It is the women, children, marginalized, minorities and gender minorities who are the most affected during a natural disaster, a war and a pandemic. The impact on these communities during such times is of different dimension and nature depending on their work and condition. During such incidents, the household responsibility of women increases and they are at high risk of violence. But their problems are not taken as a priority by the State or government, which we are also experiencing at the moment. We have already faced the 10-year-long armed conflict, 2015 earthquake and now the COVID-19 pandemic. As women are regarded as second class citizens in a society like ours with patriarchal social structure and norms and values, they fall under the shadow of the state or government. As a result, there is history of having to wage a very big struggle to establish women’s agenda and the struggle continues even in the present 21st century. Even though laws have been drafted by the government to address these struggles, their implementation has been very weak.
Presently we are facing a Corona Virus pandemic, which is widespread across the globe. Nepal has already been gripped by it at all quarters. Lack of preparation in five months since the pandemic began has affected the community, which has started showing its negative impact. It is something very distant for a country like ours to estimate its impact in the long-term.
During this pandemic, women have not received necessary information on one hand while they have no access to the relief package provided by the government on the other. As mentioned earlier, the impact of this pandemic has been in different dimensions based on work and condition. But how? Let’s discuss it here.
The pandemic is worldwide. The majority of the world’s population has been locked down inside their homes. Industries, factories, business, education institutions are all closed. As a result, many have become jobless. Government data shows that around 4.5 million Nepalese are in foreign employment, most of them in the gulf. Women are in the gulf involved in the highly hazardous domestic work. As the government has put a ban on women from going to work in some gulf countries, they have gone there clandestinely, as a result of which the State does not have the right data about them. The government has been stating that women workers contribute 11 per cent of the 25 per cent remittance received from foreign employment. Hence, the government must address the condition and problems of the women workers. None of us has the answer to what may be the condition of the domestic worker women, who are working in the gulf amidst Corona Virus. Because in the view of the State, they went there illegally and hence don’t fall much under its liability. Incidents of severe violence against domestic worker women in the gulf were being reported even during normal times. Now amid this pandemic, what could be their condition? They are neither in a position to report about the violence that they are experiencing nor in a position to return.
Similar is the condition of single women in a pandemic. They have the burden of their family in their shoulders. When the responsibility of food, accommodation and clothing that is usually a men’s forte in a structure like ours falls on women, who are doing voluntary care work 18 hours a day, it is an unexpected financial liability. They neither have the identity nor required academic qualification to be involved in income generation. As a result, most of them are involved in informal sector. For the women who were running their family through daily wage labour, small trade and home-based work, the pandemic has come as a huge crisis, depriving them of work and thereby food and shelter. Many single women don’t have citizenship certificate. According to the Forum for Women, Law and Development, 6.3 million population of Nepal don’t have a citizenship certification, of which many are women. In the current pandemic, the State has specified citizenship holder as a criteria to be listed as eligible for the relief support. So the single women who have been deprived of citizenship certificate by the State have no access to the relief support provided by the State. In a writ filed against this criterion of citizenship certificate for entitlement to relief support, the Supreme Court has issued an order to not make citizenship as criteria for relief distribution. The government needs to communicate immediately to the local level governments for the enforcement of this order.
Due to the social distancing prescribed to protect oneself from infection, the women with disabilities have been left without any support as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As they have not been able to move around freely due to the lockdown, they are not able to get their daily dose of medicine, essential health supplies like urine bag etc. The deaf have not been able to get any information. People living with HIV/AIDS have not got the essential anti-retro viral drug. The LGBTIQ communities, who have been excluded by the family and society, have their daily livelihood in a crisis, as they are mostly involved in the informal sector for income generation. Is the government aware about their problems? Are they in the list of those eligible for relief support?
Presently, everyone has been confined to their homes. The domestic chores of women have increased. Many working women are working from home. It has become very difficult for them to manage the work at home as well as that of their office. There are news reports of increased domestic violence in the current pandemic and subsequent lockdown. According to the Women Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) Nepal, in 2 months since the lockdown began, data received from 37 districts showed that 456 incidents of violence have taken place, of which nearly 300 are domestic violence. Presently, the men are inside their homes. Conflicts have increased inside the homes due to the despair over job loss. And it’s the women who are directly affected by it. With men confined within their homes, the tendency of gambling and alcoholism has increased. The men who were involved in daily wage labour are reported to be selling their assets including women’s ornaments to indulge in gambling and drinking. The women who have tried to stop it have suffered violence. But there is no one to respond to such violence. The pregnant women have not been able to get regular health check-up, while the women in labour are denied admission by hospitals and even those admitted are dying due to lack of necessary medical equipment. The number of women going to hospital for delivery has decreased, which has subsequently increased maternal mortality rate. In the month of Chaitra (mid-March to mid-April) alone more than 50 women lost their lives due to this reason.
Currently, even the police administration and local level government units are mobilized in the pandemic. For the administration that used take women’s issues casually even during normal times, such problems in times of a pandemic would of course be normal.
As a result, all these problems much be addressed promptly. Otherwise, this will take the form of another epidemic in the society. We must make the State serious about these issues. For this, the role of Civil Society is important at this moment. The proactive initiative of the Civil Society will make these issues heard, and the State serious and sensitive about it. The government may think that there is no bigger problem than the pandemic at the moment, or that other problems are minor problems. At a time when there is lack of necessary preparation and management against the pandemic, it is the character of a State to be insensitive to or ignorant about other social issues. As a result, the Civil Society needs to mainstream these issues of the community. Even though some civil society may have raised these issues, it may not have reached to the government’s ears. For this, various agencies/organisations can play the role of a connector. Virtual interactions are taking place at present to discuss the problems facing women as a result of COVID-19. However, in the discussion at the Gender in Humanitarian Action Task Team coordinated by UN Women (GIHA), virtual interaction is taking place regularly with the joint-secretary-level participation of the Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens, where the issues and problems raised by the civil society working with various targeted communities are reached to the concerned authorities, and helped support to address them immediately. In the present situation, though it may have helped virtually to reach the voices of some communities who have faced problem to the concerned authorities, it has not been able to address the voices of everyone. Because it is necessary that the problems facing women who are in the remote areas and without access to internet, have no knowledge about current technologies are brought up and their voices heard. This is in fact the duty of the government. The Civil Society and agencies like UN Women can only raise the problem and help the government to resolve it. This is entirely the government’s responsibility. As a result, while ignoring such problems seen in the society due to the pandemic, the State, government, civil society and donors need to think about ensuring that another epidemic does not break out.