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“Test Ke 500Rs Ka Khaana Lenge, Didi”: COVID Second Wave Left Out Domestic Workers

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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.

This article has been compiled by Sarita Devi, a domestic worker champion from Harijan Basti and Nitya Sriram, Senior Program Officer at MFF. 

In the heart of Gurugram’s posh DLF Phase 5 area, nestled amidst the multi-storey deluxe complexes, is a small urban village, set quite a way off the main road so as to be well shielded from the public eye. This is Harijan Basti, small in area, especially when reckoned against its estimated population of 10-15,000 families.

The colony is everything that the surrounding complexes aren’t, with its narrow lanes, rickety buildings and communal toilets. It’s home to all the domestic workers who work in the nearby apartments. In the second wave of COVID-19, the Basti is also a hotspot for infection, as a rising number of residents – including women informal workers – contract the deadly virus every day.

A participatory map drawn by MFF program staff with domestic workers of their Basti, to visualise the place they live in.

Bindya (name changed) is a resident of this colony, who fell ill last week. The only place she’s been stepping out of her home to go to is her workplace – two houses in the nearby Carlton-IV, which has been declared a Large Outbreak Area by local authorities. Bindya has three children in the house. They’ve all presented with fever and cough.

Bindya knows this is not the regular flu. She also knows that to confirm her suspicions, she needs to get herself and all her children tested. That’s Rs. 500 per test for five people, including her husband. Or going up to the local government hospital, at least 4 kms away.

After a fight with her increasingly volatile and agitated husband, Bindya decides on the latter. She takes her children one by one, on the backseat of her cycle, painstakingly, battling fever and illness herself, in the scorching summer heat to get tested. They test positive. And a new battle begins. For medicines, verified information, doctors’ appointments, countering misinformation.

Bindya’s story is not unique. Over the last one week, the Martha Farrell Foundation, which has been engaged with women domestic workers in the basti for over half a decade, has begun a rapid assessment of the colony to understand the extent to which the community has been affected by the second wave.

Domestic worker champions (women leaders from within the community), along with our programs team have been holding conversations with 120+ women domestic workers from the basti, helping raise the iron curtain around the settlement as the city plunged into another lockdown to curb rising cases.

Initial conversations have revealed that families across the board are facing challenges, which need immediate attention and concrete action.

The Unique Challenges Of The Second Wave

A domestic worker from Harijan Basti typically works part-time in anything between 1 – 6 homes in the nearby multi-storey complexes of DLF Phase V and Gurgaon Sector 43-44.

Around mid-April, the stress began to mount, as employers stopped part-timers from coming in to work. In the beginning, the women were told it would be for a short period of time.

“Tu thoda halaat sambhalne de” (let things get a little better) is what they’re told. However, about 24 of the women we spoke to have lost their jobs permanently. Another 40 have been temporarily asked to leave – those who left mid-month are uncertain if they would get paid for the days they went to work.

Most have little hope of being paid during the lockdown imposed in Haryana currently. Unsurprisingly, many of the domestic workers we spoke to, were asked to come and work in the homes of their employers right up until the lockdown was imposed. Some were called to homes where residents were presenting with COVID-19 symptoms.

Consequently, they picked up the infection, which spread quickly in the basti owing to cramped conditions of living and little physical distancing. There’s no data to prove this, though, as there’s been no community testing in the basti. The families are unable to afford to get tested. “Woh 500 rupay ka khaana khaalenge hum, didi,” (We’ll use those 500Rs for food instead, sister) they say.

In the meanwhile, the plush condominium owners have begun terming women domestic workers as ‘COVID Super Spreaders’. Working in multiple households, where residents are contracting the virus is perceived to be the reason behind the outbreak of infection in the condominiums.

The discrimination at the hands of the employers is echoed in the attitudes of the security guards of the condominiums, who harass the women and refuse to let them go up to their employers’ houses to collect their salaries or continue working.

It hasn’t stopped employers from attempting to coerce the domestic workers into working full time in their houses, instead of going back to their homes and families though.

Stranded without pay, and discriminated against, many of the women we spoke to have already, or plan to return to their hometowns, likely taking the undetected infection with them to areas that have no health infrastructure or capacity to handle more positive cases.

Those who are stranded here, are left to deal with a similar, pitiful situation – a dearth of verified information, no leads for medicines, hospitals, and no access to affordable doctors or healthcare.

The women, whose faith in the system was already fragile after the last lockdown, are left completely shook. “Khaane peene ka dikkat aajayega, agar lockdown lamba chala toh bahot mushkil hojaayega,” (It’ll get difficult to arrange for food and survive if lockdown continues) one woman said.

Every single conversation revealed to us just how wretchedly we’ve let these fierce women down. Once proud earners who ran their homes, they’ve been reduced to the brink of poverty and begging.

These are just experiences from one basti of an estimated 15000 families of domestic workers. India has an estimated 4 million people who work as domestic workers, as per official records. Similar stories and experiences are emerging from other settlements in Delhi-NCR, as well, according to the Network for the Rights and Voices of Domestic Workers, a coalition of seventeen organisations working with domestic workers in the NCR.

A street in Harijan Basti. The settlement is overcrowded with little space for vehicles to pass, and poorly developed roads. With its own shops, temple and mini library, it’s a world of its own. Residents from the condominiums nearby are hardly ever seen in the Basti.

How You Can Help

The ongoing assessment has revealed an immediate need for information, medicines, dry ration and access to healthcare as urgent requirements for the domestic worker community. 

The Martha Farrell Foundation and PRIA are reaching out to 300+ families with COVID-19 Relief Kits to address the gaps. Each kit costing ₹1500 contains dry rations for a month for a family of four, masks, sanitary napkins, ORS and soap. 

And with your help, we’re hoping to expand the outreach to another 3500+ families across Delhi, Faridabad, Sonepat, Panipat and other bastis in Gurgaon. Here’s what you can do to get involved: 

  • Amplify: Amplify our ask among your networks and friends. Every contribution counts, and can help a family survive this pandemic. 
  • Volunteer: You can volunteer to verify leads for all COVID-19 related information for domestic workers with our Programs team. Shoot us an email at info@marthafarrellfoundation.org
  • Start Your Own Mini Crowdfunding Campaigns: If you’re up for it, you can plan a crowdfunding campaign to help us raise the money. Eg: If you’re an artist, you can take an online workshop, in which the proceeds from registrations go towards our COVID relief fund. Team MFF is happy to help with logistical support (planning, amplification, Zoom link creation) for the same. Shoot us an email at info@marthafarrellfoundation.org if this is something you’d like to do with us.
Relief packages being prepared at the MFF and PRIA office. Distribution began this week.

Most importantly, keep your eyes peeled – if you notice people abusing their power and/or harassing, discriminating against, or forcing domestic workers to come to work, take action to put an end to it. You can reach out to us for help and guidance on how.

Featured image credit: Outside in the streets they wash their clothes. (Photo by: Fredo de Luna/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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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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