Many years ago I came across a quote and it immediately reminded me of a very specific moment and the very specific faces of women and young girls standing in a long snaking line that seemed to extend till the horizon of my sight. It was maybe a week after the terrible floods of Mumbai in 2005 and I was working with a women’s rights organisation, trying to provide relief in the form of ration and clothing. The low-lying slums of Mumbai had been devastated by the onslaught of the floods. Assets dearly collected and put together over the years, had been swept away in one cruel stroke; filth caked every crevice of the place they called home. With just the clothes on their back, women stood in the baking afternoon heat, so tired that even their eyes were bereft of feeling; yet the presence of their tired bodies spoke volumes. “Courage“, it said, “doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’.”
As we mark the passage of a year since the word ‘pandemic’ became familiar even to the tongues of toddlers, I think of the faces of this disaster. The length of the pandemic makes it feel very different from a natural disaster of the flood or earthquake kind – the wounds on society and the landscape aren’t quite as evident. Instead its markers have been the eerie silence of the lockdowns and the quiet desperate tread of millions of feet moving from place to place. Yet its outcomes are just as, if not more, devastating. Even as 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, the most progressive agenda for women’s rights, the coming of the pandemic meant that even back in the April of 2020, UN and other human rights organisations were already predicting a serious roll back of the progress made through the 25 years in the arena of women’s rights: “Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women and girls simply by virtue of their sex.”
These serious predictions are now being backed by research and the experience of civil society on the ground – the pandemic has deeply exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities. In India, a research found that, “Women in the workforce prior to the pandemic, were seven times more likely to lose work during the nationwide lockdown, and conditional on losing work, eleven times more likely to not return to work subsequently, compared to men“. This squeezing of women out of the labour pool is being referred to internationally by economists as the pink recession. Another report “estimated that nearly 10 million secondary school girls in India could drop out of school due to the pandemic, putting them at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, trafficking and violence.” This took place partly due to women and girls being pushed deeper into unpaid care work and not having fallback work options due to greater vulnerability.
I often think back on those snaking lines and wonder if such courage should, time and again, be demanded of women? Aren’t all these outcomes a proof that something is terribly broken and needs fixing? Not just our relationship with nature that has resulted in this pandemic but our relationship with ourselves, our communities and our governments – that falsely label courage and suffering as resilience and continue to clap and look away?
We would love to hear what you have been reading and thinking about this. As always, we wish you good health and safe days ahead.