In Photos: Women on the front lines of COVID-19 in India

As India emerges from the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, amidst speculations about a third wave coming, UN Women spotlights women on the front lines of the pandemic response in the capital, Delhi, on World Humanitarian Day (19 August).

Date : 17 August 2021

In this photo, Vanadana Gupta, a SEWA community leader checks body temperature prior to distributing ration in Jahangir Puri, New Delhi. Photo credit: UN Women/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
In this photo, Vanadana Gupta, a SEWA community leader checks body temperature prior to distributing ration in Jahangir Puri, New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

With less than one doctor for every thousand people, and a medical system stretched to its seams, women have shouldered an enormous burden of care since the pandemic started in India. Women make up 47 per cent of all health workers and more than 80 per cent of nurses and midwives, working at the front lines of COVID-19, risking exposure to the virus.

Women also make up the majority of workers in service and social work sectors. In India, women workers and volunteers from non-profit organizations like the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) distributed rations, essential commodities and provided information about COVID-19 prevention to women and girls from the poorest and most marginalized communities. SEWA is a long-standing partner of UN Women for economic empowerment programmes in India.

Rehana Chaton, an Anganwadi worker is meeting community members in the slums of Dhobi Ghat, New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Rehana Chaton, an Anganwadi worker is meeting community members in the slums of Dhobi Ghat, New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur

Rehana Chaton works as a Anganwadi worker at the Saheli Samanvay Kendra (SSK) in Batla House, New Delhi. These community centres set up by the Indian Government across the country act as local incubation centres to promote women’s self-help groups, provide skills training and public health information. The SSKs operate within Anganwadi centres that are part of the Indian public health care system, providing basic health care services and education for children in rural and marginalized areas. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the centres have remained open, providing free meals, immunization and health check-ups for children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and helping women access government assistance programmes.

Even during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Rehana worked at the SSK centre in the Batla House area of New Delhi, distributing rations, protective masks and providing immunization and basic health services. “There were problems with travelling during the lockdown as we live far away and had to walk the whole way. We went door to door to distribute rations and masks twice a month. Many people didn’t open their doors because they were scared they would contract COVID,” she shared.

The rations include staples, such as rice, legumes, oil, spices, milk, tea and sugar. “The rations last one week,” said Parveen, who met Rehana during one of her door-to-door visits. “We are a couple with four children. [My husband] is a daily wage labourer and I work as a domestic worker. After the COVID lockdowns, work hasn’t resumed.”

Women and children from the community assembled at a Saheli Samanvay Kendra (SSK) centre in Batla House, Delhi. In this photo, 12-year-old Nazra is learning to put on a mask and listening to Rehana Chaton explain the benefits of handwashing and masking as part of COVID-19 prevention. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Women and children from the community assembled at a Saheli Samanvay Kendra (SSK) centre in Batla House, Delhi. In this photo, 12-year-old Nazra is learning to put on a mask and listening to Rehana Chaton explain the benefits of handwashing and masking as part of COVID-19 prevention. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Salma Lari, an accredited social health worker with ASHA and a member of Mahila Panchayat (women’s local council) weighs a 27-day-old baby as part of her home visits providing pre- and post-natal health check-ups in the Batla House area of New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Prashanth Vishwanathan
Salma Lari, an accredited social health worker with ASHA and a member of Mahila Panchayat (women’s local council) weighs a 27-day-old baby as part of her home visits providing pre- and post-natal health check-ups in the Batla House area of New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Prashanth Vishwanathan

The SSK and Anganwadi centres also provide livelihood skills to women. Non-profit organizations like SEWA help women access small loans, learn tailoring and sewing, as well as computer skills and beautician training to improve their income. Other organizations, like CEQUIN and Azad Foundation also active in SSK centres and Anganwadi centres, are working with UN Women and the Ministry of Women and Child Development in India to develop action plans to help women and girls from the most marginalized communities and those at risk of gender-based violence.

