The COVID 19 pandemics has brought sweeping changes in every sphere of life. Livelihood promotion of people across the globe have been affected in the in different sectors. The present pandemic has challenged this aspect, especially in the wake of the impossibility of providing relief on a long term basis. This intervention of working with households headed by widows in rural areas, began to study this phenomenon, with a specific focus on a few villages in Tamil Nadu, India. This present paper is a result of the context, needs, and processes of social intervention. It attempts to identify challenges of poverty faced by these women headed households and how the positivity may uplift of the lives of these widows.
The outbreak of pandemic COVID 19 has affected all walks of life across the globe and the worst affected have been the poor. They have been affected more by lockdowns, than by the virus. In the Indian subcontinent, the second populous country in the world, poverty looms large both in the urban and the rural areas. According to World Poverty Clock (2020), 50,70,00,122 people live in extreme poverty (i.e. living with less than 1.90 $ per day), of which 27,880,821 are women. 86.8 percent of the population is considered to be below the poverty line (5.50 $ per day) by international standards (World Bank, 2020). The outbreak of COVID19 has increased poverty and the rural population suffer more than the others. At least 49 million people across the world are expected to plunge intoextreme poverty those living on less than $1.90 per day, as a direct result of the pandemics economic destruction and India leads that projection, with the World Bank estimating some 12 million of its citizens may be pushed to the very margins this year (Deccan Herald, 2020).
India holds 68.84 percent of its population in 6,49,481 small villages. The lockdowns imposed on the country from March 2020 affected millions of people, as the people were unable to earn a livelihood. Even among the poor, the most affected population were the rural households headed by widows, deserted women, destitute women, and single mothers, because of triple discrimination- they were poor, they were women, and they were widows. Studies (Saerom et el,2020; Mark,2020; Hanna, 2020) reveal that gender matters in a pandemic. The experience of poverty of these women was one clubbed with distress, helplessness, and fatigue. According to Selcuk (2020) depression, anxiety and health anxiety levels were higher in women, showing that the psychiatric impact during the COVID-19 pandemic may be greater on women.
The researcher, working with a voluntary organization working with these women in 51 villages in three blocks of Dindigul District of the state of Tamilnadu (TN), India. TN witnessed a very high number of COVID19 cases and Dindigul district stood in the 6th position of the total 38 districts within the state. During the lockdown, all activities, including agricultural activities were banned in this district and all, including these women, had to stay indoors, and facing the lockdown posed a real existential threat to them. A few villages such as Kodaginayakanpatty, K.Puthur, Algarnayakanpatty, Chittor and Sithayankottai were declared as containment areas and further stringent rules were enforced, making life much more miserable for these women, despite the Governments efforts to provide them with provisions through the Public distribution system.
This context of hardships and misery of these women in and around Batlagundu area in Dindigul District formed the base of this study. It was primarily done to assess the intensity of the misery, and to provide them immediate relief from their desperate situations and to further reflect deeply the future of these women from social work perspective.
This process involved a phased out approach, using a tetrad-I process: Identification, interventions, interpretations and integration (Figure 1).
The study adopted sequential explanatory research design in mixed methods. In viewing the first of the tetrad-I process, namely, identification of actual realities, two elements were involved- the collection of quantitative data, followed by the collection of qualitative data. The research team reached out to these women through mobile contact to find out their life struggles and expressed their solidarity. These 51 villages were selected based on the remoteness and under-served areas. 328 women headed households were identified form these villages, who expressed the limited access to their livelihood and the inadequate provisions provided by the Public Distribution System (PDS). Hence, they expressed their need for food materials, which led to the second process.
The second process involved interventions through distribution of relief kit. While distributing these, an interview schedule was administered followed by a few individuals who answered positively to the questions through interviews (Creswell, 2014). It consisted questions related to their personal profile, and a scale on livelihood concerns. It took around thirty minutes to collect the data from each respondent. This provided the women an opportunity to ventilate their difficulties, challenges and expectations. Most of them also expressed that besides the food items, they needed minimum personal protective measures, either in cash or in kind.
The third process consisted of interpretations using insights from socio-philosophical streams of thought. Using analytical and phenomenological tools and considering ethical responsibilities as foundations, the data was interpreted too.
The final process marks the praxis element, wherein integration of the different aspects of life to resolve the identified problems or issues were highlighted, both for implementation and for further research.
The profile of the women headed rural households such as their blocks, age, educational status, occupation, caste category and living status are being presented below in Table 1.
As depicted in Table 1, the number of women headed households in Batlagundu block surpassed the other two blocks, namely, Nilakottai and Viruveedu. The women in the age group of 50 -69 years had 49.1 percent of the respondents. The average age of the respondents was 51.57 years, the youngest being 19 years old and the senior most being 86 years old. Their illiteracy rate was 63.7 percent. Consequently, 99.1 percent of them were dependent on daily wages as agricultural labourers for their livelihood. It also includes the women who were working under 100 workday scheme called Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). They earned a minimum of Rs 120 (less than two US dollars a day). According to Kristin et el (2020), women comprise the bulk of workers in the secondary labour market worldwide: as millions of womens jobs have disappeared, the feminization of poverty has increased.
