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Unemployment, Depression, Violence: Women Are The Invisible Faces Of The Pandemic

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The Covid-19 pandemic has reconstructed the face of the world. It has drastically altered, rather than redefined, a new reality — a reality that has proved to be devastating for many of us. A more than two-month lockdown across the country with education institutes shut, roads empty, labourers having lost their jobs, migrant influx, cases on a rise, health system stalled, and inflation has left people in distress.

By the end of first week of June 2020, 67 lakh migrants had returned to their native places. This number is poised to increase with time. While millions have already lost their jobs, a report by Global Consultants estimates that India is set to lose around 130 million jobs due to Covid-19.  

News headlines have detailed how the lockdown has affected the common man, especially the migrant labour force and small businesses who have the burden of taking care of their families, feeding their children and paying for their education. However, these reports have failed to call attention to the plight of women who remain an invisible face throughout the pandemic, registering a disproportionate effect of the pandemic on men more than women. The understanding of women’s plight cannot be built by taking a gender-neutral lens; instead, it requires for us to look at pandemics through a gendered lens or perspective. 

Employment

The most significant setback that women have incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic is in terms of employment. Women account for less than 26% of the labour force in India, the lowest amongst most countries. However, with the onset of the lockdown, more women than men have lost their jobs and found themselves in a more vulnerable position. In April 2020, women, along with Dalits, suffered the most significant slumps in employment, where rural women were worst hit.

Around 43% of rural women lost their employment in the first month of the lockdown. Even in the post-lockdown scenario, with the economy attempting to fall back into place and businesses trying to operate with minimal employees, women were the ones who were the first to go out of work due to cultural assumptions about them being less productive than men. Lack of transport facilities and maternity leaves have become a thing that can easily trigger loss of employment among women. 

Hence, the gendered nature of employment has become crystal clear during the pandemic. Along with this, the female workforce in the healthcare sector is also at risk. Women account for more than 70% of health care workers and 17% of doctors. Apart from regular doctors and healthcare workers, women handling Covid-19, such as ASHA and Anganwadi workers, receive little or no medical safety equipment. This puts these women and their family members at higher risk. 

Domestic Violence

The number of domestic violence cases has risen since the beginning of the pandemic. Men frustrated with the lockdown, loss of jobs, financial instability and restraint on the sale of alcohol often took their frustration out by inflicting violence on women in the house. There has been a 50% increase in the rate of domestic violence by intimate partners within the last three months. A study has also pointed out the fact that cases of domestic violence were reported in large numbers from districts with stricter lockdowns. Red zone districts witnessed a 131% surge in cases of domestic violence as compared to green zone districts.

Although the lockdown has been lifted, the continually restrained movement has tied women to their homes, leaving them no space to breathe or move away from the house to take some time off. In this context, authorities should ideally be taking cognisance of the situation. Since most of the security forces are occupied in the prevention or relief duties of Covid-19, it may be challenging for women to report cases of harassment. 

Physical And Sexual Health

With the increasing number of daily cases, the health system in India has reached its threshold. There are not enough beds or ambulances to cover all the Covid-19 cases, leaving no space for women to get the needed health facilities, especially for maternity. Women losing their lives in labour or during childbirth is becoming a news headline every other day. According to The Week, in villages, this increasing trend has led to an increase in the number of childbirths at home by the hands of midwives. This is not safe either for women or the child.

According to The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with the distortion of the supply chain during and post the lockdown, the production of essential sexual and reproductive health material has been hit, leaving women helpless when taking care of their sexual well-being. Therefore, it becomes imperative that women’s safety and well-being is given fair priority. The absence of any such robust and comprehensive plan and policy will perpetuate the pre-Covid situation.  

Mental Health

The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a reminder to fortify the public health infrastructure in the context of women’s mental health issues. Even though the Covid-19 fatality rate for men is 2.8 % and women, 1.7%, the mental health of women cannot be overlooked due to various social, cultural and economic factors. Women are witnessing a sharp increase in caregiving responsibilities, with even less freedom, space or economic security.

