COVID-19 Relief: how to reach the marginalised among the marginalised

Communities such as Hijras or sex workers have unique needs which are often not met. COVID-19 relief efforts need to be tailored to meet their needs.

This is the third story in a multi-part series on the pandemic and its impact on people in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, YUVA, a non-profit organisation, attempts to understand the challenges they face in accessing relief and assesses the rights-based approach to benefits.

The COVID-19-induced lockdown disproportionately impacted the lives of women and other minority genders. In a pre-pandemic world these communities were already disadvantaged, with lesser space for expression, deeper struggles in accessing jobs, more vulnerability to abuse and often shouldering a larger burden of household duties and care needs. 

The pandemic deepened these schisms. 

Nazar is a trans-woman who lives alone in Ambujwadi, an informal settlement in Malad. As a member of the Hijra community whose main source of income is derived from participating in a group that attends weddings and religious functions, the lockdown has left her with no choice but to stay home with no earnings. Weddings are certainly not garish affairs as they used to be.

She is entitled to the relief provided by the state and non-state actors. However, she highlights the need for relief efforts that are informed by the community’s knowledge and participation. 

Communities such as Hijras or sex workers have unique needs which are often not met. Additionally, adverse perceptions to them further restrict their access.

Sarita is a single parent and a sex worker living in Vashi Naka. She says she faced discrimination and been ostracised by her community even at this time. Despite having four children at home to feed, she was turned away from a fair price shop distribution of ration. “These women are sex workers. Why do they need ration? They must be having a lot of bank balance. They loot men.” she was told.

She is worried if she will manage the school fees of her eldest daughter, currently in the tenth standard. 

In the wake of COVID-19, the government announced direct cash transfers  to women holding Jan Dhan accounts. However, an upcoming report by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) shows that only 24.09 %  surveyed households had bank accounts in the name of female family members and not all were Jan Dhan accounts.

Nazar observes the inequalities emerging in disaster-response initiatives within the community. She believes that the most vulnerable people continue to remain invisible in the eyes of the non-profits and the local government. 

“Within a few self-help groups (SHGs) whose setup YUVA had facilitated, the women took a small loan and used their remaining savings to begin street vending”, said Shanta Khot from YUVA, explaining how community members have begun conversations with government officials on the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) further supporting SHGs, but the pace of this has been very slow.

Gendered response to emerging challenges

To help marginalised women and adolescent girls better understand and respond to the evolving situation, YUVA has led some online and on-field sessions in select communities across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region on health and hygiene, access to entitlements (such as ration cards), and the power of community-led action.

In the community of Behrampada, Bandra, for instance, many girls do not have any space for expression and getting them to engage with one another is a start. Sessions with them on ‘understanding the self’ (focusing on their self-development), working as ‘me and we’ (focusing on self-awareness and group building), and ‘the importance of solidarity’ (the power of collectives and networks to drive change) is helping them better develop their personality and helping them identify ways in which they can work together for the betterment of their community. Efforts are also being made to work with their families, so they may encourage the girls to continue to remain connected and work with one another.

To better inform and protect children from sexual abuse, sessions have been held online and offline on the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, on ‘good touch and bad touch’, often led by the Child Protection Committee based in the community. 

Kumud was unable to register at any hospital for her delivery when she was nine months pregnant. “They told me to come when I get labour pains”, she says, remembering how eventually her child was delivered at home.

She has been served by one of the Ambujwadi aanganwadi workers. Aanganwadi workers are constrained in many cases, but in Ambujwadi, for instance, a few aanganwadi workers have been supporting medical and related needs, from delivery related support to following up on the infant’s birth certificate, and immunisation needs. 

For too long, women and minorities  have suffered and faced unequal access to space and opportunity. Given the opportunity that the pandemic has offered to reassess and rebuild, it is important to reach out with holistic measures that ensure we leave no one behind. 

“I personally know people who cannot light their chulha and have starving children. But people who have, have a lot. And those who don’t, they don’t have anything at all’, says Nazar. 

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