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COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

International Women’s Day 2021: While the pandemic has impacted almost everybody, women, especially in marginalised rural communities have been hit harder and one of the biggest challenges faced by them during this unprecedented crisis has been ‘access to food’

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families
  • Women are eating less as food fell short during the pandemic: WFP
  • Urgent need to invest in addressing nutrition hunger among women: Expert
  • We are treated as inferiors, meeting needs is hard: Aarti, a domestic help

New Delhi: “A mother can do anything to provide the best to her child. I have a seven-month-old grandson and I understand it is essential for his growth to have a nutrient-rich diet. Hum khud nahi khayege ek baar ko, par bache ko jo de sakte hai wo zaroor dege (We adults can skip a meal but we will feed our child for his well-being)”, said 46-year-old Manwara Begum, an informal waste collector from Delhi. Manwara Begum also works as a cleaner at a post office but a salary of Rs. 7,000 and some additional income that she generates by sorting and selling recyclable waste is not sufficient to put food on the table for a family of six. To make ends meet, Manwara, the sole breadwinner of the family either borrows money or cuts down on basic needs like food.

Pet bharne ke liye khaana to hai hi, chahe roti-namak hi khaaye (Food is needed to fill your stomach, even if it means you eat roti with salt), said 30-year-old Nanhi, waste picker turned artisan and a resident of Ghazipur Dairy Farm in Delhi.

Nanhi works at a Delhi based NGO Gulmeher Green and earns Rs. 6,400 per month. Nanhi’s husband has been out of work for over two years now which means the burden of running the five-member household rests with Nanhi. Talking about how she feeds her family on such a meagre salary, Nanhi said,

Often children request for a particular food item or dish but there are days when we sleep on an empty stomach, how do we fulfil our children’s demands? We have to turn down their request and if they are adamant, we beat them up.

NDTV reached out to women from different cities, states and circumstances to understand the challenges faced by them on a daily basis to feed their families and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their lives.

Also Read: Women’s Day 2021: Into The Life Of Corona Warriors, Fighting The COVID-19 Pandemic Since The Start

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

46-year-old Manwara Begum, an informal waste collector from Netaji Nagar in Delhi is the sole breadwinner for a family of six

Giving a peek into her family and life, Manwara Begum told NDTV,

My husband is a drug addict that means whatever little he earns by collecting and selling recyclable waste is spent on buying drugs. I registered him for de-addiction therapy but doctors there said that his body is so used to drugs that he will die if he doesn’t get it. Essentially, now I have to support his addiction. Two years ago, my elder son (22-year-old), who was the sole breadwinner of the family, got a head injury that affected his brain. We have spent Rs. 60,000 on his treatment but all in vain. Now he just sits at home and doesn’t talk to anyone. My daughter-in-law wants to work and support the family but then who will take care of her kid? My younger son (18-year-old) is trying his luck in dancing.

When asked how the family managed during the COVID-19 lockdown when all workplaces were shut, Manwara Begum said she herself was at home for three months and senior officials at the post office supported her family financially by providing some money. The family’s food requirements were met through the free ration initiative – Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana – announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of the pandemic relief package. Under PMGKAY, foodgrains were distributed to all the 80 crore beneficiaries under Targeted Public Distribution System- those under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Households (PHH). Along with foodgrain each beneficiary household (each ration card no matter how many members) also got 1 kg dal/gram (chana) per month.

We have a ration card through which we get 16 kg wheat and 4kg rice every month. During the lockdown, the government provided us double ration and one kg of pulses for free, said Manwara Begum.

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

30-year-old Nanhi, waste picker turned artisan and a resident of Ghazipur Dairy Farm in Delhi is a mother of three children

But for women like Nanhi who do not have a ration card to access the government’s support, organisations like Gulmeher Green and Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group came to the rescue.

I have three daughters aged between 5 and 13. Two of them study in a government school and as part of the mid-day meal, it’s only in February both of them got dry ration, said Nanhi.

As an artisan at NGO Gulmeher Green, Nanhi upcycles waste materials into paintings, poster, wall hangings, among other things. But during the lockdown, since the demand for such products was low, Nanhi and her team were given the task of stitching face masks which brought in some money.

In 2020 I applied for a ration card and I am yet to receive one. On March 3, I took a day off from work, giving away a day’s salary only to go and check the status of the ration card. They said, come after Diwali, 2021; ration card should be ready by then. I cannot take a leave every other day and the officials are not giving any explanation behind the delay as well, said Nanhi.

