Female Essential Workers: Safety and Security - A Brief Discussion
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
(All articles represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the organisation and should not be taken as such)
Amongst the total number of Healthcare & Social workers, women account for 70% in the World (1). At the time I began writing this article after approximately 9 months since the first Covid-19 case in India, there is still a lack of information regarding the country’s Gender Distribution of Essential Services Workers and the impact that this pandemic has specifically brought upon women and this matters because women did nearly 3 times as much unpaid care work (2) & domestic work as men before the pandemic hit. Now with the closure of educational institutions, the responsibility (3) of homeschooling children, taking care of the family and household work has overburdened women (especially employed women) more than usual. Apart from this affecting their mental health (4) women have also faced violence (5) not only from their partners but also from the public.(6)(7)
Influenced by my personal views and two short open-ended brief discussions earlier in July 2020 with individuals working in the field (Interviewees chose to remain anonymous) surrounding the topic of ‘How safe are working women during the covid-19 outbreak’, this article talks about Safety of Female Essential Workers, and focusses on the Northeastern state of Assam in India.
What do we mean by Essential Workers?
These are the people who don’t have the privilege to stay safe at home during the pandemic because they are the ones providing Essential Services (8), including health care, food service, and public transportation, among others. Starting from the frontline workers in the healthcare industry through to the backend Government employees, without them the ‘Normal’ life of the General public at home wouldn’t have been possible.
Here is a list of Essential Services (9) Sectors to whom we owe our heartfelt gratitude:
Government staff in essential departments
Suppliers & Sellers of essential products
Transport and Financial services
LPG, petrol, diesel, PDS agencies
Domestic airline and airport staff
Military forces and Journalists
Communication & Information Technology
Chemical & Hazardous materials industries
Critical manufacturing industries
With all due respect to the contributions of Male Essential Workers during this pandemic, the article’s primary objective is to throw light on the grievances of millions of Female Essential Workers including the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers.
Here are the top 2 issues being focused on in this article:
Health & Hygiene during Covid-19
Safety of Female Workers
The principles of Human Security and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 have been used as an underlying lens for this article as they provide guidance around the importance of making gender-sensitive policies in every aspect of life especially considering women and the challenges specifically faced by them.
Health & Hygiene during Covid-19 and otherwise
World Health Organization (WHO) advisories show that Covid-19 can spread in several ways, viz., by touching infected objects or surfaces and then touching eyes, noses or mouths before sanitizing.(10) In offices where traditional methods of working still exist such as the numerous files being handed over from one department to another, countless employees working in shifts using the same work desk & accessories could easily spread the virus.
“Only a spray bottle of sanitizer is kept in each department, the floors are swept now and then while the washrooms remain to stay dirty” (Interviewee chose to remain anonymous, July 2020)
Further the interviewee went on to say “The sanitation work in office cubicles started in July and just once a day but there are employees working in the same cubicle for 3 shifts”.
Not everything is seen in a negative light as another interviewee shared uplifting feedback on the preparedness of their organisation in terms of health and safety precautions taken against covid-19. The personnel were also provided necessary transportation facilities during the pandemic. Despite this case, there are many workplaces which could not level up their hygiene as was expected.(11)
Immediate solutions to this are implementing the existing Government guidelines(12), appointment of workers for sanitizing each department after every shift, employees and cleaning staff should be provided with reusable gloves to be worn at all times during their working hours and should also be briefly introduced about the new system and demonstrations of certain acts like "How to take off the gloves safely after usage and how to dispose used protective equipment."
Safety of Female Workers - A case in Assam
During the peak of the pandemic, in some sectors of essential services, the female workers were asked to do evening & night shifts, typically from 2-9PM and 10PM-7AM respectively.
“The roads would be empty & in stark darkness, leaving only the homeless lurking around in the corners, which is unsafe as only few of us have personal vehicles” (Interviewee chose to remain anonymous, July 2020).
The multiple requests for provision of safe transportation from the employees were paid no heed. The limited staff made it even more troublesome for the employees and created stigma & frustration among the workers. The issue went into new depth when the male employees wanted females to work in night shifts even after being aware of the safety issues.
“It is sad to witness situations where men prioritize comfort more than the safety of their female colleagues or friends.” said the interviewee when asked about their thoughts on the matter." (Interviewee chose to remain anonymous, July 2020).
