Women empowerment has been an ongoing phenomenon since times by constituting the capability of the females, but since the pandemic, there have been major strides and gaps to her capability as inequalities and violence have percolated.
The pandemic has certainly marginalized women and affected their agency and ways to attain employability and accomplishment. As there have been numerous women who have been working in the informal sector like street vending which is the major source of livelihood and an agency for their development, their means to survive has been in threat and a dilapidated state.
Street vending has been the oldest occupation and gives bread and butter to individuals. Being a woman in street vending for many women in Koraput, Odisha has been a source of identity and voice. A woman exercises her agency through many forms which include participating in formal and informal networks, which relates to the idea of self-efficacy or the ability to do something and obtain into their pockets.
Hence, it’s the ability to take their own decisions which begins with her engagement into different forms of occupations. But the equal pandemic for all has created inequalities for these women street vendors who were the breadwinners of their families. The creation of agency among women has eroded the traditional gender roles and subordination by recognizing the importance of work.
Lockdown has added woes to the lives of these street vendors, according to the report by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, there are around 10 million street vendors in India. As per the reports of the Periodic Survey of India (2017-18), there were around 11.9 million street vendors in the country, out of which 1.2 million were women. These women street vendors became more vulnerable during the lockdown. The women street vendors working in these unorganized sectors face double discrimination.
The lockdown has posed several forms of atrocities against these women, their right to livelihood is somewhat snatched adding more misery and distress to their lives. As street vending is an occupation that includes crowded spaces and more people, the pandemic spreads in these spaces, so street vending went in a loss, where very few or nobody visited the roadside due to the fear of contracting the virus.
For the women street vendors, social distancing is not possible as they don’t have the option to work from home as they are not enlightened about the technology or there occurs a huge technological divide in accessing information among them and using it in their day to day life.
The first wave was a great shock but the second wave was much more distress-driven, capacity to invest and start vending, pandemic induced lockdown and heavily indebted, children of their indulged in beggary, child labor. Covid has immensely devastating women leading them to poverty and pessimism. Food security to digital divides is what was widespread among these women.
As Koraput is a tribal-dominated area where women from tribal communities are the breadwinners of the family. They sell the daily provisions in the market which is the only important source of livelihood for them and their entire family revolves around the income. The different waves of pandemics have posed important sources of risks and insecurities among these women leading to the deprivation of their agencies and making them disempowered.
Covid takes a toll on these women street vendors leaving them vulnerable and marginalized. The earlier law of Street Vendors Regulation Act (2014) was enacted to protect the rights of the vendors in public areas and protect their rights; the new law introduced in these times of pandemic in June 2020 the PM Atma Nirvar Sidhi (Svanidhi) scheme for the street vendors under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs who have incurred heavy losses in times of the pandemic by empowering them with micro-credit facilities and protect their livelihood
The new law is expected to credit for registered vendors, database on the urban poor, wage gaps, negotiating markets, burdens of identity both in the first and second wave, huge reverse migration and distress migration, health care protection, structural problems, vulnerabilities, and vagaries of the market which has led to the collapse of the entire masses by making them self-reliant.
The Women tribal street vendors in Koraput, Odisha do come to the market in times of the pandemic because it’s a vital source of livelihood for them but people less visit these streets with the fear to contract the virus so they earn less money which affects their process of living as well as their family.
The women create the vegetable products through their ways of farming and bring them to the market as very natural and pure but people usually prefer to buy from supermarkets in fear of Covid. These women also visited door to door to sell their vegetables as people do not come to the street. These women here tried several agencies to make them empowered and make a way for the survival of themselves and their families in these times of crisis.
As Covid-19 has disproportionately affected women and girls particularly women of colour, tribal women by restricting mobility, prohibition on different essential ways of life, like vaccination hesitancy higher among women, stigmatization, lack of public transport system, reduced levels of income, prolonged problems like a threat to their social well-being as the women from the marginalized sections of society encounter more of it. The complete fall of demand for these tribal women vendors becomes an issue of concern during a pandemic and is affecting global gender development.
In this time of conflict and crisis, these women are facing various forms of violence. Being a worker in this gig or informal economy, these women and girls are becoming victims of atrocities and trapped in dangerous situations. As every human being is equal and has the right to be capable so as the women street vendors in these tribal belts. There is also a need for them to have better access to other essential services like health, education, and ways of earning their livelihood in these times.
Fear of the third wave looming large, other avenues like trade organizations, civil society organizations who are producing masks, sanitiser, and essential services, can create awareness and sensitization among the masses about the universal pandemic.
There is a need to re-look into the massive crisis in the documentation of street vendors, investing funds for their development like the Swarnidhi Yojana, creating better health facilities through effective vaccination measures to safeguard them, use of an online mechanism to sell their products, or making them technologically developed for making their daily sustenance.
Most importantly the women street vendors, their male-female ratios, and creating a channel for these women vendors as this is a priority for their agency-making and capacity-building in these times as the pandemic calamity is here to stay, one needs to re-adapt and re-adjust with the norms of the pandemic by following the safety protocols.
Dr Nupur Pattanaik teaches Sociology at the Department of Sociology, Central University of Odisha, Koraput. She specializes in issues of gender, migration, tribal, and labour sociology. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter.