Women HRDs © Amnesty International

Women in the frontlines: Women leaders responding to COVID-19 in South Asia

Women in the frontlines: Women leaders responding to COVID-19 in South Asia

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2020 has exposed many inequalities and stark differences between rich and poor countries and has exacerbated social inequalities across the world. In South Asia, the experiences of communities—already buffeted by a range of challenges—were aggravated by increased discrimination and violence against minorities. The World Bank estimated that as many as 150 billion people worldwide would be pushed to extreme poverty by the end of 2021, including many in South Asia. The complex social tensions aggravated by COVID-19 led to violence and discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity, caste and religion in many places across the region. Lockdowns and the closure of schools further aggravated the unpaid care work that women had to shoulder, adding to their responsibilities in the home.

Poverty and conflict in some countries in South Asia, coupled with under-resourced health sectors posed further challenges. However, the pandemic also resulted in demonstrating the resilience of women and men, who came to the fore in the response to the pandemic and put their own lives on the line to support and shield people at greater risk thus becoming every-day heroes in their communities.

The pandemic has also highlighted women’s resilience and leadership in the context of these additional challenges. From journalists who worked in some of the most challenging conditions in the world, reporting on COVID-19 in Afghanistan; women activists who bravely spoke out against forced cremations that violated the right to freedom of conscience and religion of the Muslim minority community in Sri Lanka; women experts leading the COVID-19 response for the government in the Maldives; to civil society activists who supported migrant workers, transgender people and people with disabilities in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. As the world marks International Women’s Day, we find that women across South Asia, have been at the forefront of their nations’ response to COVID-19. We showcase here some of these brave women who helped their countries deal with the consequences of this devastating pandemic.

ANISA SHAHEED, Journalist, Afghanistan

Some people experienced difficult days, while some others thought that if they are infected with the [COVID-19] virus; their deaths will be certain. And, this last matter specifically and negatively affected people`s morals.”

“The coronavirus outbreak has been a new and difficult experience for the people of Afghanistan – specifically women,” said Anisa Shaheed, who has worked for more than ten years as a journalist with TOLO News in Afghanistan.

Anisa has studied journalism. During the pandemic outbreak in Afghanistan, she visited COVID-19 hospital and talked to patients for her reports to promote awareness on the novel coronavirus as she said, “by visiting the COVID-19 hospital and talking to patients, we could show that people must not be afraid; they must fight with the disease” 

According to Anisa, people were afraid of the disease outbreak and least aware of its consequences. Under the current situation in Afghanistan, Anisa believes women are the most vulnerable group not only because of the pandemic outbreak but also because of the increased insecurity and their need to defend their human rights in the peace talks with the Taliban. The peace talks started last year between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. However, she says “under the current circumstances, women are more vulnerable because peace talks are stalled, and insecurity has increased. Women are concerned.  They in fact need solidarity and unity to maintain their past few years’ achievements (on women rights) and defend their human rights.”

In her career as a journalist, Anisa has been covering various issues in Afghanistan which is summarized by her, “I as a journalist for a decade have covered various issues such as wars, corruptions, elections – including social and legal problems in Afghanistan.”

Anisa, however, believes that each person`s contribution matters for improving the situation in her country, “I want to say if each person does a contribution for his/her country, one day his/her country will be built or flourished.”

ANNIE NAMALA, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI), India

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the abysmal conditions of public health care, the gaps in education systems, and the inadequate connectivity, the lack of social protection for the poor and the absolute vulnerabilities of the poor and marginalised.”

 Annie Namala is an Indian social activist who has been working with Dalit communities for the protection of their rights for over two decades.  For several years her work focused on organising and networking Dalit communities in South India. She also founded the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI) to promote social equity and inclusion in national and global development interventions with a core focus on promoting equitable opportunities for and participation of children and young people from disadvantaged communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown ruined livelihoods, access to education, and employment opportunities, especially for people living in poverty and other disadvantaged groups in India. “For many, it wasn’t the virus that was frightful, but making it through the lockdown and surviving was challenging. The issues of migrant workers in India were very visible and challenging during COVID 19. People walked thousands of kilometers and the authorities have miserably failed in providing relief to these people or protecting their rights. Migrant workers moved to different parts of the country with different hopes and dreams for a new beginning. But when the pandemic hit, they didn’t even have the necessary papers to access care,” Annie adds.

Despite multiple constraints faced by the civil society in India, many organisations, including Annie’s CSEI rose to the challenge and provided immediate food relief, dry rations, healthcare and cash support to the affected communities., “The greatest support the civil society was able to offer was to connect the migrant workers in different areas with their networks,” said Annie.

Annie involved youth groups like the National Youth Equity Forum (NYEF) in rural areas across many Indian states. The networking also helped them link migrant families that were struck without work, income, and resources in urban pockets with local NGOs for immediate dry rations and emergency cash relief and access to health facilities. They organised awareness-building workshops on COVID-19 targeting migrant workers. The youth volunteers undertook the very difficult task of identifying families at risk amidst strict lockdowns and listed them for emergency support. These included elderly people, women-headed households, and families with small children and pregnant women.

