Author: Ankita Maji
The global pandemic that fell upon the entire world affected the people in many different ways. Within a few months, the world experienced an economic crunch, shortage of healthcare services, a rise in unemployment etc. People were stuck at home and were to continue their daily activities from within the four walls of their home. During such difficult times, it became really important to protect the vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society, who were deeply affected by the pandemic and the lockdown that followed.
On 8th October 2020, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued guidelines to protect the rights of women in the backdrop of Covid-19. A committee of experts was formed by the NHRC to assess the ‘Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Human Rights and Future Response'. The committee had a very wide representation and comprised of experts from independent domains, representatives belonging to various civil society organisations and representatives from concerned ministries and departments as well. The committee had the task of assessing how the pandemic has affected the rights of the people, especially the lower and the vulnerable strata of the society. After due consideration of the report submitted by the committee, the NHRC came up with guidelines for protecting the human rights of the women during this pandemic. The NHRC has requested the implementation of these advisories by the State, Union Territories and the concerned ministries as well.
NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION:
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is a legal body established under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 whose aim is to secure and advance the cause of Human Rights in India. It investigates the infringement of basic human rights by any State authority, suggests measures for the proper implementation of Human rights, to support associations within its infrastructure for the furtherance of human rights, and so on. NHRC has, in the previous half-year, given a series of advisories on issues identifying with nutrition and food, mental wellness, children and women, childcare workers, social health activists working in the unorganised sector and so forth.
During such difficult times, NHRC has valued the importance of mental wellness, right to food and health, rights of children, women and workers of informal sectors, conditions of prisons and disabilities as significant features of a human’s basic right to live with dignity. It has provided advisories on similar topics to bring up discussions among individuals and to raise awareness.
WHY THE NEED FOR SUCH ADVISORY:
This pandemic has been particularly cruel to women. Women are battling the shadow pandemic, who have been the greatest victims of the lockdown as well as the post-lockdown period — be it at their place of work or home. The National Commission for Women (NCW) made quite a several observations during this lockdown period:
● A sharp increase in the number of domestic violence cases against women during this lockdown period, as women were confined to their homes with their abusers, also making it difficult to secure any kind of help or justice.
● As women are the primary caregivers in their home and to their children, this lockdown has added stress and affected their mental health adversely.
● The poor financial condition of female migrant labourers, who are the largest contributors to the unorganised sector of the country. Lack of wages or any form of social security during this period may make it difficult for them to survive this pandemic.
● With the hospitals and healthcare services being utilised to treat Covid patients, pregnant mothers and mothers with newborns may find it difficult to avail proper medical services and care.
● Working women who are also single parents may find it difficult to juggle work from home and household activities without any kind of help, and also have to deal with the pressure of loss of jobs or reduction in salaries as well.
● The safety and hygiene of women frontline workers belonging to the paramedic staff may also be overlooked, given the critical situation.
● In this lockdown period, when almost every person is relying on the internet for information, entertainment and work, women have also been easy victims of cyber crimes, which has been on the rise, ever since the lockdown had been imposed.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE ADVISORY ISSUED
The committee after its assessment concluded that the pandemic has had a ‘gendered impact’ on the society, whether be it financial or productive resources, or access to healthcare, food and nutrition, or even in terms of economic opportunities and violence. It has provided its recommendations under six different heads:
1. Gender-Based Violence (GBV)
● Services provided in support of violence and its survivors are to be termed as ‘Essential Services’.
● Ensuring proper implementation of protocols in all the states for hospitals, health centres, shelter homes, quarantine centres, child welfare committees and maintaining the confidentiality of positively tested patients, mainly victims of violence.
● Developing an active inter-ministerial response towards GBV and providing the required psychological, medical and legal care for its survivors.
● Setting up of a task force for monitoring of support services, taking initiatives for its prevention, maintaining proper data and ensuring its availability in the public domain.
● Public communication and display of strict intolerance regarding the same to be circulated.
2. Sexual & Reproductive Health Rights of Women
This can be further classified into two categories:
a. Maternal Health of women:
● Strictly following the ‘Guidance for Management of Pregnant Women in covid-19 Pandemic' provided by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).
● No discrimination while providing maternal benefits, also ensuring easy access and availability of reproductive services for pregnant migrant labourers.
● Continuous supply of blood, medicines and equipment, free and safe ambulance services.
● Nutritional support through cooked meal programmes and home ration takeaway for all pregnant and lactating women.
● All payments pending under the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojna (PMMVY) to be cleared for all the eligible women under this scheme.
b. Safe Abortions and accessibility to Contraception:
● Free contraceptives and abortion drugs for safe delivery and abortion at all public health facilities, and its availability countrywide 24*7.
● No discrimination in granting services of abortion and also preventing exploitation of the patients in terms of the arbitrary price hike.
● Granting financial assistance under the PM Jan Dhan Yojna/ Pregnancy Aid Scheme and providing helplines and one-stop centres for aiding victims of sexual assault pregnancies, and the option of safe abortions.
● Mapping of major public/private health centres for services relating to maternal health, contraception, abortion and communicating the same through online platforms.
3. Women at work
This includes two major categories:
a. Migrant and Unorganised Workers:
● Extension of moratorium on all loan repayments, including Mudra loans and Self –Help Groups.
● Increasing the days of MNREGA to 200 days, the inclusion of certain categories of women under the pension scheme and easy cash transfer through improved bank access.
b. Sex Workers:
● Recognition as informal workers and eligibility for worker benefits, which also includes migrant sex workers.
● Extending protection to them against any violence, free testing and treatment, and providing necessary equipment.
● Temporary documents for accessing welfare schemes, and healthcare benefits.
c. Social Health Activists, Aganwadi and Sanitation Workers:
● Compliance with minimum wage standards set by the Government, and ensuring a safe working environment.
● Access to free health care, employment leaves and other social security measures.
● Helplines functions for addressing their grievances.
4. Women from Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Minorities
● Strengthening the implementation of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities act), 1989.
● Deploying mobile health units, and preventing the spread of Covid-19 due to their poor living conditions.
● Imparting information through local languages or pictures regarding the disease and its safeguards and measures, so that it could be easily understood by them.
5. Adolescent Girls
● Continuous supply of sanitary napkins and Iron Folic Acid under the Rajeev Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (RGSEAG) and Rashtriya Kishore Swasth Karyakram (RKSK).
● Promoting mental health services through electronic platforms and strengthening of informal learning spaces to prevent them from dropping out due to digital incapacity.
● Identifying and supporting victims of child marriage, and preventing the same.
6. Women Prisoners
● Complying with the order of the Apex Court to release all pregnant women and women having children.
● Access to regular health check-ups, adequate nutrition and, improving the conditions of prison facilities as well.
● Bail priority to be given to women with mental illness and disabilities, and ensuring that inability to pay bail amount/arrange surety does not prevent their release.
Women are the majority of caregivers, not only at home but also in the community. As front line workers, health experts, network volunteers, transport and coordination chiefs, researchers etc., women are making basic commitments to address this situation consistently.
We have seen on numerous occasions that crises consistently fuels sexual orientation disparity because of the current social structures that favour men. Today, the women of the country are confronting the brunt of this change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. During such an emergency, when resources are stressed and the institutional limit is restricted, women and girls face lopsided effects of the same. Hard-battled gains for the rights of women are also in danger. Fighting the pandemic isn't just about addressing long-standing disparities, yet additionally about building a strong world in light of a legitimate concern for everybody, keeping women at the focal point of recovery.
● National commission for women, Rashtriya Mahila, Vol 1, No 244, Newsletter April 2020