The current pandemic has indeed transformed women in rural India, turning them into “community warriors”. First and foremost, they are busy producing masks to enhance protection from coronavirus; and, at the same time, they are extending financial support to their families, during the lockdown period.
Several self help groups, NGOs and local administration have joined up to ensure that masks (a very essential means of protection from the infection) are produced and accessible to maximum people in the country.
The focus this year on International Day of Rural Women (16 October), is on the urgent need for “Building rural women’s resilience” in the wake of COVID-19, by strengthening rural women’s wellbeing and sustainable livelihood. It’s a known fact that women in rural areas play a vital role in agriculture, food security and nutrition, land and natural resource management and rural enterprises. Interestingly, across the globe, they have been at the frontline of the pandemic, even the situation got complicated – as their means of earning got restricted after the lockdown, domestic work increased, while mobility got restricted, supply chains got disrupted, and climate and conflict crises compounded the impact of COVID-19.
Action across the globe
It is absolutely admirable that in India, a large number of rural women organized in self-help groups have contributed largely to fill acute shortages – by producing masks and hand sanitizers, providing fresh food through community kitchens, offering financial services, and communicating vital COVID-19 information in rural communities. In another part of the globe in China, rural women co-operatives have re-oriented to supply masks to their communities and beyond. In Mali, rural women-owned enterprises and cooperatives are putting together survival kits for vulnerable people. And, in Senegal, women rice producers are supplying government sourcing for food transfers.
So, the current situation has thus opened up livelihood opportunities to several women specially during lockdown, when most of them from the unorganised sectors have lost their jobs. Delving into the interiors of India, the picture is very revealing, and the proof is there for all to see.
In India too – rural women are productive
In Kerala, over 300 women-led micro enterprises under Kudumbashree, the State Poverty Eradication Mission in Kerala, have manufactured more than 14.50 lakh cloth masks, as announced by the Gram Panchayat of Veeyapuram. And, the masks are being procured (through bulk orders) by government departments. Child rights body Save the Children said they had provided support in setting up the apparel training centre in 2018. These masks are not only ensuring protection from coronavirus, but also doubles up as a means of livelihood for these women.
In Assam’s Dibrugarh district, the masks are manufactured by Partner NGO of Save the Children, SEWA. In Damoh in Madhya Pradesh, around 156 women have been involved in production of masks.
In Bihar’s Sitamarhi, women are making masks, supported by the government, and supplying it to primary health centres. In east Champaran district and Gaya too, Save the Children is involved in the production of masks. A noticeable fact is that in Gaya, an adolescent group of girls prepared the masks at a local level, after getting specifications from the government and distributed them in their community.
More support is required for rural women
Yet, reality is that rural women are under a disadvantage, working against challenging conditions. Already insufficient infrastructure and services in rural areas have been stretched to the limit; rural women’s invaluable work in care and production work has increased manifold, and they make do in places that have deplorable conditions – no clean, safe water, nor sanitation and hygiene, energy supply or healthcare services.
The pandemic has also heightened the vulnerability of rural women’s rights to land and resources. Discriminatory gender norms and practices hamper land and property rights for women in most countries. COVID-19 widows risk disinheritance, since women’s land rights are often dependent on their husbands. Women’s land tenure security is also disrupted as unemployed migrants return to rural communities, increasing pressure on land and resources.
So, it has never been more critical to highlight and enhance gender-responsive investments – to expand basic infrastructure, healthcare and care services in rural areas. Propping up women’s land rights can help protect women not only from displacement, but also from losing their sources of livelihood.
Galvanize action, now!
It is key on this International Day of Rural Women to galvanize action (by all stakeholders) to support rural women – to not only rebuild their lives after COVID-19 but increase their resilience to face challenges. It will also make them better-prepared to face any future crises too!!