On March 15, my grandmother celebrated her 94th birthday halfway across the world with my aunt and uncle in whose care she now lives. It’s been three years since we’ve seen each other in the flesh. To mark the day and tend to the strong urge to see and hold her again, I found myself revisiting her life story, an expanse of time I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head round. I think of her descriptions as a carefree student in Kerala and her love story that epitomised romance for me throughout my childhood. But most of all, I think of the decades she spent caring for my mother and aunt as a single parent. Days spent in a classrooms teaching biology, history and english followed by tuition classes in the evening for additional income. Days with little room for leisure or energy to actually be with her children. In her recollections, she matter-of-factly says there was never time to pause and think about the daily trials. It was unrelenting in its demands.
Over the past month in the run up to Women’s Day, social media has been populated with messages lauding women. Amidst the platitudes, I found myself thinking of the millions of women who continue to maintain unforgiving routines in the face of systems and structures that do little to enable support for women to thrive, whether it is access to affordable childcare or the right to equitable pay. As Covid-19 vaccinations roll out across the country, healthcare workers continue to remain at the forefront of efforts to respond to the pandemic. Women are disproportionately represented on the front lines of delivery and management of cases around the world, whether it is as nurses, contact tracers, community volunteers or doctors. A 2019 WHO paper noted that women form 70% of workers in the health and social sector. The report also found that an average gender pay gap of around 28% exists in the health workforce.
In India, the pandemic has laid bare the importance of ASHA workers (Accredited Social Health Activist) who form the backbone of the healthcare system on the ground. Already tasked with providing health and nutrition information, caring for pregnant and lactating women and immunisation drives, they were tasked with conducting surveys, contact tracing and community surveillance right through the lockdown. Risky, painstaking work for which they had little protective equipment and for which they were promised additional incentives that they never received. Even as airforce and navy helicopters showered flower petals on hospitals treating Covid-19 patients in May 2020, purportedly as a gesture of gratitude for healthcare workers, these women had been left out in the cold when it came to remuneration (the Rs. 2000-4000 they receive is still called an honorarium rather than a salary) or job benefits.
In a 16 state survey conducted by Behanbox, a digital platform for gender data and stories, ASHA workers shared their anxiety for their families even as they faced immense stigma in their communities. “We are called ‘Corona walas’ (Corona carriers) and kept at a distance by our neighbours because we are in touch with community members without proper protective gear. We are paying the price in our community for the government’s inability to keep us safe,” said Minara Begum, an ASHA from Kamrup district in Assam. Even as ASHA workers have gone from the 2-3 hours a day they are meant to work as per guidelines, to upwards of 6 hours a day, there has been little recognition of their work despite the pandemic demonstrating the importance of frontline healthcare workers.
When I think about care work and the central role it plays in everything—whether the running of a household or at an institutional level, of tending to and caring for the health and wellbeing of a country—I wonder what it will take for this to be acknowledged by formal systems. For women to receive not just lip service when March rolls around, but for resources to be committed towards enabling their participation and thriving in the workforce.
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