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Women in India are making an impact during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused health emergencies and national crises across the world. At the time of this writing, around 3,308,233 people have been affected by the coronavirus with a reported 234,105 deaths across the world. No doubt, this is one of the biggest health calamities of the twenty-first century which has also led to unprecedented economic and social instability.

In the case of India, as of April 29, approximately 34,863 people have been recorded positive with the coronavirus and around 1,154 people have died. The problem of migrant labourers, the uncertainties in the informal sectors, the rise in domestic violence, doubts over examinations and academic sessions and other socio-economic problems are looming over us with every passing day. To add to this, reports indicate that the nationwide lockdown which started on March 24 has taken its toll on the mental health of many people including daily wage earners, private sector employees, the youth, and men and women in general.

The disparity in the socio-economic status of men and women is already an impediment to women’s advancement and empowerment and the pandemic has increased the load on women in particular. First, the women in most Indian families are considered to be the primary caregivers. However, the nationwide lockdown has severely restricted women’s access to necessary items like groceries, vegetables, and medicines creating an additional burden on Indian women. Second, the financial instability in households has led to the rise in violence against women causing trouble for the mental and sexual health and well-being of women. Third, the financial liabilities during the time of COVID-19 and lockdown are even more traumatic for the women daily wage earners as in many cases, they are the sole earner of the households. It has been referred to as “a shadow pandemic,” by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director at UN Women.

But that is not all. While the pandemic represents an exceptionally gloomy picture, there are certain aspects that demonstrate optimism and positivity. Despite facing a lot of problems, the women of India are writing the positive story of COVID-19. Well, this is a story of women self-help groups (SHGs) who have actively joined the hands of the government in managing, handling, and mitigating the COVID-19 crisis in India. They are involved in the making of masks and hand sanitizers, manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE), and are also engaged in the functioning of community kitchens and ensuring delivery of food to the needy. In many places, SHGs are engaged in generating public awareness about COVID-19.

Let us take the example of Jeevika, a women SHG, based in Bihar. They have been working tirelessly to create awareness among people about the personal hygiene necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The need to maintain social distancing has also been advocated by Jeevika. Similarly, around 200 SHGs in Punjab are manufacturing masks. They have adopted the unique idea of painting Rangolis to generate awareness about COVID-19. A similar action is taken by Prerna, another SHG in Uttar Pradesh. They have made the mantra of social distancing popular in their state.

SRLM in Jharkhand has started a dedicated helpline, which is open 24 hours and it helps the migrant labourers from Jharkhand who have remained stuck in other states. Gujarat Urban Livelihood Mission has encouraged SHGs in making masks in their homes. Similarly, in Odisha, around 50,000 masks are being manufactured every day by the members of the SHGs under the ‘Mission Shakti Programme’ of the state government to fight COVID-19. “Break the Chain” is a movement begun by the Kerala government and Kudumbashree, an SHG in Kerala, and is helping the government in creating awareness about it. The governments in many states have also announced plans to empower SHGs in this tough time. Andhra Pradesh and Kerala have proposed several relaxations in the loans given to the SHGs to empower them economically and help them in strengthening their fight against COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary episode in the history of humankind, the fight against it should also be an incredible one. For generations, women have fought for their basic rights including universal franchise rights, the right to education, political representation, economic empowerment, and social progression. Some of these goals have been achieved while some have remained unattained. A situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, however, proves that women are the pillars of Indian society and women empowerment should be the priority of our socio-political and economic systems and structures. SHGs in India have been proven helpful in this crisis period without involving much investment in terms of logistics and infrastructure. This journey needs to continue and be recognized by their families, communities, and governments. The hard work and contributions made by women SHGs, therefore, calls for acknowledgment and recognition.

Sampa Kundu is an academic and researcher at Amity University, India. Her research interests include International Relations and Southeast Asian geopolitical affairs.