India’s one million strong fighting force of women

In the early days, “We had no masks so I wrapped my face with my chunni,” she said.

A single mother of two teenagers, she had to deal with the anger of her own extended family: “You will bring the disease home and kill us all,” they told her. There were nights when she would go to bed too tired to eat.

Then, the community got angry and turned on her. They had exhausted rations. They were scared of being tested and sent off to quarantine centres. In May, in Butana village, when an Asha stuck a quarantine sticker outside the home of someone who had tested positive, the family attacked her with a steel pipe. “There is not a single district in Haryana where we haven’t been attacked,” Sunita said.  

“We are not robots. You can’t just keep pressing our buttons and expect us to perform,” she said.

On August 7, six lakh Ashas across India went on a two-day strike along with another 10 lakh Anganwadi and midday meal workers. Their demands: better pay, health insurance and protective gear.

The all-women health force is aggrieved about being invisiblised during the coronavirus pandemic, Bhanupriya Rao, founder of Behenbox that recently conducted a 16-state survey of Ashas along with website Article14, told me. “[They are not considered a valuable part of the healthcare system]. They want rights but they also want respect.”

India has one million Ashas, 1.3 million Anganwadi workers and another 1.2 million Anganwadi helpers. A majority of this all-women force entrusted with improving maternal and child health come from impoverished backgrounds, Dalit, Adivasi, single mothers.

As ‘volunteers’, they receive an ‘honorarium’ that ranges from Rs 2,000 to Rs 4,000. They also receive an ‘incentive’ for various tasks: one rupee for every sachet of ORS distributed, for instance. But the pandemic has led to many health programmes being suspended. Women prefer to give birth at homes. And the incentives have dried up. I

n April the government announced a one-time Rs 1,000 payment for Covid-related work. “This doesn’t even cover our costs,” scoffed Sunita.

When we think of frontline warriors, we think of doctors and nurses. There are no candles for India’s community health workers, the ones on the ground with roots in their community, monitoring, checking, fighting a global enemy at personal risk with little protection, less money and zero acknowledgment.

And yet, they play a pivotal role especially now as the pandemic spirals out of urban centres. If we are to even begin to win this battle, we need to strengthen this force not steam-roller it.

A shorter version of this article was first published in the Hindustan Times on August 21