The Five Questions Series is a forum for scholars, government officials, civil society leaders, and foreign policy practitioners to provide timely analysis of new developments related to the advancement of women and girls worldwide. In this interview, Alyssa Ayres asks Reema Nanavaty, director of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), about how the COVID-19 lockdown in India is affecting women in the informal economy. Nanavaty is a recipient of the Padma Shri award, one of India’s highest civilian honors, for her work championing women’s livelihoods and helping self-employed women reach markets.
On March 24, the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to prevent transmission of the coronavirus and stave off a worst-case public health crisis. The impact has been felt sharply in the unorganized sector, or informal economy, in which over 90 percent of women in India’s labor force work.
What are you hearing from SEWA members, who are self-employed women, about their immediate challenges and vulnerabilities? Are some occupations experiencing particularly severe hardships?
“(The) inflation rate is increasing day by day…and (the) farmer is slipping deeper and deeper into debt and poverty” says Seijiben, a small farmer from Vauva village, Gujarat.
"Due to (the) lockdown all construction sites are closed. I haven't got any work…all we are eating for the last two weeks is boiled rice provided by the government…I am very scared” says Munniben, a construction worker.
The quotations above describe the issues and challenges faced by over 1.9 million SEWA members—poor self-employed women working in the informal sector. The livelihoods of most of these workers have been severely impacted by the lockdown.
Workers in urban areas, such as street vendors, porters, and domestic workers, have experienced severe loss of work and income due to reduced demand, lack of access to markets, and drastic reduction in prices.
Farmers and farm laborers, who already face underemployment and working poverty, are unable to afford basic necessities as markets close and clients vanish. The government has declared several immediate relief packages that provide food rations, such as wheat, rice, oil and sugar, and cash transfers into the bank accounts of registered informal workers. However, the rations do not include spices, other cereals, or pulses, which are currently difficult to procure. Many small farmers and laborers have not officially registered as informal workers and are therefore ineligible for cash transfers.
In rural areas in India, which are still predominantly cash-driven, people are running out of money. Most rural villages do not have banks or ATMs. Due to the lockdown there is no public transportation to travel to banks in nearby towns to withdraw cash. This season, the spring harvest, is usually a peak time for migrant worker employment. Instead, due to cash shortages and the fear of viral spread, migrant workers are jobless.
Some industries, such as construction and waste recycling, have completely ground to a halt. Thousands of women workers engaged in these trades have lost employment opportunities. Additionally, in trades such as home-based work and embroidery, it has become difficult to procure raw materials and hence work has almost come to a standstill.
How are SEWA members practicing “social distancing” in locations where accommodations may already be population-dense?
While social distancing is very important to check the spread of COVID-19, most of the members of SEWA are poor and have very small homes. In most cases, ten to twelve family members live in a small two-room home. Social distancing is hardly possible.
“There are eight members in my family…and we have a two-room house…half of the house is full of cotton that we harvested…how do we practice social distancing in this situation in such (a) small home?” says Anitaben, a small farmer from Chota Udepur district, Gujarat.
In such a situation, to help our members protect themselves and their families, SEWA has started circulating posters and voice messages to create awareness about important health and hygiene measures. Government officials and community health workers have advised us that it is not necessary, nor feasible, to follow social distancing guidelines inside the home. However, we are advising our members to always use homemade masks, even at home, and regularly wash hands with soap.
Since the homes of the poor are small, men and youth tend to socialize at the nearby corner store. However, we are also advocating that our members, and especially the men in their families, reduce such socializing and stay at home.
“My husband and father-in-law always used to spend most of their time sitting at the village square, socializing with other men in the community. Now due to the lockdown… he can’t go out. As per our customs… I have to draw a long veil when the men are at home…I have to cook, clean and do all household chores with a long veil” says Kankuben, an embroidery artisan from Patan district, Gujarat.
How is SEWA providing information about health and COVID-19 prevention to your millions of members?
Working with poor women workers for over forty-five years, we have learned that the issues women face are all interconnected. Therefore, we need to adopt an integrated approach to address them. The current crisis has validated our understanding that health cannot be left to health experts or doctors alone. Everybody must be in the business of health.
We strongly believe that technology can generate new forms of employment. Therefore, SEWA has been building our members’ digital literacy for years. When the pandemic began, SEWA immediately plunged into action, using digital tools to assess local health capacities and barriers to care, and create training materials focused on prevention, early detection, treatment, and mental health.
SEWA translated WHO, UNICEF, and government messages about health and relief measures into colloquial languages. We sent out these messages as voice recordings and posters over social media and WhatsApp.
To create awareness among the children of our members, SEWA has conducted storytelling, songwriting, drawing, and slogan contests for children. Children of SEWA members have produced over one thousand creative posters describing the COVID-19 crisis and spreading awareness. Similarly, SEWA conducted a mask-making contest for our members. Members have produced over 200,000 masks which were distributed among families, communities, government authorities, and local hospitals.