This matters because Assam, one of the 8 states of the North Eastern Region (NER) of India, has recorded the highest rate of crimes against women for the third consecutive year which is 3 times more than the national figure (13), in most cases both the central and the state Government have failed to pay a deserving attention to this matter.(14)
To help us put this in perspective, Figure 1 depicts various Gender Inequality Sub-Indices of India in the global list(15), wherein India ranks 112 with a score of 0.668 (see page 30 of the report), the highest being Iceland with a score of 0.877 (higher rank, the better the equality). If we look at Figure 2 we will see that Assam falls under the ‘Low Social Progress Index' tier with a score of 48.53 while it’s neighbouring states like Mizoram and Sikkim fall under the ‘Very High Social Progress Index’ tier with scores of 62.89 and 62.72 respectively(16).
But these graphs have blind spots as they do not tell us about the safety and security of women in this context, therefore lacking in vital data for policy makers.
Data Source Credit: "Global Gender Gap Report 2020". Www3.Weforum.Org, 2020, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf. Accessed 20 Dec 2020.
Data Source Credit: Kapoor, Amit. "Social Progress Index: States Of India Eleven Years Of Progress". Socialprogress.In, 2017, https://socialprogress.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/SPI_2017_Findings.pdf. Accessed 20 Dec 2020.
Using UNSCR1325 and Human Security as our Lens
A very short primer on UNSCR1325 and Human Security:
The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 addressed the inordinate and unique impact of armed conflict on women for the first time (17) on 31st October, 2000. The UNSCR1325 and its subsequent resolutions focus on increased representation of women at all decision making levels, participation in UN peace support operations and post-conflict processes, while preventing and protecting women from all kinds of sexual and gender specific violence in war zones or otherwise. The four basic pillars(18) of UNSCR1325 are Participation, Protection, Prevention, Relief & Recovery.
Human Security as defined in the General Assembly resolution 66/290 (19) is "An approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people.” It is a global approach aiming to identify and solve the widespread challenges that humans face starting from natural disasters, poverty, violent conflicts, to pandemics and economic downfall, as such crises can grow rapidly and cause instability and hardships in peace prospects, economic and sustainable development, and creating an environment where people have the freedom from fear, want and indignity(20).
Human security can be achieved if the four principles of People Centered, Comprehensive, Context Specific and Prevention Oriented are considered while building protection and empowerment strategies.
Image credit : "Human Security Handbook". Un.Org, 2016, https://www.un.org/humansecurity/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/h2.pdf.
Safety & Security connects to UNSCR1325 specifically through the pillars of ‘Protection’ and ‘Prevention’ as the pillar of Protection talks about the protection of girls and women from sexual and gender based violence in all situations including humanitarian and emergency situations and the pillar of Prevention talks about taking action for prevention of violence against women by implementing intervention strategies, prosecuting those culpable for violation of international law and strengthening women’s rights under the national law. Participation of more women at all decision making levels will facilitate consideration of gender specific issues and better Relief & Recovery measures by the Government and Authorities which in turn will help in reducing or removing the stigma in the society about gender based violence and its various forms.
Human Security is of utmost importance with regard to safety of female workers as the approach requires institutions to guarantee basic safety of humans through good governance, rule of law, social protection schemes built on the basis of the four important principles in order to ensure dignified survival and livelihood of the people.
So as to facilitate safety and security of female essential workers, some short term recommendations must include engaging more women in the decision making process both at employers level and Government level for all decisions to have gender based consideration, providing a safe working environment especially during this current pandemic by providing adequate masks, gloves to all employees and cleaning staff, implementing strict hygienic practices & protocols, creating awareness among the staff about the long term effects of Covid-19 and the correct way of using & cleaning masks, gloves before & after use.
Furthermore, keeping a strict check on any kind of physical or verbal abuse against women, taking anonymous feedbacks and stringent actions against perpetrators, and also providing special counselling services for women to ensure a holistic relief and recovery programme can go a long way in ensuring a resilient and empowered community where women can safely progress without insecurities.
Whilst urging the Indian Government to implement the Women, Peace & Security (WPS) agenda of the UNSCR1325 and its subsequent resolutions would be the first step towards better gender sensitive policy making top to bottom, a few other long term recommendations must include securing more funds for the Health and Education sector in order to uplift the citizens in the areas of health, culture and academia, adding interactive sessions on such policies in the education system in order to build and enhance civic participation and awareness of gender based safety and security policies.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1 in 3 women has suffered some kind of physical or sexual violence. It is also important to note that 52% of job roles deemed 'essential' are held by females (21), therefore, it is high time to realize the significant role played by women and implement policies which safeguard women's rights(22). Women prove to be more efficient in their work when they know they are in a safe environment(23), where their voices are heard, and stereotypical and unethical employees are dealt with in an effective way.
Let's create an environment where actions talk louder than words and watch women grow safer and stronger.
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