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December 15, 2020

COVID–19, Women and Water in Urban India

Oleg image Covid and water

(Image by Oleg Malyshev, 2016)

Written by Mansha Marwah

The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30 January 2020 and a lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020. On 3 April 2020, the Central Government produced an advisory for the state governments: “Advisory for ensuring safe drinking water during lockdown and effective management of pandemic caused by Corona Virus”. This statement, however, does not reflect reality. India has the largest number of people in the world living with water scarcity- approximately one billion people. UNICEF and WHO data from 2017 illustrate that only 44 percent of India’s population has access to piped water. Additionally, those living in poverty, in informal settlements and rural populations, lack access to any clean water, which is essential for frequent hand washing to protect from, and prevent the spread of, COVID-19. For the majority in India, water of adequate quality and quantity is unavailable, intermittently available and/or inaccessible, rendering people in these situations particularly susceptible to infection.

Many households in India do not have access to water supply within their homes and often depend on shared sources of water. These are usually households in urban informal, low income and insecure housing areas. Residents here tend to deal with exacerbated stressors due to government neglect and a lack of proper infrastructure for basic amenities. An analysis of five of India’s most populous states, which accounted for 46% of all COVID-19 cases, as of June 10, found that in informal areas and poorer neighbourhoods, a lack of exclusive access to drinking water and distance to the source of water meant that proper hygiene and handwashinghabits were a challenge for households. These areas are usually densely populated so social distancing is hard, especially if residents share a water source. Hence, preventing theinfection also becomes a challenge. Due to the infrequent and intermittent supply of water, the household priority is often cooking food and drinking water, often at the expense of hand washing and other essential hygiene behaviours.

The experiences and effects of the pandemic affect women more harshly. Even though studies find that men are more vulnerable to losing their lives to the virus, women are disproportionately affected by its political, economic and social consequences. Instances of domestic violence across the globe are increasing, as has historically been the case in contexts of uncertainty.These women are moreover forced to continue with their everyday household labour and responsibilities while simultaneously dealing with this violence. The pandemic has highlighted the need for and value of this unpaid labour, termed by feminists as “social reproduction”.

Women bear the brunt of water scarcity simply because they are responsible for finding water for their family’s everyday needs. They are often the ones that have to stand in long lines to wait for water and walk long distances to collect it.Before the pandemic, a woman in Chennai described how her wait for water began at 4am in the dark, and how she spent her mornings looking for water and then rationing it for washing, bathing and cooking. A report from 2019 stated that Indian women on average spent 16 hours a day doing this kind of unpaid care work.

The need for this reproductive labour has increased during this pandemic especially due to the heightened demand for water in the household. “It’s been three days since the water tanker came to our area and, without, you can see that this place is a mess,” Kumudhashri R, a woman in Chennai was reported as saying. Since the lockdown was imposed, she has been locked at home with her family and complains, “Since everybody is at home now the demand for water is more, but what we are getting isn’t sufficient at all”. None of the 500 families on her street have access to piped water supply. The residents are completely dependent on the water tanker that comes to their area twice a week and they are not allowed to fill more than three pots per family. The women have been walking 3-5 kilometers daily to fetch more water. Less water makes cooking, cleaning and managing household health more difficult, responsibilities largely assigned to women. Much of the burden to reduce water use therefore falls on women, who have to carry out the same duties with fewer resources.

Water, along with other resources is unequally distributed in a household due to women’s lower status within family and society, and the perception of their labour being of less worth. This, along with the increased demand for water in the household might mean that many women are unable to meet everyday sanitation needs especially those related to menstrual hygiene. Even before the pandemic, women and girls in many parts of India struggled with menstrual hygiene, owing to a lack of clean water, a lack of access to safe menstrual hygiene products and taboos around menstruation. COVID-19 has intensified these struggles, illustrating another example of how it is disproportionately affecting women in India.

Moreover, the nationwide lockdown that restricts mobility would have had an adverse impact on unpaid care work carried out by women across the country as many would have been unable to move freely outside of their homes to, for instance, collect water. These women would have then been forced to break rules of social distancing in order to fulfill daily survival needs for their families, risking not only contracting the virus and their health but also, in some cases, state violence.

Women, in the context of this pandemic, are experiencing amplified responsibilities with regards to unpaid labour at home. These tasks such as fetching water or cooking are essential for the smooth functioning of a household. This dependence on women’s altruism shifts the responsibility of survival and maintaining the status quo during disasters and pandemics onto women, which often affects women negatively causing what has been termed as “depletion” of their health and general wellbeing. Holding women responsible for this survival obscures the role of the state in addressing issues and inequalities that lead to these issues in the first place.