SEWA has also developed partnerships with government departments and private organizations for enhanced coordination. Together we created a surveillance mechanism to monitor, track, and report program outcomes and metrics.
Many of your members are running microenterprises of their own. What are some of their most pressing needs to keep their businesses running?
SEWA has organized its members into over four thousand self-help groups and over one hundred cooperatives. For these microenterprises of informal workers, altered market conditions and changing customer demands have resulted in challenges to their operations. SEWA is reviewing and streamlining existing systems, supply chains, and technology to help them meet evolving customer needs.
For example, to restructure the value chain and operations of “RUDI,” SEWA’s rural commodities distribution network, we scaled up procurement of seasonal produce from small and marginal farmers, explored partnering with delivery apps for last-mile delivery in urban areas, and began door-to-door delivery by women with protective equipment in rural areas.
Similarly, SEWA’s organic and traditional food-processing center, known as “Kamala,” has trained about five hundred women. These women have started making healthy dry snacks, and they are providing it in their villages. The children and their households get nutritious snacks and the women find meaningful livelihoods.
SEWA’s belief during past disasters has always been that work is a healer. To restore productive livelihoods of its members and their families, SEWA is immediately providing home-based work such as making paper bags and envelopes, making masks and gloves, book-binding, preparing dry snacks, and similar activities that do not require intensive training but can provide meaningful and productive work to households. So far, SEWA has covered twenty thousand households.
Many self-employed SEWA members are still not part of any cooperative or social enterprise. These micro-entrepreneurs are unable to access newer markets or withstand changes in the economy. Therefore, to broaden their market access, SEWA is planning to train its members how to use digital wallets and leverage technology in day-to-day work. SEWA will also launch a digital social enterprise, which will build a collective identity and brand in the market, thereby eliminating internal competition between members. Customers will be able to purchase many different goods at one place, either online or in a shop.
In addition, one of the biggest challenges for informal sector workers and their microenterprises is cash flow. Hence, SEWA plans to establish a fund to provide immediate support in the event of a calamity. This intervention is designed to prevent debt traps, sustain cash flow to women-led rural enterprises impacted by climate disasters, and allow female entrepreneurs to take risks.
To what extent are you seeing remote options as possibilities for sustaining livelihoods in the informal sector? For which kinds of work do you find feasible remote options?
SEWA has developed a platform where the leaders from different trades communicate daily to share information and best practices. However, one major challenges is the lack of digital infrastructure. Most informal workers’ households do not have access to smart phones and computers. Reliable internet connectivity is also a major challenge in rural villages. In trades like waste recycling, construction, incense stick and cigar rolling, agriculture, and animal husbandry, there is very little possibility of remote work. While workers in some of these trades can use remote technology to link to markets and raw materials, most work needs to be done physically and with cash.
Additionally, while SEWA does embrace labor-augmenting technology and believe that virtual working is one important way ahead, it is not the only way ahead. There was a world before airplanes and eighty-story office buildings. We must also try localization: local production, local management, and local consumption. At SEWA, we call this the “100-miles Principle.”
In countries from Brazil to China to Germany, lockdowns have been correlated with increased reports of domestic violence, and unequal care burdens. Have gendered impacts like these been among the concerns your members have raised?
“Whatever small talk we attempt is misconstrued and they start shouting, screaming and even beating us…We, the women in the household have decided to stop talking at all….The COVID-19 crisis has affected the mental stability of our men” says Reshmaben, a team leader of SEWA from Surrendranagar district, Gujarat.
This is the experience of one of SEWA’s members from Surrendranagar district, but it’s one that is shared by members from other districts and states. Most rural men’s livelihoods such as construction, auto-driving, porter work, etc. have completely ground to a halt. This is creating a stressful state for the men and a tense atmosphere in the home.
There are many other factors contributing to a feeling of humiliation and anger in men, who in turn take out their stress on women at home. Men addicted to tobacco and other drugs are unable to access these items. Local authorities often use strict means to enforce the lockdown, such as beating rule-breakers with sticks and confiscating vehicles. Money-lenders humiliate, insult, and often physically assault informal workers and small farmers who are unable to repay loans on time. In joint-family households where several members contribute to household expenses, during this economic crisis, minor inequalities in contributions lead to heated arguments and fights. Women’s earnings sustain households these days, which sometimes hurts male egos and translates into domestic violence.
Women in India generally eat after the men and children in the family. However, due to a shortage of food, often there is hardly any left for women. This is also a kind of violence against women.
Due to all family members living at home, women’s household responsibilities have increased, thereby reducing their time for income-earning activities. Space constraint is also a factor in reducing their productivity.