Also Read: Women’s Day 2021: Let’s Talk Menstruation Say Girls In This Bihar Village

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

Rudani Devi and her family at their tea shop at Wapcos Road, Sector 18, Gurgaon

Just like Nanhi, Rudani Devi from Sarhol village in Gurugram (Gurgaon) is also waiting for her ration card for over a decade now. Rudani Devi hails from Madhubani, Bihar but soon after marriage, she came to Gurugram along with her husband and together they run a small tea stall at Wapcos Road, Sector 18, Gurgaon. Talking about the hardships brought in by the COVID-19 and lockdown, Rudani Devi’s husband K.C. Pandit said,

Before the lockdown, we used to make Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 7,000 a month. Additionally, I would often take up odd jobs like loading and unloading and bring Rs. 200 to Rs. 400. During the lockdown, all sources of income were shut. We thought of going back home but people around us advised against it because there was no conveyance, we have three children and the disease was spreading like a wildfire. Anand Sir, one of our regular customers, who works in a nearby factory once gave me Rs. 500 and said, you can still survive in a city but you won’t if you try walking back home.

Further talking about how the couple fed their children, Mr Pandit said, they would eat at the government’s food distribution drives and bring home some for their children. He added,

NGOs like Smile Foundation also stepped up and provided dry ration. We applied for a ration card in May, 2007 on our village address but we don’t know what the status is now.

Mr Pandit said that life is slowly coming back on track as things unlock but what still scares him the most is the lockdown period when the family was petrified of stepping out of the house, contracting the disease and eventually dying.

We didn’t know what to do, where to go, who to ask for help. We were scared of going to a neighbour’s place also.

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mini Sahu gave birth to a healthy baby boy

37-year-old Mini Sahu from Chhattisgarh got a second lease of life during the pandemic, courtesy Manav Sansadhan Sanskriti Vikas Parishad (MSSVP), a social service organisation working in Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh. Mini Sahu was married in 2014 but the marriage lasted for only two years and Ms Sahu who is only 10th pass was left to fend for herself and her young daughter. Talking about her struggles, she said,

Before the pandemic, I used to work as a staff cleaner at a local footwear shop, but the lockdown resulted in the closure of the store, leaving me jobless. During that time only, I got pregnant but a male friend with whom I had developed a bond abandoned me as soon as he got to know about my pregnancy. In June 2020, I was three months pregnant, had a 5-year-old daughter, no money and nowhere to go as my parents died years ago and my brother refused to be associated with me.

Ms Sahu thought of taking her life but then an acquaintance gave her some money and suggested visiting MSSVP’s Swadhar Greh where a woman can live with three children for three years. For the sake of her daughter and the unborn child, Ms Sahu moved to MSSVP. Talking about the life there, Meera Shukla, Director of MSSVP said,

When Mini came to us, she had Haemoglobin (Hb) levels as low as 4.3 gm/dl and would cry all day. We counselled her and provided her nutritious food like beetroot, sprouted lentils, jaggery, peanuts and other food items. In the eighth month of pregnancy, her Hb levels were 13.4 gm/dl and she gave birth to a healthy child weighing 2.5 kg. Here women get pocket money of Rs. 100 per month and get work like upcycling scrap cloth into doormat, purse and other useful items. They are also trained in the fields of their interest like computer training, stitching, and cooking, among others. Essentially, the pocket money and whatever they earn through odd jobs go to their bank account as MSSVP takes care of their stay, food, and other essentials.

Also Read: Opinion: Why Women Eat Last And Least?

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

37-year-old Geeta Nautiyal from Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand takes care of 7 children and an ailing mother-in-law

Geeta Nautiyal is a 37-year-old homemaker who lives in a remote village in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. A mother of two children, her responsibilities increased when her two sisters-in-law died because of cancer in 2019 and she along her husband decided to look after their five children. Not only this, her two brothers-in-law also moved in with them after they lost their jobs as labourers in a factory in Noida, Uttar Pradesh during the lockdown. Geeta also takes care of her ailing mother-in-law. This family of 12 did face some very difficult days during the pandemic. Putting food on the table was proving to be impossible so ‘nutrition’ was not even a concern. Geeta’s husband used to run a small grocery shop in the village but he had to close the shop when the business became slow and he could not stock up the shelves any more. The only source of income left for this household was petty jobs taken up by Geeta’s husband and brothers-in-law in the village but even that was uncertain. She said,

I have seven children at home in the age group 6-17 years. They are growing children who not only need proper food for their development but also need food every now and then since they were staying at home during the lockdown with no school and studies. While 4 out of 7 children are enrolled in government school but only 1 gets about 10 kilograms of foodgrains as take-home-ration every month in lieu of mid-day-meals. Three children could not get admission in government schools so we had to send them in a private school nearby. So, my family of 12 majorly depends on the 10 kgs of foodgrains received from the school and about 10 kg of rice, 10 kg of wheat and 1 kg of pulses received from PDS (Public Distribution System) Shops.