The consequences of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting women in urban informal settlements in India. Due to the sexual division of labour, it is women who are responsible for carrying out daily household tasks that are essential for the reproduction of everyday life. These responsibilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting in potential mental and physical harm to women’s health and overall wellbeing. Care burdens must be shared both by men and women, not just in disasters and pandemics but in everyday life. This will need gender responsive policies targeting social and cultural change that help families adopt and adapt to a more equitable way of living. Moreover, strategies to mitigate effects of COVID-19 must take into account an analysis of gendered experiences.

With regards to water challenges, the government must immediately enact and implement enforceable policies and strategies on the provision of emergency water in all water-scarce areas for all people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to water should be available regardless of tenure or settlement status. In the long term, COVID-19 should act as a lesson and the government should strengthen infrastructure facilities to be able to provide access to clean, safe water for all. This will require sustained political commitment, increased budget allocations for health, and improved physical infrastructure.

July 13, 2020

COVID–19 and the Crisis of Social Reproduction in the Middle East and North Africa

COVID-19 and the Crisis of Social Reproduction in the Middle East and North Africa: Implications for Gender Relations and Women’s Activism

fish tonight image_nicola_blog

'Fish for Supper' by Laila Elsadda

Nicola Pratt, University of Warwick

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have not (yet) been a major hotspot in the global COVID-19 health pandemic. Nonetheless, the region’s economies, already facing a number of challenges, have been negatively impacted by measures taken to contain the spread of the virus, compounded by the wider global economic downturn. Without proper social safety nets, let alone furlough schemes, millions of families in the Middle East and North Africa are facing a loss of livelihoods as a result of lockdown measures. Before the pandemic, 60 per cent of Egypt’s population was either poor or vulnerable. A recent study found that around half of Egyptians have borrowed money and the incomes of 73 percent of Egyptians have reduced since the pandemic. Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, Lebanon was facing an economic crisis. Rising prices, as a result of a collapse in the currency, alongside increasing unemployment, due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, have made even basic food items such as bread unaffordable to many Lebanese. Anti-government protests have continued despite the lockdown as people fear that the economic crisis could be even more lethal than coronavirus. In Jordan, strict lockdown measures have disrupted aid to the 750,000 refugees living there as well as threatened the livelihoods of large sections of the Jordanian population. The UN agency responsible for the Arab region (ESCWA - the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia) estimates that there could be more than 1.7 million job losses as a result of the pandemic, with the services sector, the region’s main employment provider, particularly hard hit. Meanwhile, the risks of the COVID-19 crisis are amplified in Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where conflict and siege have debilitated the economy and infrastructure.

Whilst the effects of COVID-19 and related measures are most detrimental to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population, including refugees and displaced persons, it is also important to understand the different consequences of the crisis for men and women and how this may have longer term impacts on gender relations. As in other parts of the world, COVID-19 is revealing and exacerbating gender inequalities in society. Given that women’s participation in the formal economy in the region is one of the lowest in the world, job losses caused by economic downturn will be experienced mostly by men. However, the contracting labour market will further aggravate female unemployment, which was 19 per cent in 2019, compared to 8 per cent for men. In Iraq, under the sanctions regime (1991-2003), we saw how women’s declining participation in the workforce led to increasingly conservative gender norms (Al-Jawaheri 2008), which, in turn, created longer-term negative social attitudes towards women’s participation in public life. Meanwhile, female headed households, whose number reaches 14 per cent of all families in Egypt, are particularly exposed to economic shocks due to the bias in Arab government policies that assume a male head of household. This not only impacts on the well-being of women but of their families too. In addition, the lockdown has made women, as well as LGBTQ+ individuals, even more vulnerable to violence in the home. One anti-violence NGO, ABAAD, in Lebanon, reports that the number of calls to its helpline in 2020 have more than doubled compared to the first quarter of 2019.

