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Blurred Boundaries Of Women’s Work Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

How the Coronavirus pandemic has affected women’s lives in Wuhan, China is yet to be revealed in substantial detail. But from the available news reportage, it emerges that women have shouldered far greater professional responsibilities but at the same time experienced severe vulnerabilities as well. In Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, women worked in all conceivable frontlines of the battle against doctors and nurses’ contagion.

With the surge in cases and increasing demand for healthcare, the nurses find themselves in a difficult situation. This virus was highly contagious and their working hours spent in the hospital increased daily, as reported by Wang Lin correspondent, China Youth Daily on February 26, 2020. Their life was limited to the walls of hospitals, with protective suits and masks on.

“Their (Medical Professionals) Clothing Was Complemented With Adult Diapers And Protective Goggles That Left Lingering Imprints Around Their Eyes”

The twin burden of managing the households and, in many cases caring for small children and elderly parents has blurred the boundaries of women’s work. It is evident that regardless of the nature of work, women contributed significantly with their labour, professional skills, voluntary actions, and selfless dedication. Still, the caretakers were abused in the city.

Women As Frontline Workers- Most Medical Staff In China’s Hospitals Are Women

Universally, care work is considered a feminine duty; the case is the same for China, where most medical staff in China’s hospitals are women. The demand for these women’s services increased with the outbreak of Covid-19, and they were compelled to leave their families behind to work long shifts in the hospitals. It has been reported that more than two hundred central hospital employees were infected, including the vice presidents and the director of nursing. The heads of multiple departments were on life support. The entire orthopaedics department had been wiped out, and oncology had lost almost twenty doctors and nurses.

As reported in the China Labour Bulletin in March 2020, Guo Qin and her colleagues were exposed to the virus through their work while collecting blood and sputum samples. Even after recovery, they had to return to the hospital due to the shortage of nursing staff.

Nursing assistants, many of whom are middle-aged rural migrants, are even more at risk than doctors and registered nurses. Another nursing assistant, Chen Cuilan, who had been employed at Wuhan Central Hospital for many years, told Caixin, the Chinese newspaper correspondent, that as soon as she was confirmed with covid-19, she was forced to leave the ward. Initially, they were almost on the streets as Wuhan did not have many quarantine facilities and had to wait for their turn in quarantine centres.

But, they feared their safety after recovery as they have a duty to attend in hospitals, again exposing them to the virus. Another nurse, Liu Lu, was part of the female medical workers dispatched to Hubei narrates that the nurses decided to cut their hair short of joining duty in the airtight protective gowns Xinhua News Agency, China.  A journalist from Wuhan, Liu Lucian, narrates how twenty-four-year-old nurse Ye Qi worked more than a month without rest.

As Community Workers, Women Voluntarily Took Charge Of Daily Check-Ups Of The Residents’ Temperature, Took Care Senior Citizens Staying Alone And Delivered Groceries To Households

When under strict lockdown, Wuhan people convulsed into collective despair as a growing number of people needed immediate daily life support, women provided valuable help to the needy.

Xujia- Caiguan Jia is illustrative of women’s involvement in community work.  In Xujia Peng Street, Wuchang District, Wuhan, lived more than 4000 elderly residents who were technologically unaware of mobile apps. They were supported by women workers who came forward to help these elderly residents. One of the women volunteers Xujia emerged as Caiguan Jia, who made available all essential commodities and vegetables at much lower prices than the market and ensured food safety standards.

Another woman volunteer was Huang Ping. A teacher lived in a community close to Tongji hospital; through the school work certificate, found supermarkets group purchase, and contacted them for the community distribution in that area. Some of the women’s voluntary activism focused on awareness campaigns. Ding Cao Li came to the limelight for her committed activism in the field of epidemic prevention. Ding was the secretary of the Xinwuli community.

Hanyang District level Women’s Federation office printed a story about Ding Li, who carried out a tireless campaign against the epidemic by focusing on how to prevent its spread in the local community. Ding used a variety of methods of epidemic prevention, which includes “strict quarantine,” “strong protection,” “publicity,” “livelihood protection,” “detailed investigation,” “strict isolation,” and “solid support” to make people more aware as well as be vigilant about the contagion.

Wuhan’s Women Sanitation Workers Also Struggled To Keep The City’s Streets Clean With Increased Workloads

In addition to their usual cleaning services, sanitation workers have to empty mask recycling bins, sterilize their vehicles three times a day and spray disinfectant onto the streets.

Ms Lian, who is in her mid-60s, is paid 70 yuan a day but explained that she would be fined double of the amount if she is absent even for a single day as told to the correspondent of the China Labour Bulletin. Also, the lack of public transportation made these workers reach their workplace in time more difficult. Another sanitation worker, Ms Wu, said she had to walk for more than an hour to reach her cleaning station.

Women Also Worked Extra Shifts As Caterers And Taxi Drivers 

A group of dedicated caterers and delivery drivers like 32-year-old Chen Jing had worked around the clock to provide free meals to Wuhan’s medical staff. They had to take extra shifts to cook almost a thousand meals a day and deliver to the medical staff in five city hospitals in Wuhan by putting themselves at risk of contracting the disease in the process.

Chen had planned to return to her hometown in Shaanxi for the Lunar New Year holiday, but, like millions of others, she was trapped when the city was quarantined on 23 January. She said, “I cannot return home as I have to prepare meals for Wuhan doctors.” She worked for a food delivery company Meituan and organized an efficient and hygienic delivery system that provided medical workers with much-needed meals.

Chen and her colleagues’ efforts are testimonies to the fact that the coronavirus outbreak has not only affected the city’s frontline medical staff but has also placed extraordinary demands on Wuhan’s delivery workers, taxi drivers, sanitation, and community workers.  Thousands of taxi drivers help transport people to and from the hospital, not just suspected coronavirus cases, but pregnant women, patients under dialysis, etc. They also help keep local communities supplied with daily necessities, food, and medicine.

Industries dominated by women have been hit hard by the outbreak. According to statistics, the employment rate of Chinese women was nearly 70 per cent, mainly in agriculture, hotel, catering, and wholesale and retail industries. Unfortunately, hotel and catering, farming and livestock, and other women employment industries have been severely affected by the epidemic.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has released a list of the 100 “most underemployed” jobs in China in the third quarter of 2020. Among them, sales staff, cleaners, restaurant waiters, security guards, merchandise workers, housekeeping attendants, customer service personnel, real estate brokers, delivery workers, care workers, and other occupations are in the top 10 “most underemployed” occupations. Needless to say, that the majority of these occupations, women are employed in large numbers.

The Number Of Domestic Violence Cases Reported In January 2020 Had Also Doubled Compared With The Same Period Last Year

There has been an increase in domestic violence in China about the lockdown amid COVID-19. There were physical abuse instances by their husbands, and women were almost kicked out of their house. The police station in Jianli County, Jingzhou city in Hubei Province had received 162 reports of domestic violence in February this year — three times more than the 47 reported during the same month the previous year.

The number of cases reported in January 2020 had also doubled compared with the same period last year. In some cases, the households’ economic conditions seem to put a strain on and causing violence against women. Women often find themselves completely at the receiving end of their husbands, who hold better employment, forcing them not to report the case to the authorities. The police in many parts of China have been reluctant to help the survivors, especially during the epidemic.

So, how do the Chinese government make the policies gender-sensitive in nature will be something to be watched in the immediate future?

The above is the event excerpts of the webinar organized by Gender Impact Studies Center at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Delhi Post News on Coronavirus Pandemic and Women’s lives in Wuhan.

By Ritu Agarwal

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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