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.

Notes from a roundtable on gender and disasters, December 23, 2014


Gender and Disaster Reconstruction: Insights and Lessons

December 23rd, 2014

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

This roundtable session on how gender awareness has the potential to play a role in disaster management took place in the offices of the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission. It centered around presentations by speakers from The Prajnya Trust, the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Swayam Shikshan Prayog, and the State Planning Commission. The other participants came from related state government departments. The focus of this session was primarily on formulation of policy on disaster management, based on the assumption that gender influences how people experience disasters as well as relief.

The session opened with a brief statement of purpose by Mr Sugato Dutt, Member-Secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission (TNSPC). It proceeded with a round of introductions, and a statement of welcome by the Vice Chairperson TNSPC, Ms Santha Sheela Nair.

Dr Swarna Rajagopalan, Managing Trustee of The Prajnya Trust, made the first presentation. She gave the audience a comprehensive overview of the topic, and also pointed out that while we talk about gender awareness in policy making at length, we also need to consider the everyday impact of gender on the ground in a disaster situation. We need to examine the gendered consequences of disasters, and look for a way to address them. She added that there are varying guises of gender politics at play in disasters, including labour, safety, and the case of marginalized groups.

Dr Rajagopalan drew attention to the shortcomings of a generalized policy of reconstruction rather than a context-specific one that takes advantages of existing systems of economic/political activity to create policies for relief. The main problem with generalized policies is the important observations they miss in their one-size-fits-all type of solution. For example, they often reinforce normative gender roles and ignore any possible existing subversion of them – women often engage in economic activity that promotes reconstruction, but this work is not recognized by relief organizations, let alone co-opted into their policy. Above all, there is a failure to recognize that there needs to be equal representation at all levels of reconstruction, from policy planning to the fieldwork. Gender awareness is not a little box on a checklist that needs to be checked, but a fuller understanding of any situation.

Dr Rajagopalan stressed the need to look beyond the axioms of gender and disaster (such as the idea that women are always the most victimized class of people in a disaster; or even the idea that gender is only about women). In order to do this, she suggested we re-examine individual needs and contexts through three lenses: vulnerability, visibility and voice. The most important question to ask ourselves while going into a disaster situation is this: whose voice is seen as the default one? Whose is the most visible perspective? Very often, the answer to this question leaves us in no doubt that individuals experience a gendered reality. Thus, we need to reconsider assumptions about who are the most vulnerable populations in a disaster, and turn this around to reveal their potential for action and reconstruction.

photo 39Mr Mihir Bhatt, Director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, gave the second presentation. Speaking about Women in the Emergency Response Phase, Mr Bhatt looked at the results of a comprehensive study undertaken in 2014 to examine the impact of the response to tsunami relief in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, with a specific focus on Tamil Nadu. The study used various methodologies, including appreciative inquiry, group interviews, and some quantitative methods. Data was collected in 15 locations along the coast from Chennai to Kanyakumari, from over 1500 families. The focus of the study was to study the impact of two main measures of relief: shelter and livelihood. Mr Bhatt shared a few observations about the positive impact of relief measures in these two, and other (allied), areas. Firstly, he noted that the number of families that were counted as being below the poverty line (BPL) had decreased in the past ten years. Secondly, all children of school-going age were enrolled in and attended school regularly. Thirdly, the overall investment in houses (built by the government as part of the relief measures) had increased, improving the asset by addition of rooms, etc. Finally, though income from coastal fisheries had decreased, an increase was observed in inland fishing. Mr Bhatt suggested that these observations demonstrated that tsunami relief work has created social and economic opportunity in the affected regions. He also noted that there was a rising awareness of green energy at all levels, and this would have to be studied further.

A question was raised about the role of Self Help Groups (SHG) in the affected regions. Mr Bhatt responded that the history of SHGs in the region meant that there was some familiarity with concepts like financial discipline and financial literacy, which was helpful for the recovery process. Another commenter shared a number of stories about women taking on leadership roles in situations arising from relief work, and the challenged these women face.

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Ms Vandana Chauhan gave the third presentation of the day, speaking about Lessons from the Post-Tsunami Decade on Women’s Agency and Leadership. She examined the findings of a comparative study undertaken in India, Indonesia and Japan. The study stressed the importance of action oriented emergency plans that were concise and readable.

Ms Chauhan examined the requirements for capacity-building among women, and suggested that the following factors were most important: confidence, decision making power, setting up of a standard operating procedure in case of disasters.

In her assessment of the impact of relief measures on affected areas, Ms Chauhan noted that relief measures related to livelihood, asset creation, access to primary healthcare centres (PHCs), education, and governance have been largely positive. In terms of livelihood, measures intended to augment income generation are still in effect today and continue to promote the independence of women. Asset creation can be observed in the form of developing opportunities for housing. Education in particular shows a positive trend: the demand for women’s education. All these situations present an opportunity for leadership, especially by women.

Ms Chauhan closed with some lessons for the future. She advocated an increased awareness of the local context while enacting relief measures, as well as the use of traditional mechanisms and channels in incorporating the local community in relief programs. Ms Chauhan was of the opinion that this was important to ensure sustainable recovery.

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A commenter demonstrated how far relief work has come in the past couple of decades by comparing work in 1990 in Orissa and current relief work. It was noted that a key aspect of this improvement was better preparation. Some concern was also expressed about the position of children in disasters, especially with the increased risk of communicable diseases. An audience member also advocated a more streamlined bureaucracy to prevent doubling up of activities in relief work.

