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As COVID Waves Rise, We Fall, But These Informal Workers Keep Us Afloat

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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.

By Shambhavi Saxena:

Here we are again. Between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

Coronavirus infections rose to over 3,00,000 in April as India went under lockdown for a second time in as many years. We’ve seen it before, but by the looks of it, we’re none the wiser. Even with vaccines being rolled out, the virus’ rapid mutations and reports of black fungus continue to trigger panic.

It’s impossible to log onto Twitter or Facebook or the WhatsApp family group and not see the word “COVID”. But what you won’t see in these conversations are the voices of migrant and informal workers, like women domestic workers.

As far as most middle-class employers are concerned, the decision to ‘stop them from coming to stop spread of the virus’ or ‘let go of the help’ was in everyone’s best interest. Not so much, if we hear the other side of the story.

An elderly woman domestic worker washes clothes on the floor. Image Credit: ILO Asia Pacific/Flickr.

Barely scraping through from the first knock-out (lockdown), an overwhelming majority of migrant informal workers have lost their jobs and source of income. According to a joint study by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) and the Rajasthan Mahila Kamgar Union (RMKU), a domestic workers’ household had about 15 days’ worth of pay in savings on the eve of the 2020 lockdown. Over half of those surveyed had less than 10 days’ worth. How likely is it that this year’s savings (if any!) can tide them over the second lockdown period?

In March 2020, when the lockdown was announced, Settlement Improvement Committees (SICs), formed in urban informal settlements in Ajmer, Jhansi, and Muzaffarpur under our ‘Engaged Citizens, Responsive City’ project, were quick off the block, spreading awareness of hand hygiene and distributing masks. With some support from PRIA, 600 families received masks, sanitisers, sanitary napkins, soap, mosquito repellant, and bleaching powder.

As lockdown continued, and the urban poor faced hunger and deprivation, the SICs used the funds to distribute ration packs to nearly 500 families, containing dal, rice, atta, milk powder, oil, salt and spices, sugar, and tea.

Our support this year is towards women domestic workers in Delhi-NCR, Sonipat, Panipat, and Muzaffarpur, along with the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF), and supported by several local organisations (SEWA Bharat, Shehri Gharelu Kamgar Union, among others).

At the forefront are the women domestic workers themselves.

COVID Relief: Domestic Workers Take The Lead

In the Harijan Basti settlement in Gurugram, abutting the tall condominium complexes of DLF 5, several domestic workers have been asked not to come to work.

Community engagement in this settlement over the past three to four years has helped develop a small, committed cadre of domestic worker champions who provide a support system to their neighbours and friends.

When we reached out to them, to enquire about their health and how we could support them in this time of need, their answer inspires us: “Didi, aap bas hamein ration pahuncha do. Hum distribution organize kar denge.” (Please send us the ration; we will organize the distribution). They collected the data – Aadhar Card details, phone numbers, and so on – arranged them in order of those who needed the ration supplies the most, and sent the list to us.

This helped us prepare the packets for distribution. When people are desperate for food, intra-community conflicts can take an ugly turn, but for the leadership of those community members who care for their community.

The women domestic worker champions chose what went into the relief kits based on their knowledge of their community. “They were mindful of regional diets”, explains Samiksha Jha, Program Officer at MFF. “Kits with daliya and protein-rich sattu went to migrants from UP and Bihar,” says Jha, “while those from Haryana got their staple of aloo-pyaaz. They asked for sanitary hygiene products for menstruating workers, and iron tablets for pregnant women. In addition, two women have started stitching order of 4,000 cloth masks that we are including in these kits.”

Since early May, these domestic worker champions have helped us reach out to over 1,200 households, in Khanpur, Naraina, and Jamia Nagar in Delhi, to informal worker settlements in Sonipat and Panipat, Faridabad and Muzaffarpur, steadily moving us towards our target of 3,500 households.

A young woman domestic worker from Harijan Basti in Gurugram sits at her sewing machine making cloth masks for distribution. Image Credit: The Martha Farrell Foundation.

Going Beyond ‘Ration’

Prior to the pandemic, domestic workers in South Delhi were making an average of ₹9,000 a month, well below the minimum fixed by the Delhi government. In reality, with wages being set by the middle-class household who employs them, these women have little individual and collective bargaining power to increase the wages.

It gets worse: a study by WIEGO found that domestic workers were spending three-fourths of their income on visits to the doctor. You’d think there were no government schemes to make healthcare accessible.

But there are.

The Ayushman Bharat Yojana promises secondary- and tertiary-level care up to ₹5,00,000 per family per year, and it covers domestic workers. The Delhi Aarogya Nidhi provides financial support of ₹1,50,000. The Aam Aadmi Mohalla Clinics are there to provide basic healthcare to underserved people. But the chinks in the institutional delivery mechanism have never been more apparent.

Take for example e-coupons for ration. To you and me, it might seem like a top-notch plan – the process can be done from our home offices and in under 10 minutes. Except that it excludes everyone without a data-enabled smartphone, identity documents, and a way to print out the coupons.

Same goes for the vaccine. “Tikakaran lein toh aakhir lein kaise (How are we supposed to get our shot)?” a domestic worker from Harijan Basti asks. “Online registration ek jhamela hai. Lagta hai yeh vaccine hum log ke liye hai hi nahi (Registrations are a big hassle. It feels like the vaccine just wasn’t made for us).”

Going beyond relief materials, PRIA and MFF are taking the next step of assisting women domestic workers register online for the vaccine, and should they get lucky, helping them reach the right facility on the day of their appointment.

When one domestic worker from Southeast Delhi went to a government clinic, she found the free COVID test was no longer available. She was directed to private camps, but they were charging ₹800 a head. For her family of four, it was the equivalent of one month’s pay. By providing guidance and information to women domestic workers living in informal settlements, PRIA is making sure they don’t find themselves in a similar situation.

Domestic workers in Gurugram’s Harijan basti distribute relief materials in their community. Image courtesy of the Martha Farrell Foundation.

Distributing ration takes care of a very basic need, but domestic workers need support in more ways than one, over a longer period. And it can (and must!) come from the middle classes who employ them. The Institute of Social Studies Trust found that 54.3% of domestic workers could not collect their salary, while 10% said their salaries were withheld. Employers can make a huge difference by learning about the rights of domestic workers. A good place to start is to the read the domestic workers manifesto – what domestic workers want, in their own words.

Women informal workers deserve sustainable livelihoods and safe and healthy places of work – all of which will secure their future through the pandemic and beyond.

Mera sapna, mera bhavishya” is their hope.

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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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