She said that on some days, she had served just cooked rice to her family. Being a remote village on a hill, there is an added challenge OF accessing markets and services. She said,

I have no earnings, the men in family have uncertain earnings. There is no backup support, no handholding from NGOs or the local government. We are just living on hand-to-mouth basis. Feeding children is always the utmost priority even if that means that I get to eat less or not eat at all.

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

Renti Ben, a 63-year-old widow from Dahod, Gujarat live with her 6-year-old grandson and is struggling to make ends meet

Renti Ben, a 63-year-old widow from a tribal community lives in Kansatiya village, Devgadh Baria block of Dahod district in Gujarat. Her husband died in 2019 and her daughter and son-in-law died three years ago. Now she and her 6-year-old grandson are alone and struggling to survive. Since last one year, Renti Ben has been trying to get herself registered under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) which is part of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) that aims to reduce hunger among the poorest families by providing 35 kg of foodgrains per family per month. However, because of some issues in her Aadhaar card, she is unable to get an AAY ration card and thus she has no access to food security.

She is currently living on the generosity of her neighbours and the ration shop dealer who sometimes provides Renti Ben with some ration free-of-cost. Her grandson who is enrolled with an Anganwadi centre gets a supplementary nutrition item called ‘Sukhadi’ twice a week which is provided under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) department, Government of Gujarat. Apart from some help from neighbours and supplementary nutrition from the Anganwadi centre for the child, there is no other source of food for Renti and her grandson, who are faced extreme distress during the lockdown and could not avail any of the relief measures part of the government’s pandemic package.

Also Read: Women’s Day 2021: Adolescent Girls In Varanasi Slums Overcome Lack Of Sanitary Pads During COVID-19 lockdown 

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

Ruksana who lives in Jaipur  is the sole breadwinner of her family faced some difficult days in putting food on the table

Ruksana is a 36-year-old resident of Idgah Kachi Basti, one of the largest slum area of Jaipur, Rajasthan. She lives with her two children, a 12-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. Her husband has a disease since birth because of which he has to undergo multiple surgeries in his life. While he was able to work till a few years back, doing any physical labour started becoming difficult for him and when he stopped working, Ruksana started taking temporary cooking jobs in the area and became the sole breadwinner for the family of four. Most of the income she earned was spent on her husband’s treatment, child care and food.

While day to day survival was already challenging for her, the pandemic brought upon her a situation where she was no more getting any cooking jobs, the meagre savings that she and her husband had got exhausted in no time. After this, the family became dependent on the mercy of others. Being a ration card holder, Ruksana got 20 kilograms of food grains every month from the government out of which she sold about 10 kgs to buy fruits and vegetables for her children which lasted only for few days.

Talking about her struggles, Ruksana shared that she was good in studies and always had a dream of doing something for herself but because of her family’s orthodox beliefs, she was married off early and had to give up her studies. Now she wants her children to study hard and make a life for themselves. She said,

My daughter is very bright in studies and my son is good too. I don’t send them to Madarsa because I want my children to be in a more competitive environment and so I send them to a private school. I was managing their fees somehow earlier but I have not been able to pay it for the last four months. but thankfully, the school understands and does not pressurise me to pay. My only dream is to see my children having a better future and far better destiny than mine. I never let them know what I go through every day to put food on the table. They are too young to be told all this but I think at some level, they understand. They never ask me for anything like other kids do.

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

Jaichithra, a 39-year-old domestic worker from Chennai is hopeful that one day the situation will improve for her and her family

Jaichithra, a 39-year-old domestic worker from Perumbakkam Relocation Sites, Chennai, Tamil Nadu lost her husband right before the pandemic hit the country. The family was still grieving when the COVID-19 induced lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister. All the households where she was employed gave her a month’s payment and told her to come after the pandemic is over. Jaichithra was going through sorrow, confusion and fear all at the same time. How would she run the household and how would she feed her family which include a 20-year-old unemployed son, a married daughter who along with her one-month-old son lives with Jaichithra and has no steady financial support from her husband.