A more hidden impact of the COVID-19 crisis concerns the increased care burdens on women, who are expected, with often no support, to fill in the gaps left by school closures, overwhelmed health systems and lack of state support for combating the virus and its effects. Feminists have termed this unpaid labour conducted within the home and community as “social reproduction” (amongst others, Bakker 2007) and highlighted how women everywhere continue to be disproportionately responsible for it. As in other parts of the world, millions of women find themselves having to home school their children, look after sick relatives, deal with the increased difficulties of shopping for food and other household necessities, even whilst continuing to engage in paid work from home. Already before the pandemic, women in the Arab world were doing 4.7 times more unpaid work than men, the highest rate among all regions globally. Poor women and female refugees shoulder the greatest burdens as they conduct social reproductive work in already difficult conditions (insufficient public services and infrastructure and a lack of adequate housing and sanitation). Whereas middle class women often outsource their reproductive work to low-paid working-class or migrant female workers, the economic effects of the lockdown have made this more difficult, and there are even cases of Ethiopian maids being dumped in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Lebanon because their employers can no longer afford to pay them. Women’s leadership in civil society organizations has also been crucial in responding to the pandemic in an absence of weak state institutions. Alongside this, women, who dominate low paid nursing and auxiliary work in hospitals, are also more likely to be caring for COVID-19 patients and, therefore, are more exposed to potential infection.

Whilst society, in general, often commends women for their sacrifices on behalf of their families, communities and nations, the effects of women’s increased workload on their health and well-being is largely unrecognized. Women are expected to be infinitely resilient and elastic in accommodating themselves to the repercussions of the crisis. Yet, as Shirin Rai et al have argued, without adequate support and replenishment, reproductive work can lead to “depletion”, physically, mentally and emotionally (2014). This is not only detrimental to individual women but also to their families and wider communities. Over the past decade, women have played a key role in demanding change, not only concerning women’s rights but also social justice, sectarianism and corruption, most recently in protests in Lebanon and Iraq. There is a danger that social reproductive burdens as well as depletion through social reproduction may undermine women’s continued involvement in these struggles and their public participation more broadly.

Women activists in the MENA have been outspoken in demanding gender equality in most areas of life, insisting on women’s participation in political transitions, ensuring that women’s rights are at the heart of any agenda for change, and pressuring governments to tackle gender-based violence. However, until now, they have been less vocal in challenging disparities in the gendered division of social reproductive labour, which are underpinned by personal status laws, which, in turn, are governed by religious law. This can be understood in light of the ways in which differential gender roles and inequality in the private sphere have been held up as a marker of national identity and culture, and, in the case of Lebanon, as the lynchpin of the sectarian political system. Political and religious leaders have portrayed any efforts to reform the ‘traditional’ family set-up as ‘Western’ interference in domestic affairs and as a threat to the fabric of society and even the stability of the nation (Pratt 2020). However, the pandemic is bringing into question the sustainability of social reproduction based on the current gendered division of labour and creating an impetus for women, based on their lived experiences, to challenge dominant gender relations in their everyday lives, whether overtly or covertly. This creates a vital moment to open a public conversation about gender roles and relations within the family.

It is not merely a question of persuading men to do more housework but also of ensuring that government policies support a redistribution of social reproductive burdens. Support for social reproduction is crucial to the economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and is essential to address gender inequality within employment and the economy and to combat gender-based violence. As governments in the MENA region consider ways to address the financial consequences of the pandemic and, towards that end, enter into negotiations with the IMF and World Bank to borrow money, governments need to listen to the voices of women and consider the gendered impacts of any proposed economic measures. Moreover, in a departure from the neoliberal prescriptions of the past decades, there needs to be increased public funding for health, education, housing and care provision to support social reproduction. Meanwhile, taking seriously the socio-economic and health costs of depletion through social reproduction is essential for ensuring women’s continued participation in the ongoing struggles for socio-political transformation in the Middle East and North Africa.


Al-Jawaheri, Y. H. (2008) Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of Economic Sanctions, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Bakker, I.(2007)Social Reproduction and the Constitution of a Gendered Political Economy, New Political Economy,12 (4):541-556.

Pratt, N. (2020) Embodying Geopolitics: Generations of Women’s Activism in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rai, S., Hoskins, C., & Thomas, D. (2014) Depletion: The Cost of Social Reproduction, International Feminist Journal of Politics 16 (1): 86-105.