Laxmi Devi, 55, shows a mask she has made. She is using the sewing machine that she bought with a loan received through SEWA to make and sell masks in New Ashok Nagar neighbourhood of New Delhi. Her mindset about women and work has changed. When she was younger, women didn’t work, but she says now are different. “Girls should go out and work now. Boys and girls are equal,” she says. Photo: UN Women/Prashanth VIshwanathan
Laxmi Devi, 55, shows a mask she has made. She is using the sewing machine that she bought with a loan received through SEWA to make and sell masks in New Ashok Nagar neighbourhood of New Delhi. Her mindset about women and work has changed. When she was younger, women didn’t work, but she says now are different. “Girls should go out and work now. Boys and girls are equal,” she says. Photo: UN Women/Prashanth VIshwanathan
Eighteen-year-old Gulnaz learns tailoring at the SSK centre at Hatsal neighbourhood of New Delhi. She is on her way to becoming a skilled seamstress. She has finished her secondary education and will be teaching children in the community who cannot afford tuition. During the COVID lockdowns she helped children in her neighbourhood study at home. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Eighteen-year-old Gulnaz learns tailoring at the SSK centre at Hatsal neighbourhood of New Delhi. She is on her way to becoming a skilled seamstress. She has finished her secondary education and will be teaching children in the community who cannot afford tuition. During the COVID lockdowns she helped children in her neighbourhood study at home. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur

Women’s job loss and safe transportation during the pandemic continue to be pressing concerns in India. Organizations like the Azad Foundation supports Sakha Cabs – taxi services by women, which continues to employ women in five major Indian cities – Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Indore and Chennai. During the lockdowns, they remained open as essential services. At a time when COVID patients and their families struggled to find local taxi service, Sakha Cab drivers transported them safely, equipped with masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and face shields.

Lalita, 27, is a driver with Sakha Cabs in New Delhi. She lives with her parents and siblings and is the only working woman in her family. It’s important for her to work, but driving cabs comes with safety concerns, especially when travelling at night. “Driving men at night sometimes feels unsafe, especially when they ask for your phone number… We get pepper sprays to carry and have an emergency button in the car,” she says.

Lalita, walking in her neighbourhood, Bhalaswan Dairy, New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Lalita, walking in her neighbourhood, Bhalaswan Dairy, New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Lalita, waiting in her cab. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
Lalita, waiting in her cab. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur

At home, even prior to the pandemic, Indian women spent 9.8 times more time than men on unpaid domestic and care work. The pandemic lockdowns increased women’s care burden exponentially, around the world, and in India.

A SEWA community leader is seen here driving an e-rickshaw. With women behind the wheels, women passengers often feel safer because sexual harassment in public spaces and transportation is a persistent problem. It also provides women with jobs in a make dominated sector. Photo: UN Women/Prashanth VIshwanathan
A SEWA community leader is seen here driving an e-rickshaw. With women behind the wheels, women passengers often feel safer because sexual harassment in public spaces and transportation is a persistent problem. It also provides women with jobs in a make dominated sector. Photo: UN Women/Prashanth VIshwanathan

Alpana Devi, 25, supports her family through tailoring and embroidery work with SEWA’s Ruhaab programme centre in New Ashok Nagar, New Delhi. During the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, her husband lost his job, but after a two-month pause, she was able to start her work at the SEWA community centre.

In this photo, Alpana Devi poses with her son, Monty, at her home in New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur
In this photo, Alpana Devi poses with her son, Monty, at her home in New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/Ruhani Kaur

This year, when the second wave of COVID-19 hit India and her husband lost his job again, they went back to their village. Alpana Devi returned to the city in June 2021 with her 6-year-old son, Monty, and went back to work, stitching masks and other materials at the SEWA centre that she could sell to earn an income. Because of COVID-19 lockdowns, Monty studies at home. Like millions of working mothers, Alpana Devi juggles childcare while trying to maintain her income.

Ram Kali, an assistant at the Mobile Creche, Hemisphere Mahagun, in Greater Noida area near Delhi, helps with caring for the children and cleaning. Mobile Creche is a non-profit initiative that provides free childcare, nutrition and education to children up to 12 years of age, whose parents work as day labourers in construction sites and factories and as domestic workers. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, they distributed rations and essential items through community leaders and provided some online schooling. Photo: UN Women/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
Ram Kali, an assistant at the Mobile Creche, Hemisphere Mahagun, in Greater Noida area near Delhi, helps with caring for the children and cleaning. Mobile Creche is a non-profit initiative that provides free childcare, nutrition and education to children up to 12 years of age, whose parents work as day labourers in construction sites and factories and as domestic workers. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, they distributed rations and essential items through community leaders and provided some online schooling. Photo: UN Women/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
Children pose in front of the Mobile Creche Hemisphere Mahagun in Greater Noida, near New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
Children pose in front of the Mobile Creche Hemisphere Mahagun in Greater Noida, near New Delhi. Photo: UN Women/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

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