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The Invisible Infrastructure of Women's Networks during Covid-19

In most crisis situations, women and other gender and sexual minorities face the biggest brunt. This is true in cases of conflict, natural disasters, and now during the COVID-19 pandemic. The closing of schools, workplaces, recreation centres and even places of worship, due to the lockdown measures, has meant the upending of support structures that families, in particular women, relied on. The closing of schools, for example, has burdened parents with extra childcare responsibilities, which has primarily been shouldered by women. Women who had to stay at home during the pandemic faced the challenges of job losses or a reduction in income or working hours and increased workloads exacerbating their mental, emotional, physical, and financial burdens. In this special practitioners’ blog, Fiona Vaz, Peny Rahmadhani, and Rizki Amalia Affiat, of InteGRAL Asia, discuss how women’s networks in India and Indonesia are rising up to the challenges of lockdown and the crises of COVID-19, providing innovative, grass-roots solutions to the gendered impacts of the pandemic.

The rising burdens to women during the lockdown are one of the negative consequences of harmful gender norms that govern reproductive labour at home. Women are perceived to be adept at familial and domestic responsibilities as men are deemed primary breadwinners. Even when participating in the labour market, gender norms which dictate women’s supportive roles have often prevented them from taking on meaningful work and thus exposing them to limited earning potential. During the pandemic, the upending of external institutions that shared in women’s reproductive efforts brought back the focus on the home as a central site for cultural reproduction as well as the reproduction of gender roles and therein lay several challenges. The growing pressure of working at home and exhaustion due to increased housework could lead to tension in the family resulting in male aggression and domestic violence. Despite governments in various countries setting up welfare measures for women, it was the same gender norms that prevented women from accessing them; limited knowledge, lack of documents and in some cases, their very identities of being household heads.

The nature of women’s marginalization has led them to form networks of support that continue to provide mutual self-help in ways that are most meaningful. In this blog post, we examine the work undertaken by several women’s NGOs in India and Indonesia to highlight how women’s groups are adept at mobilizing and filling the gaps as a result of hasty and inadequate planning by governments. We use these examples to argue that grassroots feminist leaders must move from the margin to the centre, where they have power to mitigate risks even before they strike. Finally, we conclude with some ideas on where this power sharing can start.

Women’s networks and their role

Women’s networks, whether formally created as part of Self-Help Groups (SHGs), NGOs, CSOs or even informal networks, have provided an invisible infrastructure during the Covid-19 pandemic. Aditi Arur, notes that this invisible infrastructure, which largely constitutes women’s labour, existed before the pandemic yet has been largely ignored by virtue of this labour being unpaid. Nevertheless, women’s networks and communities during the pandemic have provided a measured response to deep rooted, often historical, challenges, some of which are discussed below.

Lack of Information

Due to educational inequalities, women in India can have difficulty in accessing crucial information regarding preventing infection or how to access various government welfare measures. These challenges are experienced differently based on the intersecting identities of women. For example, women who are from the lower castes, illiterate, or engaged in commercial sex work, have been deeply impacted not only because of the lack of information but because of the stigma they might have internalised due to their social location. In India and Indonesia, several women-led NGOs, such as Nirantar, SANGRAM Sanstha, and Gerakan Solidaritas Perempuan among others have mobilised to share knowledge to counter hoaxes related to virus infection and disseminate information on government provided welfare measures to channel women’s economic opportunities. These organisations have also helped to create documents for migrant families to help them access food and other basic necessities for free or at reduced prices. In India, where lockdown was hurriedly implemented, the advocacy of various grassroots organisations led to governments reversing policies that did not benefit marginalised communities.

