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ASHA & Anganwadi Workers – The Critical Yet Ignored Women At The Frontiers Of COVID

Posted: March 15, 2021

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Often insulted and abused, ASHA workers often bear the brunt of the community’s distrust and grievances towards the government.

Lakhs of women are fighting a disease that has weakened the world. However, COVID is not the only battle to be fought. These women also fight for survival against their own country.

This year on International Women’s Day, the United Nations Organisation’s decided to celebrate the ‘tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.’

In India, a massive force of women has been working at the grassroots to aid the government and the country deal with the pressures of the pandemic. This group has, in fact, been working for years, bridging the gap between healthcare and those who are geographically and/or economically disadvantaged to access it. The women being referred to are Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers.

They work tirelessly and successfully, despite the various pressures that they are forced to endure. This International Women’s Day cannot be celebrated without recognising them. In fact, these women deserve tangible gratitude for the risks they take for the country.

Who are these women?

The all-female community of the ASHA workers are selected and trained by the government to serve as links between rural India and the public health system. ASHA workers are selected from the village they are intended to work in.

There are close to nine lakh ASHA workers across the country. They’re expected to spread awareness about health-promoting practices. Additionally, they are also the fountainheads of community participation in public health programmes (especially those of immunisation). And they will be the first port of call for any health-related demands of deprived sections of the population. Especially for women and children, who find it difficult to access health services.

Anganwadi workers perform similar roles. From 1975 onwards, more than a million Anganwadi centres are set up to address issues of women and children, primarily malnutrition.

Both ASHA and Anganwadi workers are part of the government’s response to COVID. It is well-recognised that community engagement is needed to fight the pandemic. Right from contact tracing, to spreading information on prevention and providing access to the treatment they are the ones called upon. Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers have been doing all this and more – tracking migrant movements, reporting cases and assisting medical centres.

The undue burden to be borne

The obvious risk of such work is the disease itself. However, the stresses of these women are not simply a result of the pandemic. The reality is that this large group is poorly paid and terribly treated

ASHA workers often bear the brunt of the community’s distrust and grievances towards the government. They’re publicly insulted, abused and even violently attacked. Their work is further obstructed by misinformation and scepticism regarding their ‘purpose.’

Workers are often questioned and judged, which makes reaching out to people that much harder. ASHA workers spend hours in the field. For this gruelling work, however, they are severely underpaid.

They work without proper institutional support and regular pay. There is a lack of transparency regarding what ASHA workers are entitled to.

Further, they are not eligible for minimum wage. The extensive work they do is still recognised only as voluntary – despite their labour not being ‘unskilled’ or ‘unorganised.’ Though they are publicly applauded for being indispensable to the public health system, ASHA workers are not recognised as government employees.

They are important but never treated like it

From lowering maternal mortality rates to ensuring successes of immunisation programs – the evidence of their necessity is undeniable. The healthcare system in India is severely lacking in resources, funds and capacity. And yet, ASHA and Anganwadi workers are exploited outrightly by way of technicalities. One often cited is that they do not belong to an ‘industry.’

There is also a deeper and gendered issue – that of the value of the work women do. From academic to political discourses, the idea of labour is so deeply gendered that the public world is considered a man’s world. Thus considering only men’s labour as measurable.

Women in public spaces are ‘aliens’ who do not belong. The right space for women is the home, any venture outside is only a side job to their real role as caregivers. Women working at the frontlines are expected to feel grateful for the petty appeasements of thaali banging. However, in reality, they are struggling to survive.

What has Covid-19 revealed?

These issues have been raised by the workers previously as well but with the pandemic, they have deepened in intensity. On the one hand, they are entrusted to carry out a multitude of duties. Meanwhile, on the other, they are forced to work without proper PPE kits, gloves, masks or any training for this new disease.

As a result, several workers have reportedly fallen ill. And given their own economic insecurities, further adds on to the disadvantages they’ve been forced to endure. And what is given in return for the risk these women take on? Rs.1,000 a month.

ASHA workers across India have been going on strikes with justifiable demands:

  • Better government protection and institutional recognition of their work as work, not voluntary contributions
  • In Bangalore, the workers demanded Rs.21,000 per month and medical insurance
  • In Andhra Pradesh, they demanded implementation of welfare schemes and provision of insurance benefits
  • For years of essential work, the workers demand retirement benefits

The fulfilment of these basic demands would show the women front-liners how grateful the country truly is to them.

Why are they exploited so easily?

There are questions we must ask and ourselves. Does the lack of a degree and a professional title mean one is ineligible to basic dignities? Are these women to be cast as ‘martyrs’ because they are ‘lower-level’ individuals?

Previous experiences have proven that without such community mobilisations, health crises cannot be mitigated. And yet, those doing the daunting yet necessary work are so easily exploited. Why?

Because they are of the disadvantaged gender in a patriarchal culture, because they lacked the resources to get higher education. Also because they failed to come from urban centres. Because they have nothing to leverage against the government. And finally, because they do not have the public support to demand basic necessities.

The conditions of these women reveal the inequalities of our society. Some women leave their homes to vacation and dine out. At the same time, more than 10 lakh women leave their homes to face disease, abuse and debilitating. And all this stress in exchange for the illusion of appreciation.

Picture credits: Image from Pushkar V via New Indian Express 

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