As India raced to stop the spread of coronavirus, enforcing widespread lockdowns, Sarika Sinha swiftly mobilised a volunteer force to distribute thousands of ration packets across the Bhopal province in India.
“We give out about 5,000 food packets every day and sometimes that goes up to 7,000,” says Sarika
Sarika manages the Gauravi One-Stop Crisis Centre – a women-led safe space providing legal, financial, social or psychological support for women escaping violence. Since opening in 2012, the Gauravi Centre has responded to more than 30,000 cases of violence against women. Now, eight years later, these same women are leading the community response to COVID-19.
Across India violence against women continues to be commonplace, with many experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault, workplace harassment or acid attacks, and this number is expected to rise drastically during the pandemic.
When escaping violence, many Indian women lose the financial support of their families. So the crisis centre supports women to learn new skills for financial independence.
Sarika says women have embraced the opportunity to train in traditionally male occupations.
“We have gone around breaking gender stereotypes – we have women who have become plumbers, electricians, drivers, a lot of other things,” she says.
In 2019, the centre identified e-rickshaw driving as both an environmentally and economically sustainable opportunity for survivors of violence. The team at Gauravi has so far supported 12 women to become certified rickshaw drivers and get a loan to buy their rickshaws.
One of these women is 28-year-old Talat. Having completed the rickshaw training, she leapt at the opportunity to give back by contributing to coronavirus support efforts. Talat is leading by example to empower other women in her community to volunteer.
“I called when I learned that the Gauravi centre is distributing relief aid, some families in my neighbourhood needed support… I felt it was good to be a part of the good deed they were doing. Just like I was supported by them, I also wanted to support others as part of Gauravi,” says Talat.
Donning personal protective equipment (PPE), Talat and the other women typically spend seven or eight hours weaving through the city, distributing ration packages containing rice, oil, salts, soaps and sanitisers, to their assigned areas. Their work has inspired 18 other grassroots organisations to mobilise their own resources for relief efforts across Bhopal.
“Gauravi is just one part of this distribution – after Gauravi started doing it, a lot of social movements and people’s organisations approached us. At the moment we are working with about 18 different groups,” Sarika continues.
The women have also received support and recognition of their leadership from men in their community – a significant step in the fight for gender equality. “Many of the volunteers are men who have come in solidarity with women,” she says.
Through localised women-led responses to crises such as this, women can solidify their positions as key-decision makers. When women are empowered with the tools to lead, not only does their community benefit but we create new spaces for women to emerge as galvanising leaders.