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




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.

Reflections on Resilience: LOCKDOWN INSIGHTS FROM THE HINTERLAND, by Pradeep Poddar, Kumod Kumar Das and Eklavya Prasad



Pradeep Poddar, Kumod Kumar Das and Eklavya Prasad, Megh Pyne Abhiyan

How are the communities you work with coping with the lockdown? What are their main concerns now? Are you able to be in contact with them and what are you hearing?

We reached out to the communities we work with and inputs have come from diverse social groups residing in the following locations:

  • Kairi village, Domat panchayat, Gaunaha block, Pashchim Champaran district
  • Naya Tola Bhishambharpur, Bhagwanpur panchayat, Nautan block, Pashchim Champaran district
  • Sahorwa, Ghongepur panchayat, Mahishi block, Saharsa district
  • Badi Madarpur, Madarpur panchayat, Gogri block, Khagaria district
  • Govindpur, Madarpur panchayat, Gogri block, Khagaria district
  • Jan Muhammad, Madarpur panchayat, Gogri block, Khagaria district
  • Suryahi, Ramnagar panchayat, Phulpara block, Madhubani

Kairi village

  • Migration is one of the key sources of sustained livelihood and that is just not across the country but also across the border. Lockdown has affected the following workforce:
    • Those who are stuck in the village and are unable to travel for work; those who had migrated are presently stuck in their respective locations of work, without any source of livelihood; those who had migrated returned home just prior to the lockdown. This has led to enhanced expenditure at the household level with limited or no inflow of money.
  • People are taking up work at lower wages in desperation to earn something.
  • Accessing forest area for firewood has been curtailed leading to a household crisis.
  • Psycho-social impact because coronavirus is being interpreted as a dangerous epidemic, transmittable disease and causing widespread destruction.
  • We have been able to contact them telephonically, though could not reach to all our contacts.

Nayatola Bhishambharpur

  • Worried about the family members who are stranded in different parts of the country.
  • Household-level conflicts.
  • Unavailability of local livelihood opportunities.
  • Unable to purchase the basics, for instance, vegetables, lentils, soap, washing powder due to limited financial resources.
  • This was the appropriate time for repair of houses in the flood-prone areas, however, due to limited finances, this work has not been undertaken, which is impacting both the houseowner and the skilled and semi-skilled/unskilled workers.
  • In a few places, women are being offered Rs. 100 per day, whereas men receive
  • Psycho-social impact – people consider coronavirus to be an illness, which is communicated by infected person through talking to others; it is a foreign disease; an illness that causes death and is a transmittable disease; it first impacts the throat and then chokes it; conflict between in-laws and daughters-in-law, as the latter are holding the in-laws responsible for sending their husbands to Gujarat and Punjab to earn, and they are stuck due to the pandemic.


  • Approximately 150 men are stuck in Punjab, leading to a collective stress in the village, which is mostly inhabited by women, children and elders. There are only 10-15 men in the village.
  • Problem in running households and accessing food; at times, villagers eat only salt and roti.
  • Villagers have not been able to access ration provided by the government.
  • Psycho-social impact – extreme stressful conditions due to lack of money and absence of male members in the family; coronavirus is a foreign originated disease, hence, there is no cure for this virus; women are solely responsible for generating financial resources which is anyhow limited and they also have to manage the household; for a half-day of labour, women are paid anything between Rs. 50 and Rs. 60.

Badi Madarpur, Govindpur and Jan Muhammad villages

  • Daily casual/informal/unorganized workers (rikshaw owners/ pullers, handcart owners, autorickshaw owners/drivers, ice-cream sellers, tea and pan sellers, roadside small shop owners) are unable to earn because of the lockdown.
  • Women have to cook in large proportions, leading to additional work at the household level.
  • More food is being consumed as family members are staying at home for longer duration.
  • Education has been affected.
  • Basic food is being consumed at the household level, without lentils and vegetables.
  • Marketing has become difficult due to the lockdown.
  • Tension in households whose male members are stuck in different states across the country.
  • There is no inflow of money from members who have migrated elsewhere.
  • Households, which have their ration cards and Aadhaar linked to their bank accounts, have received money, but for households that haven’t, people fear that they will not receive the Rs. 1000/family allocated by the state government.
  • Arwa chaawal is being provided, through the Public Distribution System (PDS), whereas the people in the region are accustomed to eating mota chaawal.
  • PDS functioning is still not transparent.
  • Relationships are getting affected due to the fear of spreading of the virus.
  • Limited or no local employment opportunities.


