Women: the invisible face of hunger – analysis
Sunita Haldar lives in a village in the Fulia district of West Bengal. Her husband emigrated to Kerala and she supports herself and her three young children by working in a shed to knit. Now, there are no orders and she and the children cope with one meal a day.
Sayidabano sews garments for a contractor in Ahmedabad and receives a piece rate payment. Her husband died of tuberculosis five years ago. Her oldest son is 15 years old and she wants to give him an education so that he can earn well and support the family. But now, she doesn’t have a job and her savings are over. She depends on her neighbors for rations.
Multiply these portraits of struggle and deprivation a million times, and one can see the invisible face of hunger. And that’s the face of a woman. Blocking coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has revealed the precarious life of large numbers of people. Migrants, mostly men in the cities, are the visible face of hunger and despair that we see every day in the media. The women who remain in the villages, while their men migrate, are equally deprived of food and cash. In normal times, these women continue to work, while the men are absent. They take care of their own small farms, manage their livestock and other animals; they are agricultural workers or small manufacturers that weave, make or embroider; are domestic servants or provide other services such as childcare.
Then suddenly, abruptly, the closure came. And the women found themselves without any means of support. Remittances ceased when migrants dealt with their difficult situations in the cities. At the same time, women’s incomes collapsed. Women who grow vegetables found that they have no way to get them to market; all manufacturing stopped, labor was no longer in demand; And although the government has ordered the initiation of Mahatma Gandhi’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, this has hardly happened anywhere.
The slums and mohallas of urban India hide equally hungry women and children. Perhaps the most affected are women who are the only ones in their families. These are widows or those whose husbands or fathers cannot win due to illness, or sometimes due to addictions. They work as domestic help, street vendors, construction workers, ragpickers, or do small things in their homes and contribute money to support their children and the elderly in the family. Even in normal times, they are on the brink of survival. Now that they no longer have a job, hunger lurks in their homes.
Governments have instituted systems whereby grains are widely available to families with ration cards. For those without cards, many state governments have systems to fill out documents using the Aadhaar card or other local proof documents, through which families can access the beans. However, a certain percentage, generally the most vulnerable, is outside the zone of this safety net. Sometimes it is due to not having a ration card or even an Aadhaar card; it is often due to distribution problems. The central government had announced several cash transfers that included ~ 500 in Jan Dhan women’s accounts. But here too, many fall through the net. In a study by Dalberg, a global consulting firm, in mid-April among the 18,000 of the poorest families, Indian families below the poverty line, it was found that 45% had not received free rations. And more than 70% had received no cash payments on their Jan Dhan accounts.
This is not everything. Other stresses build up. Since money is tight and the lockdown period uncertain, there are often disputes around the house about how to budget and on what items. Women generally bear the brunt of these arguments and face mental and physical violence.
However, there is a group of invisible people who are ready to reach these starving families. Within each community, there are those who do everything possible to ensure that others receive food.
Many of the volunteers are women like Sarabjit Kaur, a widow who lives in a village in the Patiala district with her son. She is primarily a domestic worker, but she also cooks for weddings and events and works as an agricultural workforce to make ends meet. As soon as he heard about the impending lockout, he immediately identified all the vulnerable families in his community and relayed this information to local non-governmental organizations and political leaders. These families received ration kits as a priority.
There are countless Saursjit Kaurs across the country, and they must be recognized and asked to be part of the government’s distribution system, so that food can reach the last woman.
Renana Jhabvala has worked with SEWA (Autonomous Women’s Association) for over 40 years and is president of SEWA Bharat, the national federation of SEWA
The opinions expressed are personal.