The Power of Solidarity: Women in Kashmir in Pandemic Times
By Dr. Sehar Iqbal
Sehar Iqbal is a gender and development expert with 15 years of work across South and Central Asia. She has a strong academic background in interdisciplinary studies, specialising in Development Economics, International Relations and Sociology. Her research specialisations are gender mainstreaming, community- based program development and M&E.
In Kashmir any new day can bring a life changing event to your door. A killing can lead to protests and shut your college for months; a wrong turn on the road home can lead to pellet injury and a lifelong disability; an outing with friends can end with one of them arrested. With such unpredictability around every corner, the women of Kashmir have come to rely on two things- adaptability and solidarity. From social entrepreneurship that empowers women victims of conflict to donating wedding clothes to orphaned girls on their weddings- we’ve done it all. And mostly while being restricted to our homes. So the COVID 19 lockdown came as no surprise- after all we are global experts on lockdowns, frenzied buying and stockpiling food and fuel.
So how did the women of Kashmir react to the lockdown? When many people were looking inward, they looked outward- out of their homes and into their neighbourhoods. Families in need were identified, their addresses and phone numbers diligently recorded, women with independent incomes quietly send grocery kits to needy neighbours. But soon it became apparent that the problem was too big. Families dependent on daily wages, families of craftsmen, families headed by widows or the differently abled needed long- term help. Doctors fighting COVID 19 in designated clinics had little or nothing in the way of PPE. Rural areas with high incidence of COVID cases had dedicated doctors but no support equipment in hospitals.
We needed a bigger plan.
So we reached out to each other. WhatsApp groups were formed, representatives from NGOs were added for sectoral and area coordination. Neighbourhood volunteers carefully gathered account details of families in need from the lists made initially and recorded them in google spreadsheets. Cases were forwarded to NGOs on a daily basis and these organisations provided monthly food packets to their assigned geographical. Women-led NGOs like the Autism Welfare Trust and The Sajid Iqbal Foundation started massive donation drives in urban and rural areas respectively. And all this at 2G data speeds!
The food provision was going well but the shortage of PPE was worsening. We started getting calls from female medics who had been deputed to COVID clinics. “They have given us porous gowns in the name of PPE and we are working with pregnant women who are one of the highest risk categories. We need help.’ But this problem was more difficult to solve as there was a nationwide shortage of PPE and severe restrictions on inter-state movement. So we reverted to the age- old Kashmiri mainstay- household industries. Boutique owners in Srinagar who would normally craft bridal couture repurposed fabric stocks and started making face masks for medical staff. But in 12 days we realised we needed to ramp up capacity.
My organisation (the Sajid Iqbal Foundation) repurposed our two craft based self-help groups in Pulwama to make four ply masks (and cloth bags for ration deliveries). Rigorous social distancing was observed. The girls involved got paid regularly and the masks were washed, dried, packed and kept ready for distribution. We also placed mass orders for PPE suits with Jehangir, a local boy who had earlier been manufacturing protective clothing for pesticide spraying in orchards. The PPE suits he made for us there were excellent- non-woven and non-porous.
Women professionals (activists, lawyers, government officials, teachers, etc) started sponsoring us for batches of PPE to be sent to medical institutions in their own areas. Payments were digitally made and meticulously recorded. Thanks to these donations we were able to buy out the entire first two batches of 200 suits from the unit and distribute the same to 32 tertiary and secondary care government hospitals at provincial, district and sub district level. While delivering PPE we observed the severe shortage of breathing support equipment in sub district hospitals and accordingly dispatched oxygen cylinders, concentrators and mask sets worth 2. 2 lakh rupees to in-need hospitals. Here also, a Kashmiri woman officer, working in the State Industries department helped us to meet the manufacturer of all this equipment and organise deliveries right from the factory. By cutting out the middleman our financial resources were able to stretch further and benefit more people.
Meanwhile the month of Ramzan came and a lot of individual donors (male and female) started getting in contact with women activists to sponsor food kits. We started adding individual donors to our Whatsapp groups. Every day a list of the names of family heads from disadvantaged families with a short description of their requirements was put out in the groups. Donors would adopt whom they could after which the case identifier would message the address and bank account details of the family head to the donor in charge privately. The donor would then transfer money directly to the account or send food kits to the family (if they lived in the same neighbourhood). NGOs continued to adopt cases as well and coordinate to meet multiple needs. For example if a family in need in my area of operation needed food items and had a family member who needed dialysis, I would take care of the food delivery and pass the details on to Athrout (A helping hand), another NGO that run a dialysis centre who would then arrange the patient’s pickup in an ambulance, treatment at the centre and medicines. For pressing needs like major surgeries for poor patients separate Whatsapp fundraisers were created, crowdsourcing large amounts from multiple donors.
All woman Facebook groups like Yakjut (United) also did an excellent job signposting government and private resources for pregnant women or women and girls seeking medical treatment as well as dos and don’ts during the lockdown period. They also organised mass donations of clothes for orphaned girls getting married during this period.
The women were active and the men weren’t far behind- they participated equally in Whatsapp groups, NGO coordination and as individual and collective donors. According to collective civil society estimates food and cash donations totalling a staggering Rs. 35 crores were raised through social media and Whatsapp (this figure does not include in -kind donations). At first glance this figure may seem high but (for emergency cases) as high as 49 lakh rupees were raised in a single day through crowdfunded donations by individual local residents.
The proof of these figures lies in the fact that not a single starvation related death was reported in the whole of Kashmir valley. Even migrant workers were provided food kits and medicines as required. Women and men in Kashmir had pulled off this remarkable feat by working together.
As COVID 19 devastates livelihoods and economies all over the world, each day we are reminded that there is a lot more to do. But through adaptability and social solidarity, women in Kashmir will rise to the challenge.