  • How to survive this pandemic?
  • Fear is prevalent in the village.
  • There are no local livelihood opportunities learding to large scale unemployment, hence the future seems to be bleak.
  • Total change in eating habits. Children have started eating more, whereas adults have curtailed their food and are seen eating just once a day.
  • Fear is restricting people to venture out of the village.

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

  1. Drinking water supply through bottled water has completely stopped due to the lockdown, hence MPA’s previous work on matka filters will not only provide a way to access safe drinking water, but will also generate livelihood opportunities for the potters.
  2. Keeping the social distancing in mind, revival and repair of dug wells can be taken up, which will generate employment opportunities in the villages and develop access to arsenic-free water.
  3. Decentralized drinking water testing at the panchayat level can also be taken up by involving volunteers.

What could have been planned differently given the knowledge we already have about communities, their needs and capacities? 

  1. Demystifying the coronavirus.
  2. Decentralized aggressive public awareness about coronavirus and government schemes (specifically for the present times).
  3. Decentralized monitoring mechanism.
  4. Focus on inaccessible areas and disaster-prone areas.
  5. Prepare people for the future.

Reflections on Resilience: What We Have Learnt



April 27, 2020

India has been locked down for a month as I write this. All day, every day, those of us who are lucky enough to have homes and access to the news monitor the virus’ toll on our lives and communities. If we have water, we wash our hands and everything else, obsessively. If we can afford food, we wonder about where to source this or that essential item. If we have leisure, we prepare elaborate and fancy recipes based on Internet videos, take courses on new topics and pursue long-forgotten hobbies. Still, life feels more precarious than ever before for even the middle class and elite, everywhere.

This precarity is familiar to most humans. Most people, on an average, just get by. If nothing terrible happens, the middle class can comfortably manage essentials and the occasional treat. Most of us know this comfort is an illusion and we carry with us the anxiety that something will happen, at any time, if we should blink. We live vigilantly. And if we have been fortunate enough to relax that vigil, this pandemic has been a time to remind us that nothing is permanent—in good ways and in bad.

In the face of impermanence, what we can seek is resilience. Traditionally, we anchor our resilience in faith or acceptance. But having done so, we rely on government to build structures and processes that enable our everyday resilience. Those who work in disaster-affected areas and those of us who write about their work have long recognized that this is a delusion: disasters in fact reflect a failure of governance. That is, disasters happen because governments have not built the capacity to withstand natural catastrophes. The accelerating rate at which climate catastrophes happen underscore the relationship between bad government policy, failed governance and the experience of disasters.

Civil society organisations have worked, independently or in partnership with government, to fill this governance gap. Working with communities during and beyond disasters, they have come to understand people’s needs and to innovate ways to help them make the changes that will make them resilient. What they have learned in the aftermath of disasters—floods, earthquakes, tsunamis—is useful for coping with and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, where preventive measures have also triggered a secondary humanitarian crisis with long-term consequences.

In 2016, Prajnya’s first Saakshi Fellow Linda Racioppi and Swarna Rajagopalan published a volume of essays by experienced practitioners and academics, “Women and Disasters in South Asia: Survival, Security and Development” (Routledge). Prajnya invited Indian contributors to the volume to share their insights with us in the context of this pandemic.