Representative image. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Around 70% of women work in the informal economy and the job losses due to the coronavirus have led to a loss of their financial independence, leaving them exposed to exploitation and abuse. These women are vulnerable to experiencing varied mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and trauma. This resonates with a 2016 study, which shows that women with lower income than their male counterparts are twice more likely to be depressed and six times more likely to suffer from anxiety.

In Indian society, women are considered caregivers or food providers at home. As a result of the pandemic, husbands, children and other family members are all at home, adding more responsibility onto the shoulders of women. Women are expected to provide food even in a situation when they limited ration or are out of ration. Women have to be there all the time to keep a check on everyone’s well-being, both physically and mentally, leaving no space for themselves to express their anxiety.

Already, women bear an asymmetrical burden of the care economy thought taking care of children, the elderly and their other household duties, even while participating in the labour market. This burden only increases with the closure of schools. For those who are working from home, the pressure has increased to maintain a balance between work and household responsibilities. All this has led to severe mental pressure on women.

Education And Technology

Between men and women, there is not just disparity in terms of pay but a severe disparity in terms of mobile ownership in India. A Harvard Kennedy School study points out that only 38% of women have mobile phones as compared to 71% of men in the country. This gap has resulted in severe isolation and lack of information flow amongst women regarding the pandemic and matters of their interest. Due to restrictions on movement, women are unable to reach out to their relatives and share their burdens or thoughts. Nor can they seek support online for their problems.

The technological gap has also affected the education of women in the country. With education switching to an online learning medium, the lack of technological devices has become a barrier for women to gain through online education. For instance, in a survey in Telangana, it was revealed that 39.6% of families do not own smartphones. Only 48.9% of families own one smartphone, and 7.4% of families have two smartphones for two children. The situation is more or less the same in most parts of the country. In a country where boys receive preferential treatment, it is not difficult to imagine that this technological disparity has affected women more than it has affected men. 

Autonomy

The more unfortunate part of the pandemic has been that the women who were working or studying outside their native places had to move back. Since coming back, they have been burdened with the expectation of get married. This trend has gained currency primarily in developing countries, where coronavirus has given rise to poverty and food insecurity. With schools and colleges shut, marriage is being seen as a preferred option.

According to a survey of participants from 32 countries, 69% of respondents said that they believed girls are more likely to be negatively affected by closure of school due to the pandemic than boys. Of the 69%, more than half cited increased household chores during the pandemic as hindering continued education and 40% noted that early marriage and pregnancy as a result of school closures were a worry.

This also coincides with the current lack of jobs, which leads parents to find a suitable partner to secure their lives. All this has led to women losing the autonomy and liberty to make decisions for themselves. Women’s increased financial dependence on their male counterparts has also become a tool to bolster the patriarchal norms of households.

Overall women are not only dealing with the health-related risks of the pandemic, but also an accompanying “shadow pandemic” that needs to be addressed at the policy level. Hence, pandemic relief policies should be made while keeping gender at the centre. These policies should be gender-balanced to provide women with the required aid to mitigate their problems. The initial steps could be of restoring pre-existing health services and social safety net schemes for women and adolescent girls.

Other measures can include greater engagement between the government and private institutions/NGOs to provide support to women in terms of education, domestic violence and mental health. One example would be setting up a recovery fund with government and employer contributions. Such a setup has been effectively utilised in Kerala. The pandemic is likely to last long in India. In such a situation, women can be redirected to attain the skills to work in new industries with ever-increasing demands of personal protective equipment and masks.  

As Covid-19 has brought distress and devastation, it becomes imperative that we rethink the highly inequitable formation of society and the precarity with which the vast majority of women workers live and work. The situation becomes more worrying in a country such as India that stands poor in almost all the indicators. Consequently, there is an urgent need for a gender-sensitive pandemic response. This can be achieved by publicising helplines, relaxing lockdown rules for women to leave home and seek support, sensitising the police, prioritising women’s employment, and enhancing their digital access.

The absence of such measures can further deteriorate the situation that was reflected in the 600,000 social health activists who went to strike starting on August 7, 2020. It was a result of harassment, underpayment and lack of protection from the virus. Thus, understanding and responding to the Covid-19 crisis through the lens of gender will have long-term advantages and help us be better prepared to tackle a complex situation like this in the future.

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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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