COVID-19 pandemic: Impact on mobility of women

Ninglun Hanghal
Roselyn was among the first batch of people who boarded the Shramik special train from Chennai on May 10. The nineteen-year-old undergraduate was an employee of a restaurant in Chennai. Her train reached Jiribam the only railway station in Manipur on May 13. From there, she and her co-passengers travelled 200 km in government-arranged buses to reach state capital Imphal. Roselyn had to take another 65 km to reach home town Lamka the next day.
Due to the pandemic lockdown, Roselyn’s workplace is closed indefinitely. “I got half of my monthly salary,” she said. Roselyn earned a monthly salary of Rs 10,000. “Although the restaurant shut down I was not told to quit, in fact my manager told me to come back after lockdown,” said Roselyn. Many like Roselyn whose work places were shut down, decided to return home. Roselyn said that most of her co-passengers in the train worked in restaurants or beauty parlors. Others are mostly students or people who are visitors or taking medical treatment in Chennai. Another passenger on the same train was Leena, a trainee beautician.
She said, “The parlor where I worked as a trainee is closed, so I had to return. She shared a room in a Chennai suburb with fellow beauticians like her. “It became difficult to stay on, we don’t know when it will open again,” she said. Leena and Roslyn's income has stopped since then.
By June, roughly 20,000, mostly young people, returned to Manipur alone from big cities across India. There were thousands of others who returned to other Northeastern states.
In mid-May, a group of 18 nurses working in private hospitals in Kolkata hired a bus and left the city. It took them two nights and three days to reach Imphal. One of the nurse returnees said on condition of anonymity that the hospital she worked with was sealed and declared a containment area. She said, “We were locked in our shared flat for already a month, our rations were getting over and there was no salary”. Moreover, the other residents in the colony were not comfortable with them due to the stigma attached to COVID-19 patients and healthcare workers.
For 22-year-old Somi a fresh nursing graduate from an Andhra Pradesh nursing school, the joy of getting her first job was short-lived. The lockdown changed the situation even for paramedics. “It was my first job at a private hospital in Kolkata, but we were not provided with PPE kits nor was there any segregation of patients. It was a difficult decision to make, but it was getting too risky,” said Somi eager to return home in the hill district of Kamjong. As a fresher, Somi earned Rs12,000 every month. Another nurse Aneri said that it was made clear to them that the management will not take responsibility. “This means if we were infected with the virus we would have been on our own as there would be no specific care or facility provided for us,” said Aneri. “PPE is one thing, what about food and essential needs if the lockdown continued ?” she asked.
Anxiety and uncertainty pushed them to return home. But even at home, there is no certainty. Will their jobs be still waiting for them after the lockdown ?
What plans do they have in mind, once the lockdown eases and hopefully things get back to normal ? Roselyn is undecided. She cannot tell if she will return to Chennai to resume her work. For Somi she would prefer to work in her home state, provided she gets a job otherwise she may have to go to the city again. Aneri is doubtful, “I don't know right now, if I don't get a job in Manipur, yes I will have to think of looking for it outside,” she said.
Currently, Somi is helping children in their studies at her village since schools are closed.
Roselyn is helping her parents in cultivation and weaving puan – women’s wear on the traditional loom at her village.
Leena and Roslyn are not aware of the state government's new initiative calling for returnees to register themselves online mentioning their skills on the newly launched portal Somi and Aneri say they heard about some job vacancy in the state health department, but were unable to seek details. Aneri hopes that something will come out of the skill mapping initiative of the government. “I have registered for the skill mapping,” said Aneri while Somi is yet to do so.
It was for employment opportunities that these young women ventured out into new places. Majority were employed in the hospitality sector, BPOs and shopping malls. Cities provide earning opportunities, but they also pose huge challenges. These young women are vulnerable in the city. Moreover, not highly qualified and unskilled they mostly land up with low paying jobs.
According to a study on Northeast women migrants by Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi (2014), 60 percent of women who migrated to cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata reported harassment and discrimination.
The study states that two-third of the respondents frequently faced unjust treatment in everyday life.
Beerjurekha Samom, a Delhi-based journalist notes that while discrimination against people from the region was always an issue, the pandemic has made it worse. “Earlier, they were stereotyped as ‘momo and chinky’ and now they are being called ‘coronavirus’. It is tragic,” said Samom.
Madhuchandra, who started the Delhi-based North East Support Centre Helpline conducted a survey in 2011. The survey reported that over 414,850 people from Northeast India migrated to mega cities of India during 2005 to 2010. The survey has two set of respondents; 107 respondents from field interviews and 96 case studies of survivors who have reported to the North East Support Centre and Helpline during the said period. Of the case reported, 58% are violence against women (34% molestation, 8% human trafficking, 7% beating, 4% rape, 2% attempt to rape). Other cases include; non-payment of salaries, issues with landlords and others.
The last decades also saw a large number of young women migrants. Duncan McDuie-Ra, Associate Dean of Research at the University of New South Wales, Australia, in his research book, “Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail (2012)” finds that earlier it was a small group of elites from Northeast who left their homes. Things changed after the year 2000. The tendency of migration is general – violence and conflict are the main reason. But today many people from even a peaceful background and less privileged groups leave their home states, mainly for jobs and better incomes, which the home states do not offer. This is especially true for women. Another reason is aspirations and the evolving economy of Indian cities.
Duncan observes that women enact roles that are required of them in their jobs – that are mostly hospitality sector or fashion outlets. Duncan found that women get jobs easily and find their “independence” in the city and mostly preferred to stay on.
An income makes these young women feel a sense of freedom and empowerment. Most of these women migrants support their siblings and are key contributors to the family’s sustenance.
Now their small income too has stopped with the pandemic and has thrown in a new dimension wherein they are placed in a difficult circumstance. Though their employers have told them to return, there is no assurance that a job will be waiting for them.
Meanwhile, restrictions are placed on them. As Somi said, “My parents do not want me to return to the same workplace”.
For Roselyn, to go to Chennai and work was a breakthrough. It was the earning of a small income that gave her the freedom to travel out of her home. She has four siblings who are still young. No one in her family has formal employment. The job and a regular earning gave way to the restrictions at home.
“In fact, my parents had not fully agreed to my going to Chennai,” recalled Roselyn. “Now, they are going not allow me anymore.” Her parents want her to stay home and not venture out anymore.
Aneri convinced her parents that she needed to get experience as she was fresh out of training college. She said had it not been for that the training, she would never have been allowed.
While COVID-19 has severely impacted the earning means, it has also reinforced restrictions. It curbs their mobility and disempower young women who otherwise had some sense of independence as they earned an income away from their homes and villages.
Ninglun Hanghal is Laadli Media Fellow 2020. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views.