Of the respondents, 59.5 percent belonged to Scheduled Castes and 88.3 percent were widows. Some them were pushed to widowhood for the past 45 years and there were also widows who had lost their husband just one year after marriage. Most of them had lost their husbands to alcoholic addiction induced premature death. Overall, table 1 revealed that the vulnerability of the respondents due to various dimensions such as educational, occupational and living status. The caste category portrayed their social vulnerability too.
The Public distribution system (PDS) in India which normally gives food materials in a reasonable price to ration card holders, offered provisions completely free of cost, during the lockdown period. The State also came up with a few special schemes for people living below poverty line (BPL). For instance, they were entitled to avail extra kilograms of rice from PDS during this period. It should also be noted that holding a bank account has become mandatory for beneficiaries of any social welfare programmes in India. The Table 2 given below portrays the economic realities of life of these women headed households and their accessibility to PDS and other state benefits.
As per the display of Table 2, PDS was available for 97.6percent, except those who were living with their sons as a dependent members. 90.5 percent of them had bank accounts, as those women who were going to work under MGNREGS and having their own employments did not have bank accounts. Having bank accounts did not mean that they had plenty of savings. Only 30.5 percent had meagre savings (just a few thousands only) with them. Of all the respondents, only 7.3 percent of the respondents owned land.
Most of their hardships were related to economic concerns. The lack of income was one of the important concerns as 59.5 percent had no income and 7.6 percent had no work. Almost a quarter of them, 25.3 percent, were in severe poverty as there was no proper food. It was interesting to note that there were negligible percent of respondents who underwent depression (1.2 percent), family problems (1.5 percent), and the lack of medical facilities was not a major concern (0.9 percent). Interestingly 1.8 percent were able to manage without any problems.
Though challenges are considered to be different from reality, the fact remains that many of our challenges are born out of present realities. These are not just wishes, but a sincere desire to wriggle out of the present situations of life related to poverty. The challenges and suggestions of the respondents are displayed in Table 4 below:
Among the respondents, 81.1 percent of them expected some economic assistance, either in the form of bank loans, group loans, subsidised loans, interest free loans, etc. Shouldering the family needs was too much to bear for some of the young respondents and their choked voices, silence and tears revealed them all. 9.1 percent wanted help for their childrens education and 3.0 percent wanted nutritional food. Among the young respondents, 3.7 percent asked for self-employment training, as they aspired to stand on their own.
Some of their challenges were also known during the distribution of relief kits. The women expressed during these interventions that they also were in need of minimum personal protective measures. It was also observed that as these women become the ultimate hopeless victims of global economic slowdown, they may need a prolonged assistance. Such assistances in the form of interest free loans for undertaking economic activities, and fresh ideas to look beyond established frames are essential.
Any interventions begin with positive perception. However, considering the urgency of the situation, immediate interventions to prevent hunger, starvation, and possible deaths began, with the observed data. Hence, this second process as a part of social work intervention is not to be considered a rule, but only an exemption.
The second process in the Tetrad-I process was an immediate intervention through providing relief kits and planning for long term programs to alleviate poverty levels. Filled with genuine care and concern for these widows, destitute and deserted women, the voluntary organization organized a quick fund raising and made arrangements for relief kits with groceries.
Most of these women, while receiving the relief kit were in tears of gratitude. One of them said that she was able to provide only one meal a day to her children for the past 15 days and that she would be able give them a better meal that week. Another elderly widow, shedding tears, said that she didnt have sufficient words to express her gratitude, because her own children had not bothered to care for her, but the compassion shown by others, especially by village volunteers, made her feel dignified and cared for. The personal interventions into their lives also helped many of the respondents to ventilate their pain, sorrow, difficulties and challenges.
It was also alarming to see the number of young widows among the beneficiaries, yet these small interventions gave the opportunities to instill hope in them. The relief kits conveyed the message of hope to these women that kindness and care has not vanished from humanity. The human touch of caring, sharing, and listening was an important intervention at this point, along with material needs, as many of these women felt abandoned even by the society. The human pain of being deserted and destitute does need a human accompaniment.
More than ever, hunger, sanitation, and security for the future are real issues for the poor women today. Left to fend for themselves, and defend for their rights, robbed of their dignity and duped by governing structures the poor women are in a miserable state. Stripped of any participatory role in governance, the poor have no voice in deciding their lives. This study hopes to be their voice, especially of these women who head their households, keeping their hopes alive, despite living in misery and miserable conditions.
This paper highlighted the need for a multi-pronged approach and a four-tier process to address the issues of these women who have been denigrated and dehumanized. The integration approaches given above are not exhaustive in nature, but they are pointers towards further research. If a society needs to be harmonious, then all the parts in its whole needs to be harmonious. These voiceless women whisperings have to be heeded to build a just humanity.
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