Insights from the YUVA–IIHS study based in Mumbai and YUVA’s study on how the pandemic affected the urban poor across 10 cities of the MMR
Women are often victims of a gendered patriarchal society. The manifestation of this is even more apparent in food patterns within a domestic setting. Due to expectations held on upholding domestic responsibilities, women usually do not find themselves in the labour force, and thus are limited from being able to venture out or fully support themselves if ever put in such a position (known as the ‘double burden’). They find themselves disadvantaged and lacking in the food support and food-related decisions that they make as well. The prevailing COVID-19 pandemic increased existing vulnerabilities. Transgender people, for instance, many of whom depend on charity, had no means to sustain themselves.
A YUVA–IIHS study, Lived Experiences in the City’s Foodscape: Challenges and Practices of the Urban Poor, investigates how food instability has been heightened due to women taking on the ‘double-burden’ role. The findings suggest that the primary caregiver is typically responsible for food availability in a household. This includes buying food and, in the case of women who find themselves in this role, often cooking for all members within a household. These rigid gender roles and expectations for women have particularly impacted mothers and daughter-in-laws who are forced to abide by these societal conformities. As an interviewed respondent of the study states:
‘All the work in the house, my daughter-in-law does, no one else. In our house, basically all the housework like cooking, sweeping, utensils she’ll do. She washes her husband’s and child’s clothes’, says Shazia, a resident of the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) RNA colony in Vashi Naka, Mumbai
The responsibility of preparing food for the family is not synchronous to deciding what type of food is prepared. The YUVA study finds that primary caregivers are typically not decision-makers when it comes to what type of food will be on the table. Their obligations usually lie in prioritising their families needs and do not bring forth their own food choices and/or preferences.
‘I have to ask everyone what they want to have and then cook’, says Renu, a resident of the informal settlement of Tata Nagar, Belapur, Navi Mumbai.
Managing this ‘double burden’ phenomenon often requires and ends up utilising support from others who are also predominantly women from within their families. Societal norms have forced women to act not only as primary food providers, but also take upon other responsibilities that qualify as ‘care work’.
‘I live here because I don’t have another option. I get work here that pays me better. I am constantly occupied in the city. After working in the houses I also have to take care of my own household. I rest for an hour or so. Then I have to start cooking lunch and dinner and then feed my kids’, says Aradhana, a domestic cook, who lives in Tata Nagar, Navi Mumbai
According to YUVA’s report, Living with Multiple Vulnerabilities: Impact of COVID-19 on the Urban Poor in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, disastrous situations like the pandemic limited ‘…women’s ability to easily and quickly venture out in search of better resources and safer spaces, and protect their self-interests first’.
The lockdown caused public spaces to become vacant and dangerous for both women and transgender persons, thus causing them to use them less frequently as they would rather prefer to stay within the security of their homes. However, at home women continue to struggle in many ways, and the YUVA report details how majority urban poor households were unable to access the country’s public distribution system as they do not possess a ration card in the city address, or there are discrepancies in their documentation which restricts access.
‘Among 14,133 households, only 45.49 per cent had ration cards registered within the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR)’. Given people’s lack of access, they experienced frequent hunger through the lockdown. Due to the sudden way in which it was imposed, people’s ability to earn their daily/weekly wage was stopped and with no savings to fall back on, vulnerabilities intensified. ‘Among 21,504 households, the head of the household in 56.91 per cent of the households earned daily wages, 39.05 per cent received a monthly salary, and 4.60 per cent earned a weekly income.’ When interviewed, some women expressed their need for food, cooking fuel, and financial support to recover from the tough times.
The struggles of transgender people also amplified since the pandemic spread in India. They continued to face discrimination even at this time.
‘They said, “no, we will not be giving ration to you”. I only want to say that if you are noting the names of everyone then note our names also’, said Mahek from Mumbai’s Western Suburbs, recounting how only her house was excluded from a ration distribution drive in their lane.
Their struggles for medicine, food, access to electricity, and other basic necessities knew no end.
‘Once the rains begin, our homes will be destroyed. The water comes into our homes, we have to rebuild. Who knows, if this goes on for 4–5 more months, whether we will live or die?’, said a respondent.
‘If we go anywhere to beg, the other person says that “the lockdown is going on, I don’t have money or ration in my house. What can I give you?’, said Kiran from Nalasopara in Vasai–Virar, who reported feeling vulnerable without enough money.
Transgender people were also excluded from the financial security scheme Jan Dhan (which credited INR 500 to women’s Jan Dhan accounts in three instalments) despite nearly all of them being dependent on charity via begging. Additionally, many transgender people reported that they did not even have ration cards and were therefore unable to access the Public Distribution System (PDS).
Read more about gendered challenges by referring to the two studies:
Gulshan Ashaque, Columbia University. Gulshan interned with YUVA in 2021.