FATHIMATH NAZLA RAFEEG, Head, Communicable Disease Control, Health Protection Agency, Ministry of Health, Government of Maldives

“The compassion and empathy women bring to the table, in addition to their immense leadership and technical skills have ensured that the Covid-19 response in Maldives has been largely successful.”

As Head of Communicable Disease Control, Dr Nazla has been working on the national COVID-19 response from the beginning, at first doing risk assessments and advising on initial response measures. As the National Emergency Operations Centre was activated in March 2020, she worked as head of contact tracing, while appearing on media regularly to give updates. Since July 2020, Dr Nazla has been the spokesperson for the operation, as well as leading an epidemiological investigation of COVID-19 outbreaks in the Maldives.

According to Dr. Nazla, in the Maldives, women have been on the forefront of the COVID-19 response, leading public health, healthcare and the management of the Covid-19 response nationally, and many more have been volunteering their time and skills. Dr. Nazla says that “In this time of great need, women have risen spectacularly to the occasion, and served their nation and its people well.”

RUKHSANA ANWAR, President, National Program Health Employees Federation (Punjab), Pakistan

“We put our lives at risk every day, but we still went to each and every single house to tell people how they can protect themselves in the pandemic.” 

Rukhsana Anwar is the president of the Punjab chapter of the National Program Health Employees Federation, or better known as ‘Lady Health Workers’ in Pakistan. The cadre is comprised of over 100,000 health workers from the community that they are appointed to provide essential primary health services to. Lady Health Workers register the population of their service area, liaise between the formal health system and the community, and disseminate health education messages on hygiene and sanitation. “People trusted us,” Anwar adds. “They take our advice seriously and even though there has been a lot of carelessness towards COVID-19 in Pakistan, I believe our awareness-raising made a huge difference.”

During the lockdown, Anwar and her team of lady health workers were going door-to-door, using their network developed during the country’s ongoing polio vaccination drives, to monitor the COVID-19 spread in each of their communities. Knowledge of this carefully built network was crucial to the country’s strategy of using ‘smart lockdowns’ which relied on contact tracing. The move was lauded by the WHO Director-GeneralTedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

“The network and data we have are so important, yet it is not utilized to its full potential,” Anwar laments. Lady Health Workers, however, face severe resource shortages even during the pandemic.

Anwar told Amnesty International that Lady Health Workers had to purchase their own personal protection equipment, and many of them belonged to groups at greater risk of COVID-19. She also said that some of her staff lost their lives to COVID-19

However, she said, this did not impede their efforts to protect their communities. In fact, the polio vaccination campaign continued hand-in-hand with their awareness campaigns aimed to educate their communities about what steps to follow to protect themselves from COVID-19. She also helped guide Lady Health Workers as to how to administer the polio vaccine with extra precaution to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. She has also been overseeing vaccination drives for typhoid in districts across the province of Punjab. 

Anwar not only heads the entire group of Lady Health Workers in the country’s largest province, but she has also been leading the charge to secure better working conditions for them. She has been leading protests calling for fair wages, more resources, security for vaccination drives and maternity leave for Lady Health Workers all over Punjab and arranged sit-ins in front of the Supreme Court. “We are frontline soldiers,” she said. “We protect people within our own borders, within their own homes, within their very bodies from disease. We deserve to be recognized as such.”

SHREEN SAROOR, Women Rights Activist and Human Rights Defender, Sri Lanka

“Irrational policies that marginalize one ethnic group over another will create lasting divisions that make much-needed reconciliation an impossibility.” 

Shreen Saroor, a peace and women’s rights activist and human rights defender, is a co-founder of the Women’s Action Network (WAN), a network of women’s groups working with war-affected women. Her cross-community work has spanned issues broadly affecting women such as sexual bribery and domestic violence, lack of women’s participation in governance as well as conflict-related issues such as enforced disappearances, accountability, land grabs and livelihoods, and resettlement that disproportionately affect Tamil and Muslim women in the former conflict regions. Shreen has been a vocal advocate for domestic legislative reforms, offering a thoughtful critique of the 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, counter-terrorism measures, and the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) to name a few. She has actively engaged with domestic institutions and filed court cases simultaneously working closely with women on the ground on more local concerns.

Shreen pursues her multifaceted work with the abiding belief that in an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse nation, unity, and peace hinge on universal respect for the human rights and dignity of all Sri Lankans. She also firmly believes that women must be equally represented at all levels of government and decision making.

