Reflections on Resilience: Rising up to “flatten the curve”: Resilient women, resilient communities, by Prema Gopalan

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RISING UP TO “FLATTEN THE CURVE”:
RESILIENT WOMEN, RESILIENT COMMUNITIES

Prema Gopalan, Swayam Shikshan Prayog

How are the communities you work with coping with the lockdown? What are the communities you work with? What are their main concerns now?

“COVID and Rural India” Women and communities in rural India are not isolated from the impact of #COVID19. While a nationwide lockdown is very much needed to stop the spread of the deadly virus, its impact on rural communities is invisible and not in the headlines.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) is working closely with grassroots women and communities in Maharashtra, Kerala, Odisha, Bihar and other States. There is a high level of awareness of coronavirus and communities have started isolating themselves to the extent possible. However, there is a lot of fear. Communities are not sure how they will be impacted and for how long they will be able to deal with the fallout of this crisis.

Social Impact:

Rumours and misinformation are causing fear! Village communities are in a dilemma. Many family members are returning home and there is apprehension about them spreading the virus. At the same time, there is a strong sense of family and the need to help “our people”.  Returning migrants are indirectly adding to the pressure on an already strained system.

Health Impact:

Rural India is not at all equipped to deal with a public health crisis. The coverage of Primary Health Centres is low and they lack the personnel, medicines and equipment despite all the efforts. Health and ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers are conducting door-to-door visits to spread awareness of hygiene and preventive practices, but they do not have any safety or protective equipment.

Agricultural Impact:

Agriculture hit during harvesting season! #Social Distancing for agriculture means farmers are reeling under the pressures of the harvest and labourers have no work! Agricultural labour who are usually daily/weekly wage earners, have been hit hard. Those farmers, who toil on their farms, have no way to sell their produce, due to the broken supply chain between farmers and markets. On the other hand, harvesting is considered as a woman’s job and so women have to be in their fields for much longer, and attend to their families, neglecting their own health. No cash in hand means- no food to eat. Further, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence for many women headed households, widows, landless and daily wage workers who have little or no savings.

Economic Impact:

Micro-enterprises and small businesses facing closure; no income alternatives! #WorkFromHome not an option for rural women and communities! Many of the women entrepreneurs who run their own small businesses are facing the risk of business closure due to the lockdown. Only businesses dealing with food – flour mills, milk delivery and grocery stores –  are open. Women entrepreneurs, who have taken microfinance loans to set up their enterprises, are being pushed into debt.

Are you able to be in contact with them and what are you hearing?

We have been in contact with them since March 17th 2020, when SSP closed its offices and reached out through phone calls, WhatsApp to SSP’s Sakhi network in the villages.

As in every crisis, we have experienced, empowered women are taking on roles as interlocutors between people and local governments. Leaders and their self-help groups are acting first as educators and connectors to health services, ration shops and as micro planners with Gram Panchayats to manage this crisis. Our women leaders have identified 6,000 families across Osmanabad, Latur, Nanded of Marathwada region and Solapur in Maharashtra, Kerala and Bihar. They are the most vulnerable and those who need rations to survive – daily wage labourers, widows/single headed households, SC/ST families and landless households.

It’s a month after lockdown and every day, I hear stories of how SSP teams and women’s networks have risen to the challenge and are doing whatever it takes to help their communities. I would like to share a few inspiring stories with you.

2020-04-21 Usha Gurav, Boramani, Solapur

Usha Gurav, Boramani village, Solapur

The lockdown has hit the poor and among them, hit the widows of Marathwada the most. They have lost their daily jobs and their small businesses face closure. When people do not have enough, who is there to look out for widows and their children?

Seeing the plight of twenty widows, in her village, Usha Gurav urged her group that “mutual aid and helping each other was the reason they had started this work”. All of them dug into their precious savings and made a plan to first support the widows and then others. In the presence of their Panchayat, they procured and distributed fifty grocery kits enough to feed well over 200 people helped by Swayam Shikshan Prayog’s efforts.

Unstoppable, Usha and her group with the Panchayat looked after migrants who had travelled with little or nothing with them. “They are not outsiders, they are after all, our people” Usha’s selflessness has inspired her village to look after all those affected by the crisis.

2020-04-17 Mangal Palekar, Osmanabad 3Mangal Palekar, Wadgaon village, Osmanabad

Mangal leads the Gandoba Women Farmers group. She realized many poor families were suffering as they weren’t able to earn to sustain their families. “It’s disturbing to see people live without work, food or money. I visited them to assess the situation and what I saw compelled me to take immediate action. I started distributing 10-12 litres of milk daily from my home especially to families with children and pregnant mothers.”

