#Aftermath || The Power of Solidarity: Women in Kashmir in Pandemic Times

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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.

Seher woman pic 1

Pic 2: Masks being made at our all- woman Self- Help Group. Photo courtesy: The Sajid Iqbal Foundation

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.

Seher PPE pic

Sample PPE Kit (excluding mask). Photo courtesy: The Sajid Iqbal Foundation

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.

Seher camp pic

Migrant worker family being provided monthly food rations, Kokernag. Photo courtesy: The Sajid Iqbal Foundation

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.

 

 

 

Corona Challengers: women in khaki

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Service, help, protection are inscribed in most State Police mottos. But what the police force may not have anticipated is that service, help and protection would mean going beyond chasing down criminals & filing FIRs. It would also entail singing, dancing and stitching! COVID-19 has made police forces across States to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to help maintain the lockdown and contain the spread of the pandemic.

Assistant Commissioner of Pulakeshinagar (Bangalore), Tabarak Fathima, was one of the first women cops whose efforts to create awareness went viral. She was seen singing and speaking to residents, through a public address system, in a bid to reassure them amid the crisis.

Photo credit: The Telegraph

In an interview to The Telegraph, she said, “I see many people taking this lockdown in a negative way. But I am giving a different spin to tell them to utilise the time to learn some new skill or learn to sing or play a musical instrument.” At a time when the adoption of precautionary measures was still nascent, Fathima encouraged residents to practice social distancing through her version of “We shall overcome.” “We shall stay at home, we shall sanitise, we shall wear face masks every day….”

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which is witnessing a surge in COVID-19 cases, women cops are trying to balance between the call of duty and motherhood! In a mother’s day special, policewomen told Times of India of the challenges they face. “My husband and I have been on COVID-19 duty since the outbreak. I have been involved in providing food to migrant labourers in the city. Due to the nature of my job, I have to leave my two children alone at home I reside in the police quarters so I can go to work peacefully knowing that they are both safe,” says N Rohini, Head Constable, Commissioner Office, Coimbatore.
 
B. Vennilla’s 8-year-old son misses her so much these days that he has named a pillow at home “Amma”. “Every time I am put on night duty, he hugs the pillow and sleeps. I have been on COVID -19 duty and my work now involves checking vehicles plying the city, filing cases against people who defy lockdown rules. It’s a packed schedule and I feel guilty every time I leave my son at home,” says the Grade 1 Constable posted at the Vadavalli Police Station in Coimbatore.

In Jhansi, Superintendent of Police, Rahul Srivastava started a “mask bank” through which women constables are stitching and distributing masks. He was inspired to initiate this when he heard of how 27-year-old Lucknow-based assistance professor, Nikita Singh Gaur, distributed masks with messages to women who were queuing up to access their Jan Dhan bank accounts without practising any social distancing norms.  

Jhansi’s women constables are producing about 1,000 masks everyday with printed messages on them. Photo credit: The Week

A similar initiative was started by 3 women constables at New Delhi’s Greater Kailash police station. Responding to calls they were receiving from people not wearing masks, the women constables brought their sewing machines and began to stitch reusable cloth masks.  

What has been interesting is the quick action by police force to respond to ground realities which seem to vary across geographies. In Kerala, which has done a remarkable job in containing the COVID-19 spread, Mahabubnagar’s Superintendent of Police Rema Rajeshwari has been facilitating food distribution to daily wage and migrant labourers and tackling the spread of fake news social media. The tech-savvy Rajeshwari has relied on storytelling and folk songs to create awareness. “Well, sometimes lack of knowledge leads to stigma. Imparting right kind of knowledge is also our responsibility. Community partnership is very crucial in addressing this issue. In Mahabubnagar we continue to take the support of community elders and local public representatives so that people feel confident to come forward,” she said to SheThePeople.  

Mahabubnagar’s Superintendent of Police Rema Rajeshwari has been facilitating food distribution to migrant labourers. Photo credit: SheThePeople.TV

Her counterparts in Hyderabad were seen shaking a leg or two to Telugu band Chowraasta’s awareness song Cheyi Cheyi Kalapaku Ra. Shikha Goel, Additional Commissioner of Police (Crimes & SIT), in an interview to New Indian Express said: “As far as Covid is concerned, women police officers have been performing all duties shoulder to shoulder with men. The song requests people to wash hands and take other safety measures, and emphasises that we can fight this pandemic together.”

Even when it comes to addressing social issues, police women are leading the way. In Fatehgarh Sahib, Amneet Kondal, Senior Superintendent of Police, started an initiative to distribute sanitary pads to women in slums. “As women officers, we are more in tune with the feelings of the people. They find us approachable,” she told The Week.  Kondal and her team are working to educate the women from slums on personal hygiene as well.

Women police personnel have also been inspiring their lot with sacrifices they have made on the personal front. Home guard Tilotama Meher and Constable Sunita Adha, two women police personnel from Odisha’s Sundergarh district, postponed their wedding planned for April 12 and April 25 respectively, drawing appreciation from top notches of the State’s police force.

What we have witnessed in the past few months is the multiple hats the police force has worn –artist, entrepreneur, reformer, communicator, enforcer – in its efforts to maintain the lockdown and ensure social distancing. For the women in khahki, the pandemic has brought to surface the multiple inherent hues of creativity, sensitivity, compassion and empathy that they bring to their duty as protectors.

A salute to all policewomen for leading by example.