Women’s dissent: India’s feminist legacy

Last few years show how 2022’s ‘Breaking Bias’ Women’s Day theme has become increasingly popular among Indian women

Women’s Day theme
Image Courtesy:timesofindia.indiatimes.com

2022’s International Women’s Day on March 8, celebrates the theme of ‘Breaking the Bias’. The idea seeks to not only discuss but challenge the stigmatising biases that hinder women empowerment in the twenty-first century. Still, in light of all that has happened in the last two to three years, the theme may very well celebrate the milestones achieved by Indian women in face of a global pandemic.

History may remember the time between 2019-end to 2022 as the Covid-19 pandemic years. In India, it was also when the Migrant Crisis struck the country even as the Farmers’ Movement came into its own. However, amidst all these challenges, it is the women who have played a mammoth role in keeping healthcare and society in general afloat. From urban working women to rural farmers, ASHAs, anganwadi workers and more, women took the forefront during a global pandemic to ensure that their and their families’ right to health is protected.

Particularly, the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) were crucial in controlling the spread of the virus. They have also repeatedly raised their voices against inadequate facilities. Despite the lack of a proper PPE kit or masks from the administration, the workers across India visited villages and houses to check on home-isolated patients. They also informed the rural public about preventative measures against Covid-19, playing a pivotal role in keeping the virus from spreading further in villages.

Around 9 lakh ASHAs helped the government notify the spread of Covid-19 to villages. Of these, 42,000 ASHAs in Karnataka carried out a Covid-19 vulnerability mapping survey of 1.59 crore households. Yet in return the administration fails to acknowledge them as government workers, preferring to call them frontline workers. Many of these workers suffered from Covid-19 themselves but did not receive government help.

“We ASHAs only have an asha [hope] now that the government will attend to our concerns. We get around ₹ 2,500 as monthly payment. It should be increased and given to us promptly,” an ASHA from Maharashtra told SabrangIndia.

Similarly, Anganwadi workers shared the brunt of reaching nutrition packages and ration packages to families during Covid-19. However, even in March 2022 they report infrequent payment of their meagre wages. With lockdown announcements, they had already lost contact with children but their duties still continued.

Both these communities, dubbed frontline workers, are an important part of India’s healthcare, especially in rural areas. This fact especially shone through during Covid-19 when experts approached ASHAs and Anganwadi employees for ground-level data rather than government offices.

Finally, tired of waiting for their dues, the women, who include many widows, took to protests and demanded their dues from the government. Around September 2021, ASHA workers called for a national campaign to demand better wages, recognition as government employees working in healthcare and proper medical gear.

Even so, months later, they continue to work in the same conditions, waiting for remuneration for transport, food and water while attending to their duties. During the election period, these women were put on polling duty checking people’s temperature, guiding them to their booths and similar work. In exchange for all this, the women continue to demand appropriate wages for the time and strength put in.

“A person should be paid according to the work they put in. Not less,” said an anganwadi worker on election-duty.

The resilience of these rural frontline workers is matched by another group of rural trailblazers – women farmers. The community was a prominent part of the farmers’ movement from its beginning around September 2020. Although the Chief Justice of India allegedly made a sexist comment about the presence of women in protest areas in January 2021, women had already moved to Delhi borders long before along with other northern farmers. Over the course of the year-long protests, farmer leaders organised multiple Mahila Kisan Diwas to highlight the role of women in the agriculture sector.

Although, the gender inequality can still be seen in the leadership of the farmer movement, the women leaders working at the district and tehsil-level clarified that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the men when working in the fields. This comment came from an Adivasi woman farmer leader in Maharashtra, who condemned the CJI’s comment.

Since then, women have managed all farmer protest stages on Mahila Kisan Diwas. They arranged for morchas and assemblies and spoke to leaders at the local-level. By August 2, 2021, farmers reported their first woman martyr, 86-year-old activist Rajinder Kaur. She fell ill at the Singhu border after travelling there from Muhawa village in Amritsar, Punjab. While Rajinder did not own any land, she still voiced her solidarity with farmers. On October 28 of the same year, three women farmers died near Tikri border in Bahadurgarh after being hit by a speeding dumper truck.

These were among the many peasants that were sitting at Delhi borders for nearly a year. On top of successfully getting the laws repealed, the vocal and visual protests of women farmers also highlighted how more than half of agricultural employees in India are women. By doing so, farmers have already broken the bias relating to male dominance in the farming sector.

The historic struggle showed how women’s efforts are often disregarded as house work when in fact, it accounts for a major chunk of the labour strength.

Although farmers left Delhi borders in December 2021, the movement continues. Vocal dissent shown by women dissenters like women farmers, protesting ASHAs or anganwadi workers (who continue to voice grievances in Delhi) and even Shaheen Bagh women protesters, who condemned the CAA-NPR-NRC process in 2019, inspire more women to voice their anger.

The dissent continues nowadays from Muslim girls in Karnataka, who protested the communal violence demanding a ban on hijab in classrooms. Although the High Court upheld its decision to ban all religious scarves inside educational institutions that follow CDC guidelines, repeated protests by women effectively break the bias of the helpless women.

By demanding a legal guarantee to MSP, appropriate wages and professional recognition and assertion of basic freedom rights, these women continue the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day.


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