Since India announced the nationwide lockdown in March to keep its Coronavirus caseload in check, the poorer and vulnerable sections of society have been struggling for survival. Penury forced lakhs of migrant workers to undertake perilous journeys, basic necessities became inaccessible, and reports of domestic violence have risen.
While central and state governments mobilized task forces and frontline workers to the aid of those worst-affected, women-led community relief programmes have been making an impact too. MAKERS India spoke to a few women in rural Maharashtra who have succeeded in protecting women and help them emerge from the crisis.
Aiding women in the battle against violence
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence against women has reportedly intensified globally. In India, data published by the National Commission for Women suggests that between March 25 and May 31 (2020), 1477 complaints of domestic violence were made by women. This is the highest number of complaints received in the same period in the previous 10 years.
However, taking steps to change this scenario is Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a Pune-based NGO. Although it had closed all its centers in March, its team is working remotely.
Naseem Shaikh, the associate director of programs at Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) in Osmanabad, tells MAKERS India that the teams connected with women leaders and constituted Sakhi Task Force (STF), across 500 villages in Maharashtra.
Naseem says, “It becomes easy to tackle domestic violence when women are organized in collectives. The menfolk have lost their livelihoods and the stress is manifesting itself in the form of violence. STF teams are helping women become self-sufficient so that the families’ needs are fulfilled. We also counsel the husbands and their parents.”
She narrated an instance where the timely intervention of a task force group prevented a domestic violence victim from committing suicide. She says, “We got information that a woman from Dahiwad village who has three children had run away from home to attempt suicide. She had been brutally assaulted by her husband. The task force women traced her and counseled her and made her stay with them in turns. We made her understand that her husband will not be affected at all if she commits suicide, but her children’s lives will be ruined.”
Naseem says maintaining community pressure is an effective mechanism for keeping violence in check. She says, “After the woman was rehabilitated, we sent a note with a list of names to the police station and the gram panchayat stating that if this woman commits suicide or if something happens to her, then these people should be held responsible.”
Mahananda Chauhan, who has been working as a program coordinator for Kamdhenu Saamajik in Tuljapur district in Maharashtra says, “Inaccessibility of alcohol has also abetted violence against women. Kamdhenu Samaajik has Mahila Mandals in every village. Whenever we receive complaints of violence, we notify the women in the mandals and everyone else in our networks including the tehsildar, sarpanch, gram sevaks, aamdaar, and khasdar.”
Recollecting an incident when the team counselled a woman for hours on Zoom, (she wanted to end her life due to abuse by husband), Mahananda adds, “Earlier, we used to visit the houses of victims regularly to check on them but now we conduct counseling sessions on Zoom calls. We have increased the frequency of counseling sessions because we have noticed that stress levels have been at an all-time high among women owing to financial concerns and manifold increase in household responsibilities.”
Supporting single women
Mental health problems have skyrocketed during the lockdown, especially among women who bear the stress of running households and increasing domestic violence. As much as women in living in joint families are facing mental and physical exhaustion, life has become increasingly turbulent for single women because of loneliness.
Mahananda says, “For single women, confinement has made life very tough. During the lockdown, the Mahila Mandals ensured that single women have all the support they needed. We would speak to them regularly so that they didn’t feel lonely; with the help of gram sevaks, we get essentials delivered to them.”
In the last 12 years, Mahananda has emerged as a trailblazer for her work in creating awareness about gender equality, maternal and reproductive health issues.
Her team used to organize rallies, street theatres, and camps to advocate that men should actively participate in household chores and take an active interest in health matters of the women in the family. In every village, they would select leaders from groups of men, and train them on the benefits of gender equality. They would then conduct sessions with the men of the village. However, all these stopped once the lockdown was imposed.
Mahananda says, “So we started sharing photos and videos via WhatsApp of the men leaders doing household chores in their homes and helping women in taking care of children to set an example. We even shared the video of a skit with the message, ‘Imagine your sister being married into a family where she has to do all the household chores!’”
Mahananda continued using technological tools to share messages about nutritional practices that expectant mothers should follow and the protocols they need to adapt to avoid being infected with COVID-19.
She says, “The menfolk have little knowledge about the foods that expecting mothers should have and do not even accompany their wives for regular check-ups. At a time when basic essential services are disrupted, it was extremely important to drive home the message that men need to play an active role in ensuring that expecting mothers got adequate nutrition. We created slide shows which were shared on WhatsApp and used Zoom for conducting sessions.”
Ensuring better menstrual hygiene
Menstruation continues to be a taboo topic across most of the country, and in some villages, women are ostracized and sent away from their houses when they get their periods.
Komal Bharam (26) who has been working as a program coordinator at Kriya Program in Mulshi Valley says, “I have been actively working in sensitizing people about hygienic menstruation practices in villages. Earlier we would conduct sessions for entire villages on destigmatizing menstruation. When the lockdown was announced, we designed online campaigns to make people aware that making women step out of the houses during periods could put them at great risk of contracting the infection.”
Komal herself has gone door-to-door to distribute sanitary napkins and other essentials, along with ASHA workers during the lockdown. They have also distributed forms in each household (to keep track of the need for essential supplies) and pamphlets with information on the importance of wearing masks and washing hands frequently.
As a trainer at Kriya, Komal has been actively involved in teaching young girls in villages various sporting activities for the upkeep of their health. “I have taught girls in villages how to ride bicycles, swim, play frisbee. During the lockdown, I taught women and girls via video calls on how they could continue exercising at home to keep themselves fit.”
A helping hand to returning migrants
These women leaders have also emerged as beacons of hope for migrant workers in these difficult times, helping them restart their lives in their native villages.
Naseem says, “The first challenge was to ensure community quarantine protocols were followed once the migrants reached home as per the directives of the Maharashtra government. We ensured that the quarantine centers had electricity and water supply, proper sanitation facilities, and adequate safety arrangements for women candidates with the help of ASHA, Anganwadi workers, gram sevaks and rozgar sevaks. To ensure uninterrupted food supply, we got in touch with affluent figures in the district and convinced them to donate food in villages. We also convinced the Tehsildar to allow the ration shops to distribute benefits of government ration schemes to those who do not have ration cards and to extend credit facilities.” Additionally, women in the task force have started the registration process for getting ration cards made for those who do not have it.
Meanwhile, Mahananda has been helping migrant women who have returned to the villages earn livelihoods by enabling them to make masks. “We spoke to the gram panchayats and explained how many families do not have the money to even afford a cloth mask. So we got migrant women to sew masks and asked the gram panchayat to provide the material and pay them. The masks were then distributed for free in the villages. This has helped us to an extent in making those women self-sufficient who were forced to return from cities after losing their jobs.”
No doubt mankind is going through tough times like never before; but it is the efforts of community leaders like these women which give us hope for survival and a better tomorrow.
(Edited by Athira Nair)