By Harini Ravi
Women empowerment: Illustrated by Mahalakshmi Guruprasad
As the biggest historic event of our lives unfolds, it comes as no surprise that women are among the most disadvantaged groups, both socially and economically. Constituting a majority of the service fields, and being the dominant family caregivers, women are disproportionately hit the hardest by the economic consequences of COVID-19. Domestic violence and abuse incidents have increased dramatically, and increased childcare needs in homes puts added pressure on working mothers. Thousands of women in the global south still lack access to sanitary napkins and other menstrual hygiene products, and the lockdown has exacerbated the unavailability of these products, given that periods don’t stop for pandemics.
In all of the overwhelming dread, it keeps becoming more difficult to find a silver lining to anything. But could we try? Perhaps the case is that the COVID lockdown has somehow helped raise awareness about the time and energy that goes into care-work, household labour and unpaid labour. As men have also started to stay home, it gives a chance to balance of the division of labor which is otherwise ignored. This makes us think – perhaps amidst all the gloom, are there some positive stories that still give us reasons to remain hopeful?
The truth is, there are innumerable stories of people helping each other out, and now more than ever, we need to hear these stories.
Some good news
While domestic violence and abuse are on the rise, women continue to show resilience and empower themselves and the people around them. In a time when the whole world is so politically divided, the threat of COVID-19 brings us together in understanding and recognizing commonalities.
In Brazil, a group of local indigenous women have started making facemasks for their community, to combat the shortage of protective gear for their health workers. Similar stories can be heard from north-east India, where a federation of women’s self-help groups have come together to stitch personal protection equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses. North-east India has in fact always pioneered in their government efforts to increase access to products for the disadvantaged. In March, the state of Assam announced in its budget that free sanitary napkins will be provided for girls in classes 6-12 in government and government-aided schools.
Innovation, however, is not limited just to north-eastern India. In a classic example of ‘making the best of what you have’, Ms. Shailaja V Gupta, a scientist in the Indian office of the principal scientific adviser, has pushed for the use of homemade cloth masks to combat the virus. She helped create a manual in 22 Indian languages on how to make these masks and has been crucial in making this the government’s primary strategy to combat the spread of the virus. Around 78,000 self-help groups have been employed from all Indian states to make these masks (BBC, 2020). Women self-help groups in rural India have also turned foot soldiers and are working day and night to provide meals for the sick and differentially abled people in their villages.
More heroic tales of empowered women continue to inspire us. In Najafgarh, Delhi, women officers from the police station have set up a make-shift kitchen outside the police station to cook meals every day. They then distribute these meals to migrant poor workers nearby who are now out of work. Every day, they feed around 800-1000 people. Not only are they breaking gender stereotypes by being frontline workers with law enforcement during the lockdown, but are also working overtime to provide for others.
In the Herat province of western Afghanistan, a group of girls from the robotics team have set out to build ventilators from used car parts to help out with the shortage. Using an open-source blueprint from MIT, the team uses old car parts like the windshield, batteries, etc. to develop a prototype for a ventilator that can be then tested and reproduced. This only goes to show that when girls return to school, progress follows.
There is also some cause for optimism for women’s employment. Traditionally, the lack of flexible work arrangements has always been a source of gender pay gap. The lack of flexibility in the job is often even quoted as the reason for not employing women in certain positions. But what the lockdown has shown us is that almost every business is able to adopt a work-from-home arrangement on a wide scale. This is good news for working mothers and could also consequently turn fathers into primary childcare providers in the long term. Whether the crisis will shift social norms or not is a question that we cannot yet answer, but this definitely allows working mothers to keep their jobs safe.
However, remember that you are not alone in this. Together, we can do our part to add to these good news and positive stories that make this experience bearable. Ensure that you read, listen, watch and share women’s stories during this time. Engage with women’s rights groups and help network to support connectivity and help build a feminist policy response to this pandemic. A simple yet powerful thing to do would be to talk to your own family about gender equality within the household. If you’re in a position to donate, ensure that you give to the cause.
The goal is here to not turn every disaster into an opportunity. It is to form practical and human responses to a strange problem and find small moments of solidarity in the process. Support your community, share some kindness, while keeping yourself safe. If we act responsibly, we just might be able to use this time to shape the future that we always wanted.
‘Indigenous women make face masks instead of crafts’. (2020, April 28). [Video]. SBS News, retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/news/indigenous-women-make-face-masks-instead-of-crafts
Linda Chhakchhuak. (2020, April 16). Amid Shortage Of Protective Gear, Masks And Sanitizers, People In North East Craft Their Own. The Logical Indian, retrieved from https://thelogicalindian.com/exclusive/north-east-covid-gear-20629
Pallava Bagla. (2020, April 24). India coronavirus: The woman who pushed for homemade masks. BBC News, retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52270444
Sakshi Chand. (2020, April 14). Duty by choice: Delhi cops cook for needy. The Times of India, retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/duty-by-choice-cops-cook-for-needy/articleshow/75131550.cms
Tameem Akhgar. (2020, April 19). Ventilator from old car parts? Afghan girls pursue prototype. ABC News, retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/ventilator-car-parts-afghan-girls-pursue-prototype-70228875