e-Governance Push: Leveraging social capital of SHGs: NRLM’s response to COVID-19
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DAY-NRLM imparted digital training through a cascade approach on risks and prevention of the virus to over 5.10 lakh community resource persons, cadres, and community workers, reaching over 5.35 crore SHG members.
Given the size of India, the arrival of COVID-19 was accompanied by considerable apprehension that the spread of the virus would have devastating implications once it reaches the community. Soon after its outbreak, it was recognized that the networks and social capital of community-based institutions of the poor could be leveraged in order to ensure COVID-19 prevention and containment, especially in rural areas. In this scenario, the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM) assumed tremendous importance given its mass outreach and membership of 6.8 crore rural women, mobilized into 62 lakh self-help groups (SHGs).
During the pandemic, DAY-NRLM’s SHGs played a pivotal role in raising awareness of COVID-19. DAY-NRLM imparted digital training through a cascade approach on risks and prevention of the virus to over 5.10 lakh community resource persons, cadres, and community workers, reaching over 5.35 crore SHG members.
Responding to the need of rural communities for affordable health equipment to protect against the virus, SHG members demonstrated their ability to adapt their existing skills by engaging in large-scale production of over 23.7 crore face masks, 4.79 lakh litres of sanitizers and 1.02 lakh litres of handwash. To overcome the major challenge of food insecurity being faced by women and their households, community cadres and SHG members provided food-related essential services and commodities at the last mile, with over 5.72 crore persons being served food through community kitchens. Further, to ensure household food security, DAY-NRLM advised activities such as kitchen gardens and backyard poultry for all SHG member households.
With respect to health and hygiene, in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, SHG members supported Anganwadi workers, ASHAs and ANMs in distributing Take Home Rations (THR) to children under five, pregnant women, and lactating mothers as well as other vulnerable groups. In Odisha, maternal and child health services were provided by Poshan Sakhis, who supported ASHAs in going door to door to identify pregnant and lactating mothers and children needing immunization, facilitating their visits to the hospitals. Sanitary napkins were produced and delivered by the Maharashtra SRLM, recognizing these to be essential commodities. DAY-NRLM also issued an advisory that its Vulnerability Reduction Fund (VRF) be used to meet the needs of the most marginalized, with an additional amount of VRF being extended for COVID-19 hotspots and those with extreme vulnerabilities.
Further, amid the crisis and subsequent lockdown, and with family members restricted to their homes, women and girls faced greater vulnerability to domestic violence and increased burden of unpaid care work. Women and the most vulnerable also faced obstacles in claiming entitlements under the national relief package because of a lack of proof of identification such as ration-cards or bank accounts.
In this scenario, DAY-NRLM worked with organizations such as the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), to strengthen the ability of women’s collectives to respond to member and community needs. In Madhya Pradesh, Samta Sakhis who serve as gender counsellors addressed issues of violence against women and dispelling myths around the virus. Women run gender resource centres such as the Lok Adhikar Kendra supported communities in accessing rights and entitlements. Counselling was provided to SHG women in Chhattisgarh by Jaankars, as well as through a telephone-based Gender Facilitation Centre in Odisha. Digital solutions such as the Integrated Voice Response System (IVRS) messages were also explored for promoting access to information, entitlements, and services.
In particular, given the rising incidence of reported cases during the lockdown, DAY-NRLM has committed to working on issues of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, acknowledging that the network of SHGs and its federations can provide the space of solidarity and solace in these moments of crisis. DAY-NRLM is also focusing efforts on addressing the exacerbated vulnerabilities of migrants returning to rural areas, linking them with entitlements, and undertaking skill mapping to engage them in livelihoods. Civil society organizations have been actively working with State Rural Livelihoods Missions (SRLMs) on research related to the impacts of COVID-19, as in Jharkhand and Odisha, and towards ensuring gender-responsive recovery strategies on these and other issues going forward.
SHGs and their federations have always been indispensable spaces for building and strengthening women’s capacities, networks and solidarities. They provide members the strength to face challenges through collective action and through collectively bargaining for women’s rights and needs, including those of the most vulnerable. In particular, in the aftermath of the unprecedented COVID-19 shock, recovery strategies would need to be focused on preserving the social capital of SHGs, prioritizing issues of health, well-being and gender-based violence, and strengthening women-led livelihoods and enterprises.
The author is Joint Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. Views are personal. The article was published Economic Times. You can access the article here.
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