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Women Handpump Technicians Face Fear and Hostility During Covid-19

Their stories spilled out one after another, almost as if a musical refrain. Villages leaders, they said, met them with hostility. Their neighbors appeared at their doors after sunset, pressing them to quit rather than risk bringing Covid-19 to their streets. Even their families sometimes grew belligerent, or fell stonily silent.

After 90 minutes of sharing their experiences, the women said they wanted to sing a parting song. Gathered in different locations and wearing homemade masks, they stood before computer cameras. In Hindi, their voices joined in an anthem of the labor and civil rights movements. “We shall overcome,” they sang. “We shall overcome one day.”

These handpump water repair technicians are among the 1,500 trained and supported by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the largest organization of informal workers in the world and Indian’s largest nonprofit. Working in two districts, they serve 601 villages.

They take enormous pride not only in the money they earn, but the value of the vital work they do, especially for their rural sisters, the mothers and grandmothers and daughters.

  • They are the ones who suffer most when there is no water, and they are the ones who stepped forward to thank us. They say, ‘We are so grateful you came in spite of Covid-19, even though you are putting your own health at risk.’
    Technician, Anand district in Gujarat state

“We Had to Keep Working”

SEWA, a Rockefeller Foundation partner, currently supports 1.7 million low-income self-employed women with the two-fold objective of providing full employment to its members and empowering them to be self-reliant. It was founded 48 years ago by the “gentle revolutionary” Dr. Ela Bhatt, a Foundation trustee for a decade. About 90 percent of working women in India are part of the informal economy. SEWA advocates with the government on behalf of their membership, tangibly support the women in multiple ways, and has brought to life the philosophy that work is a healer.

“During the Covid crisis, when the majority of informal workers’ livelihoods had come to screeching halt, our handpump technicians had work in their hand, which brought them economic security and above all a peace of mind,” says Reema Nanavaty, SEWA’s Director, an awarded humanitarian and herself a native of Gujarat. “And it was this peace of mind that gave them the courage to continue working despite the fear of virus and hostility from communities.”

In rural India, women are primarily responsible for collecting water for both their families and their livestock, which is why the technicians’ work particularly enhances women’s welfare. Across India, women spend the equivalent of 150 million working days annually collecting water, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

About 35 percent of rural households have access to drinking water at home, according to India’s census. But the primary source of water for most residents of India’s 600,000 villages is a shared handpump that extracts water from a shallow aquifer. Because mud, silt, and the salinity of groundwater degrade the moving parts over time, the handpumps require regular maintenance provided by teams authorized by the district government.

On top of that, the Institute of Social Studies Trust conducted a study from April 15 to May 3 which illustrated Covi-19’s disproportionate impact on women in India, with 66 percent reporting an increase in unpaid work at home and 36 percent an increased burden of child and elderly care work. Additionally, 83 percent of the women said they faced a severe drop in income. In August, the number of reported cases in the country exceeded 2 million, and experts said India was likely months away from hitting its peak.

“There is no question that the pandemic has unfairly and unequally affected women,” said Deepali Khanna, Managing Director of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Asia Region Office. “But then again, in the development sector we know that women are the resilient cogs in keeping the socio-economic machinery running. When we empower women leaders in the field like the SEWA sisters, societies prosper, and benefits reach all. That is why we continue to partner and invest in organizations like SEWA, especially in times of adversity like Covid-19, because enduring impact at scale can only be actualized when women are at the front and center of it.”

Greeted with No

SEWA Senior Coordinator Bharti Bhavsar said that from their very first meeting after the lockdowns began March 24 in India,

Naimisha Joshi, the coordinator for the Aravalli District, acknowledged that she initially wasn’t sure if her teams should keep working in the face of Covid-19. If they kept working, the technicians would need to travel together in vehicles, visit a variety of villages, and interact with villagers in each location. “What if something happens, someone gets sick?” Naimisha asked herself.

“But after three days of thinking, I decided we had to work. Water is one of the essential services. And the women themselves did not hesitate. That gave me confidence.”

In addition to training on basic practices of social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitation, the women also received communications guidance about how to listen and reassure village leaders and others that they could safely repair handpumps. Right away, they needed those skills.

At the outskirts of one village, for instance, Tarulata said the local leadership greeted them with one word: no.

“One man said, ‘I don’t want you to come to the village. It’s okay if the handpump doesn’t work,’” she remembers. “We explained and explained, but he refused. So we left. We returned a week later and by then he realized all the village was suffering without water.”

He let the technicians enter but warned them to make sure residents didn’t gather. “We said, ‘Why would we assemble people? We are only here to do our work,’” Tarulata said.

“Who Will Take Responsibility?”

In another village, technicians needed help lifting a heavy pipe out of the ground but the men refused due to fear of Covid-19, recalled Chandrika from Aravalli District, which neighbors Anand District. “They sat and watched,” said Chandrika, who has been working as a handpump repair technician for the last ten years.

These responses are part of why repairs are taking about twice as long. Normally, Chandrika said, she and her team can repair four handpumps a day. Now it is two. But she is grateful for the work. Technicians are paid 300 rupees (about $4 USD) a day plus travel expenses. In her seven-member family, she is the only one still working. “It is the first time in our lives where we have experienced this,” she said.

Chandrika had to contend with pressure from neighbors who wanted her to give up the work. “Men from the neighborhood came to our house and started questioning my husband and me,” she recalled. “They said, ‘If you bring infection and our families get sick, who will take responsibility?’ I told them I have been trained and know the precautionary measures. I showed them the gloves, the hand sanitizer.”

“Their Gratitude Overrides My Fear”

Budhiben, a member of SEWA for 25 years and among the first batch of technicians trained just over 20 years ago, reported similar responses not only from both neighbors in Aravalli District, but from her family.

“You will bring the infection back to us and we will all suffer,” she recalled neighbors telling her, adding: “My two sons are grown now and they also objected. I told them this is the work that kept them fed growing up.” Besides, she is quick to remind them, none of the women technicians have gotten infected with Covid-19 so far.

“I was afraid when I started,” said Sushilaben, who works in the Aravalli District. “I am a widow with two young children and I also take care of my 70-year-old mother-in-law. I didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, we would all have starved without food. On the other, if I got Covid-19 and died, who would look after my children?”

Sushilaben said she talked it over with her SEWA sisters and they pointed to two factors that made her decide to go ahead. First, she wanted to live a life with dignity, without begging. Secondly, she knew the suffering of villagers who have no access to water. “I got the safety training and put on my mask and gloves, and I went to work,” she said. “And when I see the gratitude in the eyes of the villagers, I feel satisfied. That overrides my fear.”


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