I used to earn about Rs. 8,000 per month earlier and suddenly one day, I was out of work. Thinking about the future and fulfiling my responsibilities towards my family scared me more than the pandemic. I did not know what to do. Then I got to know that my daughter is pregnant and I wanted to her to eat well during her pregnancy. But how? This kept me awake at nights. Thanks to some NGOs like ActionAid that gave me some support in terms of money and food, said Jaichithra.

While Jaichithra has a ration card and gets food grain from ration shop, it is not enough, she said.

Rice alone is not sufficient. We need some vegetables or pulses to eat with it. There have been days when we just ate boiled rice. I have started getting some work not as much as I used to get earlier. Thankfully the baby is very little and dependent on only breastmilk. I am hoping that in the coming few months, the situation will improve and I will be able to feed better food to my family.

Also Read: Women Empowering Women: Here’s How Jeevika Initiative Changed The Life Of Bihar’s Pawan Rekha Devi And Her Family

Women's Day 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic Impact On Women And Their Struggle To Feed Their Families

58-year-old Aarti from Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh lost her livelihood as a domestic worker during the lockdown

I was living a very simple life. My husband, an e-rickshaw driver and I, a construction labour used to step out of the house in the morning with the sole aim of surviving the day, to earn enough to feed ourselves and my mother-in-law. On people like us, who are struck by poverty, the pandemic unleashed unprecedented challenges, said 58-year-old Aarti from Lal Bagh in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Aarti and her husband who were living on rent in the city, had to go back to their village during the lockdown as they stopped getting any work. Her two sons, who were working in a firm and were earning Rs 4,000 per month are among those who lost their jobs because of businesses shutting down during the lockdown. Now her sons and a daughter-in-law have come to live with them. While Aarti now works as a domestic helper in some houses in her village, her husband and children have not been able to find any work yet. Aarti shared,

I am really scared about what the fate has in store for us. Since my daughter died by suicide because of the constant abuse and demand for dowry she was facing from her husband and his family some time back, my husband has not been keeping well. He is still not over the fact that she is gone. I feel absolutely alone too.

A patient of Diabetes, Aarti shared that in the past year, there have been many days when she had to stay hungry even though doctors has asked her to take meals on time to keep her sugar level in check. She said,

We have BPL (Below Poverty Line) Ration Card because of which we get about 15 kgs of grains and 2kgs of pulses every month. But that is it. I don’t have vegetables to cook or things like salt, oil, turmeric, to cook those grain with. I try to earn some money by working as a domestic help in the houses in my village and people are kind enough to pay me some money and help me with some kitchen essentials. But when I cook a meal for my family, somehow, it always falls short and a lot of time my daughter-in-law and I go to bed hungry even though we had food that evening in our house.

Just like many other countless women in the country, Aarti is also bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19. But she also believes that the deep-rooted patriarchy in the society is also one of the biggest reasons for the situation she is facing today. She said,

Women in our society are always given secondary importance when it comes to accessing basic needs like food but are considered primary when it comes to caregiving and fulfilling expectations of the family, even IF they are sick themselves. I do not have any hopes that things will ever truly change for women unless the chain of transmission of the virus of gender discrimination is broken.

The story of these women resonate with the life of many women who have to run their household with whatever little they have and also ensure that everyone’s survival needs are met even if that means cutting down on their own nutrition. United Nations World Food Programme conducted a study before the pandemic in 2019-20 to understand the social norms that influence food distribution and consumption within poor households in towns and villages in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The study found that a fourth of the women surveyed had to reduce their food portions if the quantity fell short for the family and they could not afford to buy more food for everyone.

According to Basanta Kumar Kar, Nutrition Expert, during the pandemic, because of disruption in services and supply because of the lockdown, there has been an increase in nutrient hunger specifically in vulnerable groups like women and children, people engaged in the informal sector, people living in remote villages, among others. He said,

Women are definitely the worst affected. Women need to be seen as humans and not only as mothers and caregivers. During the pandemic, it was seen that even when the households were able to manage food, it was mostly in the form of grains distributed by the government and even if some vegetable or fruits or pulses were arranged by a family, the women were last to receive it or didn’t receive it at all, as being caregivers they tend to feed their family first.

Mr. Kar asserted that it is necessary to invest towards nutrition for women and girls. Women empowerment, access to food, nutrition and healthcare are the key determinants that can work as a potent weapon to minimise inter-intra household disparity, he said. This, he added, will transform the nutrition landscape of the entire country.

Also Read: Women’s Day 2021: “I Have Never Owned Underpants, So How Could I Use A Sanitary Pad?”

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene

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