  • Mihir Bhatt is director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), a community-based action planning, action research and policy support organization, working towards bridging the gap between policy, practice and research related to disaster mitigation and climate change adaptation as laid out in National Disaster Management Plan of Government of India of 2016. Mihir Bhatt has published widely on issues of vulnerability and disasters, and has been part of key evaluations of disaster response in Asia. He is a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative since 2007 and was a member of the panel that selects the Humanitarian Coordinators for the United Nations. He advises Climate Development Knowledge Network’s work on climate compatible development in nine states of India. He chairs Duryog Nivaran, a South Asian network on alternative thinking on disaster risk reduction.
  • Dr Nibedita S. Ray-Bennett is an Associate Professor in Risk Management at the University of Leicester’s School of Business. She is the founding president of the Avoidable Deaths Network (ADN). The ADN is a global network dedicated to reducing disaster deaths. The ADN has launched a Repository of COVID-19 Information on ADN’s resource page. The Repository Page is available to the public, and provides web links and reports only from reliable sources (e. UNDRR, WHO, UNFPA, John Hopkins University). Dr Ray-Bennett is the author of the book: Avoidable Deaths: A Systems Approach to Disaster Risk Management (2018, Springer Nature).
  • Eklavya Prasad is a leader in water management. Through his organisation, Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA), he has successfully solved the problem of water scarcity that prevailed in North Bihar, despite the abundance of water resources. His contribution to this collection is a collaboration with Pradeep Poddar and Kumod Kumar Das. Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA) began as a campaign and an informal functional network in 2005, in a part of rural North Bihar, to identify existing practices for accessing drinking water during floods and to juxtapose it with innovative, appropriate, self-engineered and self-administrated techniques. MPA has evolved over the years. It has broadened its approach from temporary rainwater harvesting during floods to working on people-centric groundwater management system. In addition, it has been promoting flood resilient habitat, with components such as drinking water, ecologically sustainable sanitation technology, housing and local adaptations by people. Presently, MPA’s focus has expanded across the water-distress regions in the East Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, covering both rural and urban (in Dhanbad, Jharkhand) spaces.
  • Prema Gopalan is the Founder and Executive Director of Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a learning and development organization that has empowered over 100,000 women in the last 20 years. SSP stimulates enabling business environments for both rural women and global companies in “Base of the Pyramid” markets. Its bouquet of incubation and business development services aligns networks of women entrepreneurs, village institutions, and corporations to launch profitable enterprises that are governed by a triple bottom line: financial, environmental, social.

In mid-April, I sent each of them a set of questions about the experiences of the people they work with during the pandemic and lockdown, relevant lessons from their previous work and gender concerns they anticipate. This was intended as a quick Q&A mainly to draw attention to the treasure-house of Disaster Risk Reduction experience we are not drawing on enough now. But each of them turned their attention seriously to the task and what we have is a rich collection of reflections on resilience—where it is absent, how it is being sustained and what it will take—that they have thoughtfully written.

What exacerbates this crisis is that we are not able to predict how long it will continue and while some of our remedies must begin immediately—such as providing food, shelter and primary health care—our ability to plan for the medium-to-long term is limited by the indefinite time-frame. In such circumstances, we postpone gender questions indefinitely as well, and never address them.

The attention drawn to increased domestic violence has kept the spotlight on women’s safety. But “gender” is not just women and girls, and women and girls are not just bodies. We are humans with needs and aspirations. In the plans we now draw up, for both relief and reconstruction, we must remember to draw on the resilience-building lessons we have already learnt. Through listening to all sections, opening up training and decision-making to be inclusive and extending credit and skilling opportunities to whoever might seek them, we might emerge from this disaster, with some hope of transforming gender relations and historically unequal social structures.

We at Prajnya are proud to have played a small curatorial role in bringing the experience and wisdom of our friends and colleagues to you.

Thanks to Nandhini Shanmugham for editing this collection and as always, to Eklavya Prasad for allowing me to use one of his beautiful photographs to adorn the project.

Swarna Rajagopalan

Read the contributions here:

How Do You Lock Down a Farm Full of Cumin Seeds?” Reflections On Rebuilding Life, Livelihoods and Community, by Mihir Bhatt

COVID-19: An Opportunity to Learn Effective Disaster Governance, by Nibedita S. Ray-Bennett

Fear, Panic, Hope: Lockdown Insights from The Hinterland, By Pradeep Poddar, Kumod Kumar Das and Eklavya Prasad

Rising Up to “Flatten The Curve”: Resilient Women, Resilient Communities, by Prema Gopalan

Access the collection as a .pdf file here.