Lack of Resources

Similarly, due to gendered hierarchies that dictate unequal resource allocation, women disproportionately lacked access to essential items during lockdowns such as food, medical and sanitation facilities, as well as gadgets for digital education. As well as providing information, various organisations such as SEWA, enabled the direct distribution of food and health kits, microinsurance, and also advocated to the government to sustain welfare measures for 93% of the informal work force of India. Similarly, in Indonesia women-focused organisations (WFOs) together with other elements of local social movement formed a people-to-people coalition such as Solidaritas Pangan Jogja, are stepping up and continuing their vital work in the distribution of food packages, hygiene kits, and other humanitarian aid. Partnerships between grassroots groups and farmers have helped to promote community food sufficiency among women. For example, Perempuan AMAN, an Indonesian indigenous women’s organisation, highlights the crucial role of indigenous women in providing and supporting food supply for millions of Indonesian and yet their territories are under constant threat of land dispossession.

Lack of Emotional Support

WFOs were on the front lines as domestic violence spiked and as many policies designed to halt the spread of COVID-19 hampered women’s ability to seek help. Through online service and social media platforms, victims can share their experience and seek help without the need to take a Covid-19 test required when visiting hospitals or public health services. Furthermore, online advocacy can help them in identifying signs of violence experiences and give them knowledge and awareness to report the abuse. Organisations such as Pulih Foundation and KAPAL Perempuan in Indonesia and Prajnya Trust in India, that have been long engaged in the issues around GBV started providing annual digital campaigns and online services. In Kerala, the state government, enabled neighbourhood groups (NHGs) Kudumbashris to provide counselling support to those affected by the lockdown among other services. Although Kudumbashris cannot be termed as women-led groups, their principles are based on feminist values of community care and support which are foundational to women’s networks. Some victims have found that online advocacy has empowered them to identify the signs of violence and seeking immediate supports without being noticed by the abuser. However, the effectiveness of digital efforts to reach women is debatable as women's access to gadgets is limited, particularly in rural areas where basic support in care work and staple foods are pivotal. Only with time will we know if these digital initiatives have been effective.

Given the evidence of women’s groups springing to support at times of acute need, it is clear that women have invested in relationships and networks that are effective in times of crisis. It is therefore imperative that governments tap into the knowledge and experience of women’s networks not only during or after a crisis but also in preparation for any future crises.

The way forward

Meyer and Raimondos noted that political motives of foreign aid has centred around the international political interests of donor governments or on the domestic political behaviour of aid-recipient governments. Yet, given the new realities of the pandemic, geopolitical context and political-economy relationships are no longer amenable to new global accords. Several world leaders have advocated reshaping global cooperation, to foster a ‘ground upwards’ coalition formed of non-central government, community-level organisations and private sectors. Sudanese Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, Ibrahim Elbadawi, encouraged conceptualising international aid as a global public good which provides robust outbreak response and social protection programmes for the most affected population (World Bank, 2020). As studies on the impact of Covid-19 have pointed out the gendered impact of the pandemic to women, the crisis response and recovery efforts should focus on investing resources, time, and effort in addressing their challenges and mainstreaming gender sensitivity in their programmes.

Changing the nature of aid can also mean giving ownership and accountability to the donor recipients in implementing their programmes. This clearly requires shifting power dynamic towards local actors to perform humanitarian action, and consequently force international organisations to better understand who has what capacity. Women’s networks play a foundational role because they address issues on the community level and respond to the marginalised, in turn complementing national and international efforts. Therefore, unleashing the unique role and leadership capacity of women communities on the ground will be a vital way to counterbalance the state and global actors’ power which might not reach those hardest to reach. Furthermore, their knowledge and information are critical assets to help fill the gaps in locally relevant responses, and their lived experience provides valuable insights alongside international dialogue to drive evidence-based strategies.

Lastly, the Covid-19 crisis therefore offers a critical opportunity to connect with all affected parties including women. However, the recognition of women’s role should also benefit them to receive other forms of required support. This may include, among many others, supporting women’s organisations to better connect with each other and prioritising funding for organisations and networks that already work in partnership with women communities to encourage localisation of humanitarian action and female leadership.

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Roxanne Rozario

About the author

InteGRAL Asia is a gender-focused research and advisory firm based in the Global South, specifically, India and Indonesia. Formed of Fiona Vaz, Peny Rahmadhani, and Rizki Amalia Affiat, InteGRAl Asia uses research to build evidence and assist organizations who foreground gender as well as those who would like to make their programs more gender sensitive.

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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