- What qualities/traits do you think that women bring to leadership that men do not?
What I have seen within SEWA, because I am fortunate enough to work with diverse women of all classes, is a collective growth way of thinking. I always turn to the words of Leah Benhill about the ‘nurturing economy;’ if you were to give a loan to a woman, she usually uses it to invest in her family, in lessening her debt, in education, or in their businesses. Their idea of ‘diversification of portfolio’ does not come from starting multiple different ventures, but rather in supporting multiple different people, helping each one of them become successful. I think that is the very first, fundamental difference. Usually, because women have been forced to take up the caretaker role of the family, it is possibly the reason why you see them take this approach.
2. What have you noticed about the care burden for women throughout the pandemic?
This is something I can reflect on from personal experience. When the world stops, household work increases. So, when I was growing up, I always use to think that vacation days were really just an ‘extra burden day for my mom because everybody was home and demanding things from her–not contributing to the household chores, right? I think that is what happened over here too when everybody was home during lockdown. Gender roles in the house have been unfortunately the same centuries now, and that is something that you saw during the pandemic as well. In fact, within SEWA, we saw the problem that women were trying to work their full-time job, while they were still trapped within the stereotypical gender roles. I do not think we saw a lot of positive shifts, except that for the first time, a lot of men also picked up household chores and tried to do it themselves—but it is definitely not enough; that realization [of women’s burden work] is not enough.
3. How have you seen these leadership qualities manifest throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
We saw it in the immediate crisis reaction. Most women somehow magically take out their ‘bedside savings’ in such a time, and they knew who in the community had run out of food. So, these are stories that I have heard from a number of domestic workers and home-based workers who I think knew when there was an issue to scramble and hold on to a few food rations, or when people ran out of money in India’s absolute lockdown, and you could not go anywhere, and people did not have enough money for day-to-day workers to keep money for many days. A lot of them stepped and shared savings with people, and a lot of them who was in utter need of income at this point in time, so they contacted the SEWA network, suggesting who should be the first ones to learn to make cloth masks in order to start earning income. So, the first response and information came from there, and in fact, our research team did a whole report on this model—the women, the last mile people—how they have been the first responders in such a crisis because of their quick reactions.
4. In your organization, how did you adapt to the lockdown? Are there any of these adaptations that you think should be taken into a post-COVID world?
SEWA is a very interesting mix of people who were informal economy workers themselves as well as college-educated individuals, with different models for work. Firstly, everybody was suddenly stuck inside their houses, so throughout the first year, we saw ultimately that our work did not stop, because that is where the women are anyways, and rural people are already spread out and were the first responders to disasters. Meanwhile, the rest of us quickly pivoted to figuring out what digital tools can help us coordinate better. So, we organized a lot of trainings with everybody to get them on WhatsApp using voice notes, to get them Zoom and Google Meet quickly, to start using basic digital payments to be able to transfer money to each other. I think the curve on digital skills learning really escalated during this time, within SEWA too—where we all learned to work in such a way because this was a very physical, field-oriented work where everybody was used to going out for work and has never done virtual work. A very nice takeaway at the end of it is that now people have understood the balance for when you need to be actually physically present for work, which are meetings and coordination times, and when you are engaged with women in the informal economy, versus what work can be done virtually. So, I think that is a nice, healthy balance that SEWA has found, and now we work in multiple states, we are able to understand and manage that better. But I do think that the pandemic really pushed forward the need for digital inclusion for women in the informal economy because, while it was always being talked about, it became so stark to see that, in every house every woman that we work with would not be reachable by phone because the phone was with her husband or with her son, who were monopolizing it all the time. It illuminated the statistic that only 18% of women actually own a telephone, while the rest are dependent on that of their family members. Women should not have to be dependent on others to access a phone.
5. The COVID crisis has shown how much our society relies on women to keep the economy going (from taking care of people, to home education). How should we use this new awareness to build something better going forward?
I always think it’s just a ‘re-realization.’ It’s always in times of crisis that force us to think like this—it’s always been there. In that context, again, I feel that the disproportional distribution of household chores was something that we saw a lot of people during lockdown start to realize; that women have this extra burden always. I saw my father change with that; after a marriage of 30 years, it was the first time that he cleaned the house one day, and he realized what it takes. He was still not able to cook but he understands what it takes. So, I think we saw those little bits of change in behavior and mindset from that perspective. That said, we are all a little scared about the aftermath in terms of livelihoods. A lot of women are getting displaced from work and it is more difficult for them to enter back into the working economy, because men will always be the first ones who will get a job back, and women will get it second. So, what it means in terms of the aftermath of this crisis, how many years will they have before they can get a job? I don’t know. I think from our last few economic shocks that we have seen in India when there was demonetization and then there was liberalization, we have learned that it takes 2-3 years at least for the economy to re-stabilize. I feel like we are still in the middle of it, though.