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How Coronavirus Endangers The Livelihood Of Women In The Informal Sector

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Systemic denial of not recognizing workers as in fact ‘workers’ in the informal sector have for decades left them at the mercy of the employer. Representational image.

Kabita, a 22-year-old woman, lives in a basti next to the posh residential complexes of Kolkata’s South City. She runs a family of five- a husband, who earns his livelihood from pulling rickshaws, an old mother-in-law suffering from arthritis, a widowed sister-in-law, and two children. After losing her job as a housekeeper in the nearby office premises, she decided to take up domestic work in two houses in order to sustain her family. It was at this time that COVID-19 kicked in.

The nationwide lockdown and its consequent extensions did bloat an already bloated mammoth – Poverty. Kabita is just one exemplification of thousands of others who were asked by their employer to not come from the next day. Reasons? Diverse indeed, but somehow, each one of them narrowed down to indicate the increasing form of injustices and disregard towards migrant domestic workers in the public domain.

Systemic denial of not recognizing workers as in fact ‘workers’ in the informal sector have for decades left them at the mercy of the employer.

The sudden imposition of the lockdown on the 24th of March, 2020 with a meager four-hour notice spiked the unemployment to a percentage that remains beyond imagination.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), unemployment rates in April and May were over 23% in India, which was three times higher from the value last year.

Well, it doesn’t halt here, the International Labour Organization report, 2020, has indicated that as a result of COVID-19, an estimated 400 million informal sector workers are at risk of crude poverty in this country. The gender that is most likely to bear the brunt of maximum job losses are women, solely due to the fact that much of their work surfaces within informal work arrangements.

Statistics also reveal that India has recently recorded one of the most unequal gender division of household work. Going by the numbers of the first National Time Use Survey (TUS) (1998–99), women spend around 4.47 hours per week on direct care work, which comprises looking after children, elderly, sick, and disabled, while men spent only 0.88 hours per week. Owing to the gross imbalances in gender distribution of unpaid care work, the COVID-19 pandemic might worsen the situation by increasing women’s burden of domestic chores, unduly cuts, and lay-offs in employment.

In India, because of women’s less acknowledged (and definitely unpaid) contribution towards many economic activities and also due to social reproduction, men have a hidden advantage in the labour market as they do not have to share the burden of domestic chores. The following table represents the percentage distribution of workers by employment status from 2011-12 to 2018-19:

The above-mentioned data clearly reveals that among the employed, self-employment remains the predominant source of sustainable livelihood for women, yet almost 31% of them have largely been working as unpaid family helpers in 2018-19.

Furthermore, a significant chunk of self-employed women have worked within the household premises, without having any fixed workplace and with less than six workers. If we pry into the data on women employees earning regular wages, there have been several of them who’ve had no written job contracts, weren’t eligible for any paid leave nor entitled to any social security benefits. Given this bitter reality of the dearth of a basic employer-employee relationship, it isn’t really surprising that women suffered the highest decline in unemployment.

The COVID crisis kicked in when India was already suffering from rising unemployment with 87% of the workforce employed in the informal sector. In order to understand the magnitude of the detrimental impact women have faced, it’s important to have a detailed view of women’s employment distribution across industries along with a sectoral break-up.

The above portrayal of data clearly deems Agriculture to remain the largest provider of employment for women. Although ILO has marked this sector under the low to a medium risk category, the sector in India remains largely informal to this day and women workers in this industry comprise of the largest group of landless labourers.

Almost 14% of women are shown to have been involved in the manufacturing industry, one of the worst-hit sectors. Being a labour-intensive one, the industry employs low skilled women workers and hence the recent drop in demand for non-essential goods leaves them susceptible to lay-offs.

Even though sectors such as public administration, health, and education have been marked relatively low in terms of risk in job losses, yet many of these frontline health workers are employed as voluntary workers in public employment, namely the accredited social health activist (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers.

They are recruited on a contractual basis and are not even paid wages but only an “honorarium,” significantly lower than the minimum wage. While we’re still on this topic, it’s also important to note that there are 10.6 million domestic workers in India, and 82% of them are employed in urban households with wages lower than the national minimum wage.

With the number of COVID cases reaching record-high levels, the unfortunate situation of the women domestic workers along with the large unorganized informal sector may further worsen, pushing many into the vicious circle of poverty thereby subjecting them to dire consequences in the years to come.

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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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