New Delhi, Sep 22 (PTI) Making sanitisers, stitching masks and running community kitchens and quarantine centres, thousands of women in rural and urban centres across India are doing their bit to combat COVID-19 while keeping the home fires burning.
Part of the informal sector, the army of women has been organised into an impactful workforce through self-help groups (SHGs) and cooperatives. Redefining the concept of WFH, an acronym born in the lockdown, the women have been working from their homes to help in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
The work started slowly soon after the nationwide lockdown that started on March 25 and picked up as the weeks and months went by with the pandemic showing no signs of abating.
Women at the Lok Swasthya Sewa Trust, a health cooperative in Ahmedabad, for instance, have produced nearly 40,000 bottles of sanitiser since March.
Registered in 2005, the trust, promoted by SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) has over 1,800 women members, including informal workers from different trades and communities, and has been undertaking welfare-oriented activities such as health education and childcare.
Ila Shah, who has been part of the trust for years, said the women began the production of their own hand sanitiser in 100 ml and 500 ml bottles at the trust’s manufacturing unit after the pandemic struck.
The formula for their sanitiser, containing neem and tulsi extracts, is GMP (good manufacturing practice) certified and made under the technical supervision of individuals with the required expertise, she said.
“We have been producing a herbal hand sanitiser that has neem and tulsi extracts, combined with ethanol. We are provided with these three materials and are instructed to mix them in the required quantities,” Shah told PTI over phone.
While the herbal extracts are outsourced, the final product is sold on the GeM (Government eMarketplace) portal, supplied to the medical shops run by the trust itself, and also given to other women workers in the enterprise who do door-to-door sale of ayurvedic products, she added.
Created as a collective social enterprise, the trust builds on the SHG model, but the former version is more successful, particularly in cases where the operations are more large-scale, explained Renana Jhabvala, national coordinator, SEWA.
“These enterprises could be registered as cooperatives, as companies or as SHG federations. However, in all cases they work directly with the women in the informal sector, rural as well as urban. Women collectively own and run the CSE (corporate social enterprise), serving as shareholders, board members, staff and workers,” she said.
SHGs are usually small informal associations of women who come together to improve their living conditions by various means of commerce. They pool in a certain amount of money over a period of time so it can be lent to members in time of need. Cooperatives are larger and more formal with members sharing the benefits their enterprise makes. In several cases, the members are the shareholders in the company.
In northeast Delhi’s Sundernagri locality, women have become shareholders in Ruaab, a collective of artisans excelling in different forms of sewing. Ruaab has several sub-centres across the city, including in Sundernagri where its 130 women members are making masks which are supplied to big garment brands.
Once homemakers and now entrepreneurs, the women in the Sundernagri sub-centre have produced over five lakh masks.
“After the coronavirus infection started spreading, we realised there was a shortage of masks, and our clients, including big garment brands as well as export houses, started placing orders for masks in bulk. We had to deliver our first order for one lakh masks in a week,” Reshma, a member of Ruaab, said.
The challenge was arranging the raw material. “During the lockdown, even the cloth supplier we had been taking material from for quite a while refused to provide material on credit. So we had to wait until the client would offer an advance payment, which would make the deadline even tighter,” she said.
Reshma and her colleagues work for six-seven hours straight every day at the sewing machine to deliver orders of the triple layered pleated cloth masks.
Each woman stitches 100-150 masks a day, getting anything between Rs 4-6 per mask depending on the design and style. They come in both cotton and silk. The more stylish ones also come with intricate embroidery.
A similar initiative, but on a much smaller scale, has been undertaken by a small self-help group in a village in Bihar’s Munger district where Anita Devi and 19 other women bought two sewing machines from the SHG fund to make masks to supply to Jeevika (a World Bank-supported rural livelihoods programme seeking to empower poor women).
“We bought the sewing machines ourselves, and Jeevika provided the cloth and thread. There were a few women who already knew how to stitch, so they made masks for the Jeevika didis,” Anita said.
The SHG fund has been created over the years with deposits from its members. Each woman deposits Rs 200. The amount has increased since it was formed in 2003.
Anita added that they also used SHG funds to help out people in their own locality whose businesses had been crippled because of COVID-19.
“One of the women in our village…Sanju behen…her 'kirana' shop closed during the lockdown, and she didn’t have any money to buy stock for her shop and reopen it. So we loaned her Rs 15,000 from the SHG fund, and she can return the money at her convenience once the business picks up,” Anita said.
Several SHGs supported by Delhi-based NGO Pradan have undertaken varied projects, including volunteering at community kitchens and quarantine centres. The NGO, which pioneered the model of organising women into SHGs in 1987, has presence in 32 districts in seven states. “We have seen women’s involvement in various activities, from making masks to sanitisers and also in other measures like running community kitchens and quarantine centres in partnership with the gram panchayats. Some SHG leaders were designated as COVID volunteers and they worked extensively at the grassroots levels,” said Madhu Khetan, programme director at Pradan.
“For several people who couldn’t come to the community kitchens, the SHG members would deliver hot cooked meals to them,” she added. PTI TRS MIN MIN MIN