By Prachi Pedhambkar*
Speaking of the ongoing crisis of COVID-19, according to a recent report by the Center for Sustainable Employment, only 7% of men lost their jobs compared to a whopping 47% of women who lost their jobs in India during the first lockdown in 2020. The situation is even worse in the informal sector and the rural areas. Not just employment but being stuck at home due to the pandemic restrictions has trapped many women in an abusive and unsafe environment. Unexpectedly, even with the lockdown in place, there has been a rise in harassment, molestation, and sexual abuse cases in India! Although women have come a long way, the above information highlights that the destination towards women’s safety and gender equality is still far away.
To know more about this, I talked with Arundhati Dhuru, a social activist, feminist, human rights defender who has worked with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for 14 years and is the National Convener, National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM). Topics of gender equality and environmental rights are close to Arundhati Ji’s heart, and she has been a part of various movements towards these causes. Growing up in Mumbai, she shared her journey of coming from a privileged background to how it completely transformed when the ethos and immediate surroundings of her society changed. The conversation revealed various hardships women face, which shows the importance of working towards fair and equal treatment of women in society. Arundhati Ji talked about how post-COVID, many females have lost their jobs, the employment rate has come down drastically, and there does not seem to be any improvement in the situation.
The increased domestic work burden with changing work environment has caused a lot of physical and mental pressure on the females. Women participation in the labour force has always been meagre, and even after the MNREG scheme, it was still on the lower side. With the onset of COVID, the situation has worsened, where the females have been displaced by their male counterparts, the migrant workers who moved back to their hometowns during the lockdown. “As soon as men enter the market, women are thrown out,” Arundhati Ji said. Not just female employment, COVID has also impacted the education of girls. Due to online education, the digital divide and due to limited resources available in a family, many girls from poor backgrounds have been forced to drop out of schools in Lucknow. In a few families, boys education has been prioritised as girls will leave after marriage anyway. Arundhati Ji talked about an occurrence when she went to pay the school fees of a girl child to help continue her virtual education. The teacher asked, “Inka paisa aap kyu bhar rahe hai, inko toh 1-2 saal mein maa baap nikalke shaadi kara hi denge. Iska bhai bhi yaha padhta hai uska bhar dijiye” (Why are you paying her fees, when her parents will anyway get her out of school and get her married in a couple of years. Her brother also studies here, pay his fees instead). That is precisely the reason for investing in her education so that she gets the basic knowledge of her rights and the bargaining power to fight against such issues in the future.
With COVID, we have also seen a rise in early and forced marriages. Sexual abuse and violence against women in the household have increased multifold, and with no financial independence, women find it difficult to move out of such abusive environments. It is easy to say, “just leave the house”, but what about food, safety, shelter and surviving in a society where a single woman is looked down upon? There is no choice, and the woman gets bound in the structure of the society. Although many efforts are being made to change this, a significant female population is still scared to raise a complaint and walkout due to lack of proper support. Most females continue to get stuck in this vicious cycle of forced marriage, domestic violence, maternal mortality, and with no bargaining power to fight against it.
How to tackle this problem? Arundhati Ji shared one such initiative taken in Uttar Pradesh by the Humsafar organisation to empower disadvantaged Indian women with the skills needed to work as e-rickshaw drivers. It was realised that it is challenging for a female to travel safely on the roads due to insufficient secure public transport. Also, survivors of harassment cases usually go back to their abusers due to a lack of financial independence. To curb this issue of economic freedom, they came up with an initiative that challenges the patriarchal mindset of “Auraton ko gaadi chalane nahi aati!”. They decided to take up driving as the profession, and with more women on the road, the streets will be safer for the young girls was another plus point. However, this came up with its own set of challenges. Many poor females who enrolled on this program did not have basic Identification documents like a PANCARD required to get a driver’s license. The paper was either with their husbands, whom they were split from, or it was never issued in the first place. Overcoming this issue of document collection for license took about 7-8 months. The female drivers did not receive support from everyone, and there was so much hostility with booing and catcalling when they drove on the roads. But they overcame all that, and now more than 150 females have been trained, and many can be seen confidently driving on the streets. Two of the females also got the chance to become a government employee and work as a driver for public buses. However, when the time came, they were not given the bus duty, and there was also an issue of the absence of female toilets. This shows the deficiency of simple basic needs which are not satisfied. This calls for the need to be more sensitive and work towards a more gender-inclusive environment.
But are these problems only faced by the poorer population of our country? No, that is not the case. Even educated females who are engineers, doctors and IAS officers face domestic violence and torture. This is the case not just in India but all around the globe. If we look at the number of female CEOs globally, the number is minimal at only 8%. One reason is that many females lack specialisation in the core industry subjects. And another major reason is the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier restricting many women from reaching above a certain level of hierarchy.
As said earlier, there is still a long way to go before we establish a completely free and safe place for women. Proactive intervention by the government, strict implementation of laws supporting women are a few steps that can be taken to move towards our destination. At an individual level, change in the mindset through education and open discussions on these topics is essential to stop this discrimination. As Arundhati Ji said during her interview, “Feminism is about equal rights” and shouldn’t be tainted by any other twisted definition. Most of the movements for this cause only see the females raising their voices. To actually bring about a change, even the other genders must participate and show their support.
*Student of IIM Bangalore PGP 2020-22