Shreen has been fighting against the government of Sri Lanka’s forced cremation policy introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, which discriminates against the Muslim minority. The policy violates the right to freedom of religion of Muslims in the country, as cremation is expressly forbidden in Islam and constitutes desecration of the dead. Despite WHO guidance, and the government’s own expert committee stating that the burial of a dead body should be allowed as it would not affect public health, the government refuses to rescind the Extraordinary Gazette which states that bodies of known or suspected COVID-19 deceased may only be cremated, not buried. Shreen not only filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court to challenge this discriminatory and baseless policy, she has also helped families directly affected by it to lodge their protests in court. As part of her advocacy, Shreen has collected testimonies and evidence that painfully underscore the trauma inflicted on Muslims in Sri Lanka who are unable to perform cultural and religious last rites when their loved ones die. She has written articles and advocacy documents for local and international outlets detailing the ongoing human rights crisis. In an increasingly difficult space, she has bravely spoken out to the media and other platforms where others are afraid to speak. Most recently, she cautioned that as the 46th UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions debate Sri Lanka’s implementation of promises in the UNHRC resolution that the government must not compromise on the rights of all minorities.

On 5 March, the Government finally began burying bodies of COVID-19 victims after pressure from families of victims, activists like Shreen, the Muslim community and its allies. 

TANJIN TANHA, Founder and CEO, TransEnd, Bangladesh

“The transgender people depended on social interactions, but social distancing took away their livelihood. So, we put our lives at stake in order to save them during the pandemic.”

Tanjin Tanha is a 21-year-old social entrepreneur, activist and artist currently studying at Dhaka University, Department of English. She has created the platform TransEnd aiming to eradicate gender inequality and empower financially and socially the 1million marginalized gender diverse people of Bangladesh. For this, she has been selected as an Ashoka Young Changemakers 2020. She also won the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) election in 2019 as a Sufia Kamal Hall General Member. Believing in “making a difference” and taking one step at a time, she dreams of a world full of compassion, empathy and sustainability.

When COVID-19 hit Bangladesh in early March 2020, Tanha and her organization, TransEnd, created a wider network with the marginalized transgender (locally known as hijra) community, who traditionally rely on sex-work and begging for making their ends meet. As the lockdown curtailed freedom of movement and regular business activities were shut, their income dropped significantly. The deeply held stigma around transgender people in the society made it difficult for them to seek help from the public. In many cases, they were deprived of government rations.

In this situation, Tanha and TransEnd reached out to individuals and organizations for support for the transgender people. “Initially, the response was not encouraging, instead, many around my family and friends wondered, why I had to work on Trans people, who are generally seen as a taboo and socially unacceptable.“ Tanha said. “Eventually, I was able to get support from a few non-profit organizations. I also started a fundraising campaign named ‘Tader Tore’ (For Them) and received contributions from many sympathizers of my cause,” she added. Tanha’s friends living abroad too joined her in the fundraising campaign through ‘GoFundMe’ and ‘PayPal’. TransEnd were able to help at least 1500 transgender people with food and other relief items for several weeks. Besides, Tanha and her team run a campaign among the transgender people to raise their awareness on the importance of health and hygiene safety measures during the COVID-19. They also launched several hotlines exclusively for transgender people to seek free mental health counselling.

TIKA DAHAL, Chairperson, Nepal Disabled Women Association (NDWA)

“Women and girls with disabilities were already marginalized before the COVID-19, but the pandemic has further exacerbated barriers in accessing basic services and healthcare.”  

Tika Dahal is a women human rights defender, currently the Chairperson of Nepal Disabled Women Association (NDAWA), working for the promotion and protection of the rights of women and girls with disabilities in Nepal. Dahal has played an active role in the disability rights movement in Nepal that led to secure important wins for the rights of people with disabilities in the country’s constitution, laws, and policies. Earlier she served as vice-president for the National Federation of the Disabled-Nepal (NFDN), the largest federation of people with disabilities in Nepal with more than 300 member organizations across the country. Dahal has also played a leading role in supporting women with disabilities, who were affected by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Dahal has worked to address the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls with disabilities in Nepal through needs assessments, relief support, awareness, and advocacy for disability-inclusive COVID-19 response. After the COVID-19 pandemic, Dahal, through NDWA, carried out a rapid assessment of the impact of the pandemic on women and girls with disabilities and advocated with government authorities to address their rights. She said, “We conducted a rapid assessment to know the situation of the women with disabilities impacted by the COVID-19, based on which we brought the attention of the government for development of disabilities friendly program & planning.”

There were also problems with quarantine centers, holding centers and isolation facilities, which were not accessible for people with disability and lacked gender-sensitive services. Besides, misinformation related to COVID-19 was rampant. “During the initial lockdown period, many misinformation and disinformation related to the COVID were disseminated, and it was difficult to get the correct information for deaf and people with multiple disabilities due to lack of inclusive messaging,” Dahal added. She also led NDWA’s work in reaching out to women with disabilities through the provision of relief support, and facilitating their access to information and healthcare, disability friendly and gender-sensitive quarantine facilities, awareness-raising and carrying advocacy for disability-inclusive COVID-19 response in Nepal.