A recent allegation against the UP police in Shahjahanpur mentions that ASHAs were beaten up for exercising their democratic right to protest. Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) have been at the frontline of India’s battle against Covid-19. However, their official compensation amounts to approximately no more than Rs. 6000 per month according to testimonials given by ASHAs.
Apart from the meagre income, ASHAs regularly face threats to their wellbeing through verbal and physical assault by patients. There have been numerous accounts by ASHAs who have said that patients suffering from Covid-19 have lashed out on them.
The Indian government has made little to no effort to alleviate the situation ASHAs are facing currently. A promised Covid care package that was promised to be released has still not reached the workers. Protective equipment including masks, gloves and coverings are not being provided to them. Numerous ASHAs have succumbed to Covid-19 due to direct contact with Covid positive patients.
No compensation has been paid to their families. Many ASHAs were the sole earning members of their families. Their demise leaves their family with an added burden of financial anxiety apart from being torn due to a personal loss.
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In an article by Khabar Laharya, Aarti an ASHA has said, “People who have been sick for a long time – I need to take care of them also. I have to maintain social distancing. I have to put up notices outside the houses of people who have arrived from outside and need to self-isolate. And a lot of people don’t know why they should be doing that, so I educate them about the 14-day quarantine period.”
Moreover, the pandemic has also reared a monstrous head of social stigma that ASHAs face. This leads to a dual level of vulnerability. ASHAs have to relentlessly work to care for patients at the potential risk of being ostracised themselves. This happens because of the widespread fear that people have of contracting the virus. Hence, ASHAs have to face the social stigma of not being accepted into their own neighbourhoods as well.
Lakshmi, another ASHA told Khabar Lahariya that, “I have faced violence and abuse. When we go to get the details of anyone who has come from outside of the village, they get aggressive. Some abuse us and even beat us. They accuse us of lying about them being covid positive even though we tell them that this is not just for positive people.
We just want to get their travel details, the place where they have come from or whether they have any symptoms. But most abuse us and refuse to give details.”
South Asian culture has dominantly depended on women and marginalised gender groups for caregiving.
ASHAs are a systemic representation of this stereotypical exploitation of women and other marginalised genders as caregivers.
The ASHA workforce is driven only by women. The mass scale apathy that they are facing hence cannot be delegated to a pandemic.
The kind of abuse and assault that ASHAs have faced has not been limited to only the two years that the pandemic has raged in India. ASHAs have been at the forefront in eradicating polio from India as well as combating the death rate of women from giving birth. However, their fight for better pay and better treatment has continuously fallen apart.
For ASHAs, their pay is not regulated by any labour laws. Hence, they do not have access to legally fight for any legal wages.
While feminism battles the important war for equal wages, the intersection has failed to take cognizance of the harassment ASHAs have faced.
This stems from a systemic indifference towards a workforce who are taken for granted for the important work that they continue to do.
Women have historically been expected to contribute unpaid labour. The mistreatment of ASHAs has cemented the cultural belief that women are always expected to work at wages that do not add up to their workload.
While the country has rightfully shown large scale respect for medical healthcare professionals, the classist differentiation of labour fails to take into account the labour dedicated by ASHAs.
On August 7 2020, approximately six lakh ASHAs went on a two-day strike to demand better working conditions and higher pay.
According to a report in The Print, a 45-year-old ASHA has said, “For working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. we get only 2,000 rupees ($27) a month and no masks or sanitiser.” The Indian government has struggled to control the spread of the pandemic ever since 2020. Hence, the ASHAs have faced increased labour combined with a higher risk of endangerment.
The protests that still continue to date have been met with hostility. Police forces have brutally beaten and detained ASHAs. The Karnataka Rajya ASHA Karyakartha Sangha had met Dr K Sudhakar (Health and Medical Education Minister) on 17th November to make their demands heard. However, despite long-drawn protests and public outrage, the government has yet to release the 50 lakh compensation for deceased ASHA workers’ families.
#PhotoOfTheDay | ASHA workers and Facilitators union members shout slogans—demanding better working conditions—during a protest against the state government outside the residence of Punjab Deputy Chief Minister O.P. Soni, in Amritsar on November 22, 2021 https://t.co/KGQK6vd1PV
— Forbes India (@ForbesIndia) November 23, 2021
Congress’ National General Secretary, Priyanka Gandhi has promised an honorarium of Rs. 10,000 to the ASHAs after the Shajahanpur allegations surfaced. In a tweet, Priyanka Gandhi has also said, “Every assault on the ASHA sisters by the UP government is an insult to the work done by them.”
In May 2021, the National Human Rights Commission has also demanded a report from the central and state governments on what they mentioned was “poor working conditions” of ASHAs.
A majority of the country’s healthcare is heavily dependent on ASHAs. A fruitful resolution that takes into account all their demands is the only way to relieve the systemic harm that ASHAs have faced for so many years.