Despite these challenges, the young women of Shadhika are demonstrating tremendous levels of leadership, strength, and resilience.
From the Field: August 2020
By Upasana Saha & Kendra Nicolai, Program Officers
August 13, 2020
With nearly 370,000 known COVID-19 cases and over 12,000 related deaths, India is in Phase I of re-opening the country after nearly 3 months of strict national lockdown. This means that places of worship and select hospitality businesses–including shopping malls–are allowed to be open while respecting social distancing precautions. Whether or not the country will enter Phase II of re-openings is still to be determined, based on national rates of infection and mortality.
The lockdown has taken a heavy economic and social toll on urban settings in particular, with the Southern and Western regions still showing the highest concentration of red zones (i.e. highest infection rates, large scale testing, and extended lockdown). High population density in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, and Calcutta has been a central factor in dangerously high infection rates. Devastating levels of urban poverty involving single-room homes, common use of public toilets, and general conditions of overcrowding are preventing large portions of urban dwellers from practicing adequate preventative measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing. This is exacerbated by the lack of access to proper protective equipment like masks and widespread misinformation about the virus. The monsoon season has already brought 3 cyclones, leading to India’s largest single-day spikes of new COVID-19 cases (up to 5,600 in one day) and compounding the obstacles to mobilizing government resources optimally to contain the virus and mitigate its destabilizing effects on the population and the economy. People–especially heads of household–are reluctant to seek medical care from fear of being quarantined with catastrophic consequences on the financial health of their households. This occurs despite the fact that heads of household are often at a higher risk of exposure and infection because they are the only ones going out to work in order to provide for the family.
High rates of unemployment have pushed families into unprecedented, precarious levels of economic and social uncertainty. Unable to pay for rent and other expenses, these families are subject to harassment by unforgiving landlords, leaving them with few options but to move back to their rural communities of origin. This exodus has the potential to cause long-term economic and social losses for those families, as well as the possibility to contract the virus in crowded transportation out of the city. Hostile attitudes towards ethnic minorities and migrant communities are reportedly on the rise. Despite a surge in the COVID-related death toll making India the fourth worst affected country globally, national policies regulating public mobility are slowly relaxing around the country.
Government services such as public transportation and schools continue to be limited and uncertain. Even with evidence of new outbreaks in regions like Maharashtra, epicenters of the virus are seemingly moving from Delhi and Mumbai–where the healthcare infrastructure is better–to poorer, densely-populated states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that may not have the capacity to handle large viral outbreaks, forecasting a possible, more severe lockdown in the coming months.
With relaxed lockdown restrictions in a few Indian states, a small group of Shadhika’s partners have slowly re-started their in-person meetings and community visits when correct precautions can take place. To reduce field operation and program implementation challenges, our partners have adopted nimble strategies including simplifying curriculum, building staff capacity to leverage technology, creating second-line community leaders, and designing inclusive and asynchronous learning environments for program participants. Partners have been collaborating with external agencies to co-create programs and have been raising additional funds to reduce technology gaps and improve overall online learning experience for participants. Additionally, partners are continuously developing straightforward, local language-based learning materials and tools to make knowledge building processes more accessible and foster uninterrupted learning experience for both young women participants and facilitators.
–Vacha is raising additional funds to buy smartphones for Vacha participants who were experiencing difficulty attending online classes.
–Milaan is collaborating with SHEROES to provide real-time mental health support to more than 1,000 program participants with the objective of creating a safe peer networking and learning online space for young women. A toll-free counseling number has been printed in Milaan workbooks, to encourage participants to use it.
–At Jabala, older young women program participants who are called “community mentors” are proactively working to support younger girls with their academics by coordinating online sessions. As part of their stakeholder advocacy, community mentors are meeting with school teachers to discuss ways of keeping girls in school as they re-open.
–Sahiyar launched its first leadership training with 22 girls and 3 boys. However, after five sessions lockdown restrictions in their city have been re-imposed affecting in-person meetings. Before switching to online learning, Sahiyar did a short survey to assess participant access to technology and internet, and have begun providing internet data support to their participants as needed.
–Baale Mane, in collaboration with SHENOMICS, is planning to begin leadership projects that pair older young women and young girl program participants.
Many of our grantee partners have adopted a remote structure, allowing staff to work from home. However, this new arrangement is challenging the execution of their community-based activities and to properly supervise and manage a large number of field staff. Most partners weren’t equipped to provide resources like laptops and internet services to all their staff at the onset of COVID-19, creating an additional administrative burden to transfer information from paper to electronic files. In response, partners are encouraging their staff to do regular telephonic welfare checks and use mobile technology like WhatsApp to coordinate group activities with program participants. Given the increased relief work and growing cases of domestic violence, some of our partners have been working long hours to adapt and address evolving needs in real time.
Migration has become a key issue for the young women of Shadhika. There are two main impetus behind a family’s decision to migrate: 1) Fearing the containment of COVID-19 Red Zones (which designates a high number of COVID-19 cases) and 2) Loss of employment and housing. Once young women participants are relocated by their family, our partners often lose the ability to provide support and monitor their welfare. Despite these tremendous odds, we have seen the young women demonstrating immense fortitude in light of these new challenges.
Due to generalized school and college closures, Shadhika Scholars are facing many challenges. At the onset of COVID-19, final exams were cancelled indefinitely and/or schools were unable to issue final grades certifying the successful completion of the Scholar’s current academic year. Many Scholars are unable to fully participate in online classes due to limited access to computers and internet. This new modality is also a difficult mental and cognitive shift. Many Scholars are using their mobile phones to attend classes and submit assignments, resulting in increased internet data usage and related costs. Finally, the majority of Scholars live in multi-generational, single-room homes where there is little space and time to dedicate to school work. In confinement, the young women bear the burden of daily household chores and often face unsupportive parents or extended family, creating intense emotional and practical barriers to pursuing their academic goals during COVID-19.
School re-opening continues to be uncertain in India. It has been reported that the majority of India’s colleges and universities will elevate their students to the next level, regardless of whether or not they took a final exam. However, the situation varies by state and by school, and it is likely this policy will not be uniformly applied. Additionally, high school students in their final year may not be able to take the final 12th Standard exams in order to enroll in college. Our partners are monitoring this uncertain education climate closely in order to adapt their support and programs accordingly.
Despite these challenges, Shadhika Scholars are demonstrating tremendous levels of leadership, strength, and resilience. They have shared how they are negotiating and managing expectations like household chores in order to prioritize school work. They continue to enthusiastically participate in virtual group activities organized by Shadhika. Many have shared how they are minimizing idle time by creating self-directed lesson plans and physical exercise regimens. Whenever possible and safe, they participate in efforts to fight and mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in their communities, including leading basic health education discussions and participating in food drives. They continue to lead in the midst of uncertainty and unprecedented change.
Shadhika continues to closely monitor the circumstances in India in order to best support our partners and program participants. In order to remain nimble and responsive to the needs on the ground, please help us meet our goal of raising an additional $15,000 for COVID-related funds.Read more