Mangal tai has a daily distribution plan, so more people benefit. Every alternate day she visits different streets. “In all, I cover 25 families daily, and take precautions to wear a mask. As I meet women, I guide them on hand washing, hygiene and physical distancing.” Mangal tai has risen above her group efforts to mobilize food distribution to ensure no one in her village – goes hungry!

SSP had trained Arogya Sakhis who actually took last-mile health care into the community. Had this been replicated more widely, it may have helped prevention measures tremendously, but what are you hearing back from the women who trained in this project? Are they feeling empowered/ sidelined/ vulnerable? 

SSP works with over 700 Sakhis/Community Resource Persons who work to popularise sustainable agriculture, to seed entrepreneurship, promote safe hygiene, water and sanitation with improved access to health and nutrition services aligned with the Government. We are hearing that without exception, all our Sakhis are very active, they are mobilising resources for relief and being recognised by their local Panchayats.

In the midst of all this anxiety on the COVID crisis, a few of SSP’s initiatives are showing what’s possible when years of working together has created a strong network of confident, resilient women who are empowered and ready to face any crisis head-on.

Initiative 1: Across drought-hit Latur and Osmanabad districts of Maharashtra, for the last two years, supported by UNICEF, SSP’s women-led water, sanitation and nutrition initiative had resulted in enough water availability through the last year. Due to astute water budgeting and savings at household level, these communities and women are leading the way.

Initiative 2: SSP’s four-year-old climate resilient farming model adopted by over 60,000 marginal farmer families is even more important today. It is helping small farmers and the entire village to not go hungry. Families continue to eat healthy meals with vegetables grown in their own home-gardens or small farms. They do not need to step out of their homes to purchase essentials. #WorkFromHome assumes a completely different meaning…. #FarmFromHome!

Initiative 3: SSP has activated its trusted over 3000 women leaders to form Sakhi Task Force to work hand in hand with front line workers the district /local governments. They assist in response and coordinate need based relief. Task force members spread to corners of the village to identify needy families and mobilize relief resources while tirelessly spreading awareness.

What are some lessons from your regular work that would be relevant to this situation?

Swayam Shikshan Prayog was formally launched in 1998 but its birth was linked to the community-led reconstruction it pioneered after the Latur earthquake in 1993. Over the last two decades, SSP has had repeat experiences in turning crises into opportunities for development. One of the lessons that stand out – if women are supported as part of response and recovery, then they “give back “to create resilient families and communities.

Using disaster as an opportunity to build women’s leadership: using the repeat opportunities of major crises, earthquakes, tsunami, floods and long drawn-out droughts, SSP has shown how disasters fast-track development, as people are forced to think on their feet. Using crisis as an opportunity, SSP encouraged women to step out of their homes, build their economic base, create new livelihood opportunities that can increase household assets and incomes.

Learning to Lead through problem solving: SSP has preached and practiced self-learning through doing! Women solved everyday problems around water, improving health services etc. It is these ordinary experiences that have built resilient practices and empowered women to face any crises head on and take leadership!

Women’s collectives viewed as Collaborators: it’s important, women work in collectives lobby for the poor, bring accountability and work with local governments.

What could have been planned differently given the knowledge we already have about communities, their needs and capacities? In other words, if the government had consulted you, what would you have asked them to think about?

We look at the lessons that we have learnt or have not learnt even with repeat experiences of disasters.

  • The government needs to rely on affected communities as a local resource not treat them as victims. Two-way communication, timely alerts and support goes a long way in getting communities to be more prepared.
  • Local governments need to treat organised community level youth and women groups as partners so they can be more socially inclusive, focus on poor and deserving beneficiaries, ensure women and girls benefit from health and nutrition services and so on.
  • Platforms for cooperation: District committees of government and CSO representatives must be formed for understanding local needs, using capacities optimally and for effective coordination of resources and volunteers.
  • Economic and financial support: credit, subsidy and stimulus support is essential to revive livelihoods and agriculture.
  • Investment in skilling para-professionals, especially in the health sector and better health services is imperative as this will be the best defence.

What do you think will be the long-term gender impact of this crisis on your communities? On gender relations? On access to resources and livelihoods?

At a household level, women would be forced further to take up economic/income earning activities, with likely loss of jobs for men. Meeting emergency food and daily needs, means erosion of their savings and this could negatively impact spending for health. Health and economic conditions could get worse in the short term for women and girls due to tripling of work and scarce resources. In the medium and long term, with emergence of new markets and supply chains, women may be able to plan for livelihoods alternatives to form collectives, aggregate produce to start cluster enterprises and become job creators through new business models.

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