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Ms Prema Gopalan made the fourth presentation of the day, about Engaging Women in the Post-Disaster Reconstruction Process. She drew attention to the potential of disaster relief work as an opportunity for the empowerment of women. Looking at the activities and organization of women’s groups, Ms Gopalan also noted that gender affects men and women differently – and that it is particularly important to remember this while formulating policy on relief work. It is important to ensure that women are facilitators of recovery. It is also essential to recognize women’s role in mobilizing the community. In this regard, disasters create situations in which traditional social and cultural norms are broken, allowing for the participation and leadership of non-traditional classes – such as women.

Pointing to case studies in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, Ms Gopalan demonstrated the success of local women as mobilizers and trainers in the community. Advocating for self-help, she recommended that communities should map their own vulnerabilities and capacities in planning disaster relief. Aid should be given directly to the affected communities rather than through bureaucratic channels. Investment by the government needs to be protected by community leadership, and women play a key role in monitoring this. In Ms Gopalan’s own experience, she found that infrastructure and services are protected in the long run if women are involved in the management of them. She also drew attention to the success of women-led preparedness task forces, where women wrote their own manuals for preparedness (against disasters). By viewing women as active agents in their communities, a new perspective emerges.

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The Vice-Chairperson of TNSPC asked if there was any resistance from men to the leadership of women. Ms Gopalan responded that there was some resistance at first, but in disaster sites, men did not object to women taking responsibility, and women themselves were eager to change the status quo. She reiterated the importance of disasters as an opportunity for women to change the status quo of gender relations.

A question was raised about specific ways to encourage women’s leadership in disaster management. Ms Gopalan suggested that we need to have less specialization in NGOs, and that NGOs need to work in conversation with each other and the government.

A question was raised about the increased participation of women in politics as a measure of women’s empowerment. Ms Gopalan felt that this doesn’t really promote women’s empowerment for various reasons. However, Dr Rajagopalan pointed out that the presence of women in politics is more of an intrinsic good since it represents more women in decision-making processes.

Members of the TNSPC pointed out that NGOs need to function through the year rather than only in disaster situations. A commenter also raised the importance of educating boys at the school level to ensure gender sensitization. The Vice Chairperson noted the relief work done by religious organizations in Tamil Nadu.

Ms Gopalan agreed that NGOs need to work together, with the facilitation of the government. She also reiterated the need to ensure that women are stakeholders in their own communities.

A question was raised about the possibility of community monitoring of funds, given the controversial history of this initiative. Ms Gopalan was of the opinion that the success of this would depend on the government officers to a certain extent, and how responsive they are to the idea. Mr Bhatt also pointed to an example of community responsibility in Assam. Schoolteachers took responsibility in conducting safety audits in schools. He also emphasized the role of women schoolteachers in formulating safety codes for schools.

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The final presentation of the day was made by a Consultant in disaster management and training in the TN State Disaster Management Agency on behalf of the Revenue Administration and Disaster Management Department. He drew attention to the common perception that one shouldn’t raise the cry of gender in a disaster situation. This perception is problematic, since women and men experience disaster in different ways. He stressed the need to have equal respect for male and female survivors. Speaking of some of the main features of TN Disaster Management, he spoke of the presence of planning at various levels, and various time frames. He also advocated the importance of increased participation of women at decision making levels, the importance of education about disaster management in schools, and incorporating SHGs in capacity building.

The Vice Chairperson asked if women were really in a position of authority to make decisions rather than just filling up quotas on committees. The Consultant answered that they were part of committees, but lacked real power. A commenter pointed out that out of 5-6 lakh SHGs, 50% of them had real leadership by women, but not in the area of disaster management. Interestingly, a commenter pointed out that 70% of the people who attend disaster management workshops are women. Are they including in decision making processes? Not really. However, there has been a growing change in this trend in recent times, especially at the community level, where there is more participation by women. The space has been created for women to make decisions, and this is a hopeful development.

Ms Gopalan said that this needs to be taken to the higher levels od decision making too. Empowerment can be seen at the village level, but not at the Taluk and District levels.

An audience member also pointed to the need to select attendees to training programs more carefully based on their capacities. There is also a need for training about disaster management in villages. A suggestion was made to include Panchayat Level Federations in this initiative.

Mr Bhatt asked if there was a difference in the way disaster management policy was formulated in rural and urban parts of Tamil Nadu. The Vice Chairperson asked if codes were in place for Chennai City. Members of the City Corporation answered that they were. The Revenue Department representative added that the Anna Institute of Management (AIM) was consulting with the TNSPC in the creation of a State Disaster Management Plan. Members of the AIM were also present. Dr Rajagopalan suggested that members of civil society should also be consulted in the formulation of this plan, in order to conduct a gender audit of disaster management policies.

The Director of AIM pointed out that it had been useful to have AIM step in, since the formulation of this plan had been shunted from department to department earlier.

Ms Gopalan noted the cyclone shelters lying empty in Andhra Pradesh because there was no community ownership of the shelters. The Director of AIM pointed out that specialized shelters were unlikely to work effectively. Rather, the creation of multipurpose centres would be recommended.

Members of the TN Disaster Management Agency gave an overview of their plan to increase community ownership of shelters by transforming schools, community halls and training centres into shelters. The Revenue Department and the Public Works Department would maintain these shelters, with committees at the community level.

Dr Rajagopalan closed the discussion with a quick highlight of the main questions.

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