While the government equated Staying at home with safety during the pandemic, unfortunately for some women across the country, this option was anything but safe. An increase in issues of domestic violence, unemployment, sexual harassment was likely as confinement would deprive women access to the traditional routes towards help.
In conversation with Reshma Anand, CEO, Hindustan Unilever Foundation, four shereos recognize the need to be present, now more than ever & shed light on how they continue to tackle issues of safety, security, mental & physical well-being of women during COVID-19 in our 4th episode of Reality Check.
Lakshmi Waghmare, a member of CORO working in Osmanabad, works towards the welfare of single women, fighting issues of domestic violence, women’s basic rights, unemployment & health & well-being. Reminiscing about the past, she mentioned, “I was a victim of child marriage & domestic abuse, in my endeavor to earn a few bucks, I started working as a health worker in 1999. As I met & interacted with more & more women, I realized most of them were suffering from either domestic violence or violation of basic human rights.” By gathering small groups of women & promoting the concept of ‘Self Help’, Lakshmi managed to guide and provide relief to over 17,000 women for the past 2 decades.
Lakshmi elaborated on her work, saying, “We are determined to break the social norms that hinder the development of women in villages, we educate women on their rights, counsel them to avoid normalizing issues like child marriage, domestic violence & sexual harassment & provide support as a group.”
Poonam Didi, Jyoti Mahila Samakhya, Bihar, mirrored Lakshmi’s sentiment of unity and said, “Our focus is on not just resolving issues like gender inequality, violation of human rights, education & unemployment, but the goal is to build a close-knit community to be able to fight injustice together, as one unit.”
While Lakshmi & Poonam didi, focused on providing relief to countless women by conducting self-help groups, counseling on the ground (pre-COVID), Paonam Thoibi, an independent Clinical Psychologist based out of Manipur highlighted the need for creating awareness on mental health, especially in times like now, where women are working from home as well as working for home. “I initiated a group called ‘The collective trust’ on social media and invited fellow workers from the healthcare & legal departments to be available via phone calls. We wanted to ensure we pacify emotionally distressed callers.” While the focus is usually on women & children, Thoibi urged the viewers to not ignore other marginalized groups like the LGTBQ. Along with answering distress calls from all over India, Thoibi also managed to build a team that was dedicated to providing psychological first aid to people in quarantine centers
Lubaina Plumber, a member of the Ajeevika Bureau and a human rights lawyer based in Mumbai stressed the need for policy & development-oriented work in the legal sector so as to facilitate women, children, and now laborers with their rights. She also highlighted the gap in tackling social behavior failures like domestic violence, which exists across all socioeconomic strata, thereby signaling the urgent need for advocacy against normalizing violent behavior
Our panelists collectively voice lack of information dissemination as one of the major issues in safeguarding women’s safety across the country, especially in the villages where most women are illiterate. Commending Lakshmi & Poonam’s efforts towards educating the women of their rights & reinforcing their faith in the judicial system, Lubaina says, “Once the women have knowledge, they find the courage to take the step towards claiming their right, that’s where my job as a lawyer comes in. Therefore, it is essential for information like the protection laws, availability of lady officers in police stations, etc to first reach these women which can only be possible if a consortium existed between civil society organizations and the women & children.”
Adding to Lubaina’s point, Poonam said,” “We need to focus on gathering & understanding information received from the government while maintaining strong communication amongst each other. Dissemination of the right information at the right time will be essential.”
Though there is a fear of our voices not reaching the women with as much intensity as it did in person, we have hope in the new medium of video conferencing/zoom calls as it allows us to be in contact with the members of the group”, says Lakshmi who utilized the power of available technology to combat issues of unemployment, food shortage & distressed women with counselling.
“We took time to familiarize ourselves with the new ways of working now that we could not step out of the house. But I trust we will get better in adapting to the new ways of working. Within the initial few weeks we managed to pull off a video conference meeting whilst following the lockdown protocol.”
With lockdown halting the on-ground progress made across the varied issues, Lubiana points out the need to restart the conversation on Gender sensitization, with optimal utilization of phones and social media so that providing relief to those seeking assistance isn’t deserted.
Creating opportunity in adversity
“We are creating employment opportunities based on current needs, like manufacturing
masks, selling snacks & food products to sustain,” said Lakshmi who emphasized adaptability is one of the key solutions in the existing scenario. She further highlighted women stuck at homes produced 6000 face masks which helped them in generating some income
Contribution on an individual level
Ending the session by highlighting the various ways in which the society can contribute in helping women in distress, our panelists emphasize on guiding the victims to the right agencies/organizations or independent practitioners to support the relief team in providing care.
Winding up the conversation, Lubaina stressed, “There is no one way to bring about change. Whatever we do, mainly in our personal capacity amalgamates at a certain point which helps in making or breaking the system.”
Based on the Panel discussion on Mantra4Change’s Reality Check Webinar series