Tamil Nadu Perspective: Draft National Policy for Women



Swarna Rajagopalan and Ragamalika Karthikeyan

One of the shortcomings of the Draft National Policy for Women 2016 is that it does not reflect regional concerns. Perhaps the expectation is that each state will come up with its own Policy guidelines but given the weakness of State Commissions for Women, there is no institutional advocate in most states that could push for such a document, leave alone engineer the consultations and debates that should precede the drafting of this document. Moreover, in the absence of truly wide-ranging consultations that reach beyond the usual suspects, the recommendations or guidelines as they stand are silent on a lot of key concerns for women.

Based on the experiences of women in Tamil Nadu in the last few years, we at Prajnya drew up a short list of concerns that they would be well-served to have included in the National Draft Policy.

I. Sexual and gender based inter-caste violence (‘Honour’ crimes): Since June 2013, civil society estimates 88 ‘honour’ killings in Tamil Nadu, with caste-mobs murdering young inter-caste couples, and sometimes even their families. Falling in love or marrying outside of caste boundaries is often threatened with sexual violence and murder. With no official estimates of such crimes, justice is often delayed or denied.

The Draft National Policy as it stands does not consider the gendered consequences of the overlap of vulnerabilities—when caste or socio-economic status or minority or ethnic status already place you at a disadvantage, both women and men are even more vulnerable to human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence.

II. The challenges faced by women refugees living in and out of camps in Tamil Nadu: There are over one lakh Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu, close to 65,000 of them in refugee camps. Many of them live in cramped spaces without basic amenities like access to water and sanitation. Women and girls in these camps face sexual and gender based violence which goes frequently unreported. While life as refugees in India is difficult, going back to an unstable home in Sri Lanka is not an option for many.

Displacement is a reality across India—both refugees and internally displaced persons. Women make up at least half of these numbers and yet, the Draft National Policy does not acknowledge or address their problems.

III. Women and disasters: There is just one paragraph that mentions women’s needs in disaster contexts. Given the present frequency of climate change and human-made disasters, a gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction and mitigation policy is an urgent need that needs to be emphasised strongly.

In states like Tamil Nadu, women are vulnerable to both natural (and climate change) disasters like last year’s floods as well as the slow disasters that might result from human-planned development and industrial projects gone awry. The National Policy should mandate their inclusion with voice in consultations and decision-making at every turn–from project planning, to land acquisition negotiations, to resettlement planning and to safety planning.

IV. Workplace-related guidelines: While the Draft National Policy does address livelihood issues at length and emphasise the importance of workplace protections, we would like to draw attention to three situations where Tamil Nadu women would benefit from stronger national guidelines to protect their rights.

a. Forced and bonded labour of women and girls in spinning mills: A study conducted by civil society organisations says about 100,000 girls and women are being exploited as bonded labour in the textile industry in the state, and frequently face sexual violence at the workplace. Following the suspicious death of a teenager in Tirupur in March, investigations have revealed poor living conditions, and exploitative ‘schemes’ endangering the safety and health of young women.

b. Minimum wage for domestic workers in Tamil Nadu: Domestic workers are not covered under the Minimum Wages Act, and while some states have fixed a minimum wage, Tamil Nadu is not among them. There is also little awareness about their rights among domestic workers. Workplace sexual harassment, health insurance, decent working conditions are other areas of concern.

c. Enumeration of manual scavengers, abolition of manual scavenging: While the TN Govt has claimed there are only 210 manual scavengers in the state, both the National Commission for Scheduled Castes as well as civil society organisations have rejected this number. The state has over 2 lakh unsanitary toilets, and as many as 27,659 households are serviced manually, with another 26,020 households serviced by animals. Night soil is usually collected by Dalit women, and this inhuman practice, while officially abolished, still persists.

V. Single women living in poverty: Destitute, deserted and never married women (especially those over 35 years) living in urban slums and rural areas deserve social support. The National Policy should acknowledge their special needs.*

VI. Enabling Environment: The TN State Women’s Commission has been less and less active in the last decade, chaired by political appointees who have rarely reached out to women’s groups and other parts of civil society. The State and National Commissions are uniquely placed to serve as a bridge between government and civil society, and when they are more or less moribund, they are a wasted opportunity for a strong partnership between the two for social change. Civil society loses and institutional ally and the government loses the ability to genuinely connect with the public.

The National Policy for Women should re-imagine the Women’s Commissions in a stronger form and mandate their constitution as an independent, well-resourced and pro-active body.

