Women: The invisible face of hunger
Sunita Haldar lives in a village in Fulia district of West Bengal. Her husband migrated to Kerala and she supports herself and her three small children by working in a weaving shed. Now, there are no orders and she and the children are getting by on one meal a day.
Sayidabano stitches garments for a contractor in Ahmedabad and gets paid on a piece-rate basis. Her husband died of tuberculosis five years ago. Her eldest 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 has no work and her savings are over. She depends on her neighbours for rations.
Multiply these pen portraits of struggle and deprivation a million times, and one gets to see the invisible face of hunger. And that is the face of a woman. The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) lockdown has revealed the precarious lives of a large number of people. Migrants, mostly men in cities, are the visible face of hunger and despair we see every day in the media. The women left behind in the villages, while their menfolk migrate, are equally deprived of food and cash. In normal times, these women continue to work, while the men are away. They look after their own small farms, manage their cattle and other livestock; they are agricultural labourers or small manufacturers doing weaving, garment-making or embroidery; they are domestic servants or provide other services like child care.
Then suddenly, abruptly, came the lockdown. And women found themselves without any means of support. The remittances stopped as the migrants grappled with their difficult situations in cities. At the same time, women’s own incomes collapsed. Women who grow vegetables found that they have no way to take them to market; all manufacturing came to a halt, labour was no more in demand; and although the government has mandated the starting of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, this has hardly happened yet anywhere.
The slums and mohallas of urban India hide equally hungry women and children. Perhaps the most affected are the women who are the sole earners in their families. These are widows or those whose husbands or fathers cannot earn due to illness, or sometimes due to addictions. They work as domestic help, street vendors, construction labour, ragpickers or engage in small manufacturing in their homes and bring in money to support their children and the elderly in the family. Even in normal times, they are on the edge of survival. Now with their work gone, hunger stalks their homes.
Governments have instituted systems by which grains are widely available for families with ration cards. For those without cards, many state governments have systems for filling up documents using the Aadhaar card or other local documents of proof, through which families can access grains. However, a certain percentage, usually the most vulnerable, are outside the zone of this security net. Sometimes, it is due to not having a ration card or even an Aadhaar card; often it is due to the problems in distribution. The central government had announced various cash transfers including ~500 into women’s Jan Dhan accounts. But here too, many fall through the net. In a study done by Dalberg, a global consulting firm, in mid-April among the 18,000 of the poorest, the Indian below poverty line families, it was found that 45% had not received free rations. And over 70% had not received cash payments into their Jan Dhan accounts.
This is not all. Other stresses crowd in. Since money is tight, and the period of lockdown uncertain, there are often quarrels in the house about how to budget and on which items. Women usually bear the brunt of these arguments, and face both mental and physical violence.
There is, however, a group of invisible people who are ready to reach out to these hungry families. Within every community, there are those who do their best to ensure that others receive food.
Many of the volunteers are women like Sarabjit Kaur, a widow who lives in a village in Patiala district with her son. She is primarily a domestic worker, but also cooks for weddings and events and works as agricultural labour to make ends meet. As soon as she heard about the impending lockdown, she identified all vulnerable families in her community immediately and conveyed this information to the local non-governmental organisations and political leaders. These families received ration kits on a priority basis.
There are countless such Sarabjit Kaurs throughout the country, and they should be recognised and asked to become part of the government’s distribution system, so that food can reach the last woman.