May 15, 2020

A Regenerative State or Business as Usual?

women illustration

By Shirin M Rai (WICID) and Jacqui True (GPS, Monash)

A key aspect of social relations that has been brought into sharp relief during the international COVID-19 crisis, is the labour of women in care work – paid and unpaid. Unpaid care work in households has increased during the pandemic shutdown, with home schooling of children, greater care needs of older persons, and overwhelmed health services. Those on the frontlines of the pandemic are women working in the formal care economy: nurses, nurse aides, teachers, child care workers, aged-care workers, and cleaners. Women make up 67% of the global health workforce and over 80% in some regions. Their situation as "essential workers" involves a gender-specific struggle for recognition of the value of paid and unpaid care labour, and for social redistribution of resources to reflect that equality. A key challenge for governments and international organisations is whether and how they will respond to reliance on this labour to develop policies that recognise, support and regenerate care economies?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, women’s participation in all spheres of life is essential to sustainable development, durable peace and to the realization of human rights. And yet, we seem to be stuck between the competitive individualism of the market and the failure of state socialism and the social democratic welfare state. Women’s labour continues to be overlooked, and unaccounted for, even as the pandemic increases their burdens of social reproduction[1].

Violence against women has risen sharply, and while there has been a celebration of nurses and care workers, there is little evidence that care work is being better paid and supported. To the contrary, more than one in five healthcare workers in the UK are likely to leave their role as a result of COVID-19. Violence and discrimination against healthcare workers has also been cited in many countries from Mexico to Philippines and Australia. Unpaid care economies continue to be relied on to cushion ‘crisis shocks’, without much thinking about whether additional burdens of care can lead to increased levels of human depletion in such situations. This is an important gap to recognise, as well as a significant challenge, because those who are invisible as producers and workers will be invisible in distribution, both in terms of the allocation of resources and the redistributive policies and services needed to address the crisis, by both the state and non-state actors.

The household is a key unit in mobilising material, ideological and human resources in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the one constant: from providing food for families, supplying older people and friends with food and medicines, engaging in paid and unpaid care work including health care and contributing to community services, neighbourhood groups, charities. It is then unsurprising that it is under pressure during this pandemic and its consequent lockdown. Gendered expectations of altruism and self-sacrifice are also prominent in times of crisis. Indeed, pro-natalism in the aftermath of crises – building back better with babies – has been a historical pattern.

Crises are often mobilised by the state to shut down democratic critique in the name of (‘the tyranny of’) urgency. The ICNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, focused on emergency laws. For example, there is evidence that the COVID-19 crisis has negatively affected sexual and reproductive rights: Marie Stopes International has predicted that as many as 9.5 million women are at risk of losing access to family planning services as a direct result of the pandemic. In India, to attract investment, many states are giving businesses regulatory holidays, including over layoffs, compensation and decent conditions of work (Sustainable Development Goal 8) including provision of créches and are dismantling further trade union rights of collective bargaining. This needs to be guarded against.

While assumptions are being made about the increasing role of the state in the wake of the crisis, missing from the current discussion of global and economic recovery is the concept of a “regenerative state” that would address gender disparities as it develops policies to recover economies and social life. We would suggest that such an approach is particularly important as we come out of the strict lockdowns in many countries, and as policy options are considered to get the economies going. This is a critical juncture where we could either see an intensification of extremist, xenophobic and populist politics locally and globally or a move towards a more solidaristic, political approach, where states, civil society organisations, and multilateralism win out. We cannot take either as inevitable.

Regeneration is possible in the moment of openness we now encounter as a result of COVID-19’s rupture in business as usual. There is the potential for policy and governance to be re-visioned but this moment of openness will be short-lived and we need to mobilise if we are to see a change in direction in any jurisdiction. We note that such regeneration must include three core elements:

1) rebuilding of social infrastructure – health, education and social care - by recognising the value of the paid and unpaid care economy;

2) a democratic politics of dialogic, deliberative, and participative conversation that attends to issues such as the division of care labour and shadow pandemic of domestic violence and;

3) accountability mechanisms for economic and social rebuilding focused on a bottom-up approach to regeneration with civil society groups, social movement actors, and epistemic communities.

Above all, right now as urgent and new policy responses to COVID-19 are rolling out we need a care audit of every policy and investment to ensure an inclusive and sustainable social and economic recovery and global stability for future generations. The window of opportunity and time to act to build back better is now.

[1] We use this term to include the following: 1) biological reproduction (including reproducing labour) and with it the provision of the sexual, emotional and affective services that are required to maintain family and intimate relationships; (2) unpaid production in the home of both goods and services, incorporating different forms of care, as well as social provisioning and voluntary work directed at meeting needs in and of the community; (3) reproduction of culture and ideology which stabilizes (and sometimes challenges) dominant social relations (Hoskyns and Rai 2007: 300).


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