*Point V is the contribution of Ms. Renuka Bala of the Centre for Women’s Development Research. 

Gender and disasters


Swarna Rajagopalan, Kosi’s distressed daughters, New Indian Express, Chennai, September 17, 2008.

On August 18, the Kosi river broke through its embankments to flood most of Bihar and change course. The disaster has taken several lives, displaced over a million people and laid waste to hundreds of villages, not counting those who will die of waterborne infectious diseases in its wake.

So far, women have been mentioned in news reports in the context of childbirth and pregnancy. Some pregnant women have been abandoned by their husbands, but many others have given birth, naming their children after the Kosi.

There have also been reports of sexual harassment of female flood victims, describing government concern relating to the same. Many of the consequences of disasters cut across gender lines.

Death, disease, displacement, bereavement and the overnight loss of livelihood and homes are consequences that happen to men and women. The way in which these consequences are experienced is, however, different.

Studies have shown that women form a disproportionate number of those who die during disasters. The reasons reflect the limitations placed on them by virtue of their gender. After the tsunami, for instance, it was found that many girls and women drowned because, in spite of living in coastal areas, they had not learnt how to swim.

A dramatic change in sex ratio results, partly from death and disease and partly from men migrating to seek alternative livelihoods. Scholars have shown with examples from history that when men vastly outnumber women, levels of violence in general increase, and especially violence against women.

In fact, increased levels of violence and increased vulnerability to violence may be described as the second disaster to strike women and girls in the aftermath of natural calamities.

In a 2005 report, the World Health Organisation stated that interpersonal violence including child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation are likely to increase after a disaster. When women and girls lose their homes and livelihoods, they are particularly susceptible to forced marriage and trafficking.

Along with this comes the increased threat of getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

In other contexts, feminist scholars have speculated on what it means to a woman when her home — ostensibly her safe haven — is destroyed. Homes are also the site of their closest relationships and much of their work.

The loss or destruction of a home can be particularly traumatic in settings where women are confined to their homes by the norms of their culture. Researchers have also explored the way the home changes when relatives who are also coping with disaster move in or when the family moves, for instance, to the roof or a boat for shelter.

For young girls, it can mean the loss of privacy for personal rituals, from changing clothes to washing. The risk of incestuous sexual abuse is heightened.

Often, discussions about gender and debates about security tend to dwell on macro-level structural or ideological questions, but for women coping with emergencies of any sort, it is the very personal, immediate needs that pose the biggest challenge.

Whether at home or in refugee camps, safe access to scarce bath and toilet facilities pose a real challenge. Harassment en route, prying and molestation while bathing and using the toilet, combined with the need to observe society’s norms of modesty limit when and how women can address their simplest bodily needs.

They end up limiting their excursions to the point where they are at risk for other kinds of illnesses and infections.

Between falling sick due to lack of basic facilities for hygiene and not being able to walk to work without fear of molestation, the ability of women to take care of themselves is greatly diminished. The loss of children in the tsunami resulted in an increased demand for recanalisation surgery as women came under pressure to give birth again.

Forced marriages occur in these circumstances as men seek to rebuild a family structure soon after the loss of their wives. Orphaned girls are particularly at risk. Female-headed households are not unique to post-disaster settings; however, compensation and relief are often distributed on the assumption that only men head households.

Where existing property papers are lost as are male property-owners, title is hard to establish. This is exacerbated by the loss of livelihood in the agricultural and informal sectors.

Without compensation, relief, the ability to reclaim a home or to access agricultural land or other means of livelihood such as a boat or a loom, women cannot rebuild their lives.

Disasters thus return women to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, poor, brutish” and if you are lucky, short. If you are not lucky, you have to find a way to survive against the odds. As we look at the Kosi crisis in Bihar, the true challenge is not in providing symptomatic relief to victims. It is in recognising those elements of our social and cultural life that place women and girls especially at risk and in ensuring that these are not reproduced in the post-disaster dispensation. Where disaster is anticipated or occurs predictably, such as the Bay of Bengal cyclones and river floods in northeastern India, planned relief should take into account the special challenges faced by women and girls. Unchecked, the real catastrophe for women and children lies in post-disaster violence and loss of livelihood.

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