The founder of Myna Mahila, an organization that empowers women through healthcare and education, shares an update about the pandemic in India — and how you can help.
I was 15 when I first met the women who changed my life. I saw women in slums, they would walk long distances every day — harassed along the way — to go to a public toilet because they did not have one at home. They were married as early teenagers, and beaten by their alcoholic husbands. Their voices were somehow invisible. I was angry, frustrated and determined to change the way these women viewed themselves. I wanted to stand up for their rights. After many years of working with women in urban slums in Mumbai on issues of sanitation, women’s dignity, health and slum redevelopment, a few incredible slum community leaders and I founded Myna Mahila in 2015.
“COVID has halted and even regressed progress for women everywhere, particularly for the poor and already vulnerable.”
Myna Mahila works with women to reduce the trade-offs they make between their health and dignity, so they can meet their full potential. We support these women so they are not held back. So that they can dream big and achieve their dreams. We start from the very basics: providing women with a sense of agency. Simply helping them think that “We can do it!” can help break taboos that hold women back from speaking up and realizing that they are equals in society.
For the past six years, Myna Mahila’s team has worked tirelessly to overcome menstrual taboos and stigma while reaching more than 700,000 women at their doorsteps and at our centers. Speaking up about their menses has encouraged women to speak up about other issues in their lives: domestic violence, mental health, sexual assault and more. COVID-19, however, has halted and even regressed progress for women everywhere, particularly for the poor and already vulnerable.
I started to feel helpless as India’s COVID-19 situation became worse. One of our team members passed away, leaving four daughters behind. As we started to support families, we realized COVID-19 management was like managing tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS. It was ridden with stigma. As COVID-19 rages on in India, wiping out entire families and creating massive job loss, it has instilled a deep and lasting sense of fear. Countless have died attempting to preserve their dignity by avoiding treatment. Vaccine rumors and misinformation have made the possibility of a devastating third wave very real. Lockdowns and fear keep families at home, disproportionately affecting women who experience increased domestic violence and worsening mental health. While some of us are privileged to be able to work from home, women and men in slums have no access to technology, making remote work impossible.
“You and I can help change lives for those affected most by the pandemic and those who have become even more vulnerable.”
In fact, in a study by Myna Mahila of more than 1,900 women, we found that a striking 93% of them had lost their jobs in the past year. We found women were more afraid at home, since less income made their husbands more frustrated. Women who used to have the liberty to run their households themselves were now constantly under the scrutiny of the entire family, who were all home with no jobs. Women now have to take care of their families with less or no income, and in an abusive home environment. These increasing pressures, in addition to the systemic problems they struggle with daily, have taken a huge toll on their mental health. Further, in slums, where more than 200 families share a single public toilet and use public water taps, social distancing is not practical and can even be detrimental. With a lingering fear of death from COVID-19, people feared stepping out. When they did go to the market (because the poor can’t order groceries online for delivery) or to the public toilet, they were shamed.
Last year during the first lockdown, Myna launched an 8-point plan to support tens of thousands of families with rations, sanitary and hygiene products, disease surveillance, accurate information, phone surveys and our digital mobile application (Myna Mobile) as a remote resource for women everywhere. We supported more than 75,000 families. Just as we thought things were going back to normal, however, and we resumed our women’s health sessions in person, Mumbai went back into complete lockdown in April this year.
During this second wave, we responded to the increasing pleas from women to support their family planning needs, their malnourished children and ailing family members. This year, our response was to also help to rehabilitate the families while providing immediate relief. Myna launched its mobile clinics by repurposing ambulances that transported doctors and nurses from community to community, serving patients daily. We go to some of the most remote slums, where people have no alternative means of receiving health care support. Through these visits, we’ve seen a rising number of orphan cases in which all household adults have died of COVID-19, as well as cases of extreme disease progression without treatment. Yet this is not enough, it’s only a beginning. Even as coronavirus lockdowns ease and the virus gradually becomes a part of our lives, for the poor, the worst is yet to come.
During much of India’s first and second waves, I was in the United States feeling helpless about the situation. I wanted to do my part, but I wasn’t sure how to do it without putting my team at risk. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is an immense amount we can do from our computers from anywhere in the world.
There are compassionate acts you can take, no matter where you are, to support women in slums during India’s coronavirus crisis.To find out how you can support women in India, visit https://mynamahila.com/.
I’m optimistic now that the road ahead is only upward. You and I can help change lives for those affected most by the pandemic and those who have become even more vulnerable. We can create a world where nothing can stand between a woman and her freedom.