virus, distribution of relief, economic policies and setting gender equity goals. Inclusion of voices of women and girls, especially from marginalised sections of society, is mandatory in forming response policies, as they are the ones who are suffering the most economically, socially as well as mentally. The implication of the pandemic has a differential impact on women and girls, which should be taken into account while formulating policy measures, especially for migrant workers.

However, the state’s response to the migrant worker crisis has been apathetic to say the least. Most of us are not unaware of the train accident in which 16 migrant workers were killed because they had dosed off on the track after walking for miles towards their hometown. There have been many such instances of road accidents, police brutality on migrant workers, human rights violation and other unfortunate incidents that migrant workers had to face because of the state’s irresponsive attitude.

migrant labourers
Even though the pandemic affects everyone irrespective of gender, women are likely to be hit harder than men owing to the misplaced notion that they are less productive and less efficient than men as they are considered to be physically weaker and have to cater to their families as well.

About 400 million workers in the informal sector, of which migrant workers form a large section, are at a risk of falling into a deeper poverty trap than they are already in.

Differential Impact Of Covid-19 On Women Migrant Workers

The pandemic will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on women migrant workers who form a large part of the informal sector. In a report by the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017-18), it was found that approximately 88% of total women’s employment is informal and comprises mostly of domestic workers, construction workers, street vendors and daily wage workers in factories.

The National Federation of Hawkers accounts for almost four crore people engaged in business on streets, out of which 30% are women streets vendors and majority of them are migrants. Even though vendors with carts had some access to erratic sources of income throughout the lockdown, they have been subjected under RWAs, police and local people due to fear of the spreading of the virus. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, sought to bring about a change in the precarious existence of the street vendors by registering and licensing them.

However, this very benefit proved to be a curse for them over the last few months, as they were not qualified to get anything else except rice under the Public Distribution System. Amidst the lockdown, these vendors have lost their source of livelihood and regular flow of income, thereby putting them on the verge of starvation. A lot of them are migrants and do not have ration cards and other necessary documents to avail the benefits that they otherwise might have got.

Another occupation that is largely dominated by women is that of domestic help, who are perpetually taken for granted. According to the 2005 reports of the NSS, there are around 4.75 million domestic workers in India, a large proportion of whom migrate from rural to urban areas as their demand is high in cities. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have further aggravated the suffering of the highly demanded yet grossly underpaid domestic workers. Some of them continue to get employed with half the pay, while for a lot of them, employment has been revoked.

Many have been subjected to discrimination by RWAs and employers. In fear of the spread of the virus, many high end colonies in various urban regions have banned the entry of domestic workers and also stopped their pay without any consideration of their economic position. In such dire circumstances, they have been facing food shortage and at the same time, have been subjected to increased burden of work at home with no one to help.

About 50% of the informal workers are construction workers, out of which 11% are women who are mostly migrants. The lockdown has given a severe blow to the construction business, which contributes 9% in the GDP, thus putting almost all construction workers out of job.

Most of them do not fall under the purview for social protection measures, owing to the precarious and informal employment relations that have further worsened the situation for them. Due to low income, they cannot afford private social insurance schemes. Furthermore, lack of a proper insurance for their health, assets and other aspects of life have hindered them from availing any social security benefits in times of crisis, especially for single women who have no one else to depend upon, and instead have families relying on them in some cases.

Women’s wages have always been systematically lower than men, and post the pandemic, the wage inequality is likely to deepen further as businesses have shut with zero or minimal income and will cause workers to suffer wage cuts, no pays and job loss.

 

Other social benefits such as affordable child care facilities for toddlers and young children in cities are also not available to these informal migrant workers. This is often one of the reasons why these workers have to struggle between managing their homes and work. This, in turn, can sometimes become a hindrance to their efficiency and productivity, thereby causing employers to throw them out of their jobs.

There are no such social protection measures for young teenage girls as well, who are involved in odd jobs and daily wage work in various factories where they are prone to being harassed, fired easily and sometimes sexually exploited as well. Hence, women and girls are most susceptible to the adverse effects of the lack of adequate social protection, which would otherwise have acted as a safety net amidst the lockdown.

Gender-based Wage Gaps

Women’s wages have always been systematically lower than men, and post the pandemic, the wage inequality is likely to deepen further as businesses have shut with zero or minimal income and will cause workers to suffer wage cuts, no pays and job loss. Even though the pandemic affects everyone irrespective of gender, women are likely to be hit harder than men owing to the misplaced notion that they are less productive and less efficient than men as they are considered to be physically weaker and have to cater to their families as well.

Policy Recommendations

Our society often turns a blind eye to the work of informal women workers at construction sites, in farms, as street vendors, domestic workers and rag pickers. Distanced, discriminated and distressed women workers are especially susceptible to being ineligible for social security and welfare schemes and find it hard to get their groceries and other essential items due to loss of jobs for the ongoing crisis.

With little or no savings as well as uncertain wages, women are not only worried about their next meal, but also fearful of contamination in the precarious conditions of quarantine facilities and slums. With the recent job losses and changes in labour laws in various states, gender wage gap can get worse and women are likely to be affected more than their male counterparts. This problem can only be solved by gender equal policies and a general change in mindset of the people regarding women being secondary to men. However, all this is easier said than done and changes from  the grassroots level is needed.

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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.

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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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