Even in the Covid-19 migrant narrative Women don’t count
The image of the scattered rotis on the railway track near Aurangabad, Maharashtra will come back to haunt us for a long time, even after this Covid-19 crisis ends. In the early hours of May 8, a goods train mowed down sixteen migrant workers, who were walking from Jalna to Bhusaval, a distance of 157 km, to catch a train to their home state of Madhya Pradesh. They were resting on the train tracks and fell into a deep sleep, one from which they never woke up.
Most of them were young men. In fact, the face of the migrant worker that we have seen on TV screens and in photographs, as thousands of them make their weary way home, is that of a man. Occasionally, you see women and children when entire families leave the city.
But are we missing something here?
In fact, many women are also migrant workers. The poorer amongst them work in brick kilns, as farm labour or on construction sites. The women, who have a basic education, work in the service industry in cities, as sales girls, as beauticians or as waitresses. There also many young women who are employed in several small-scale industries such as the garment sector, where they live in hostels close to their place of work.
We must also not forget Northeast India, from where thousands of young men, and women, travel a long way to work in our bigger cities. While the workers on daily wages, such as those we see desperately finding a way to return, are the more visible in the current exodus of migrant workers, these young people from the Northeast are equally stressed. They also have no income, no money to pay their rent, and no transport to return home.
Whether women move to the cities accompanying their men, or they move on their own, they face the same struggles. They have to figure out how to survive, often in a hostile environment if they happen to be a racial or religious minority. Young women, in particular, living away from their homes, are vulnerable to sexual violence, as much or even more than what any Indian woman faces if she ventures out into the public space alone.
During these times of Covid-19, the young women from the Northeast, who in any case are harassed because they look different, have been especially targetted. There have been several deplorable incidents of women being spat upon, even assaulted, and called ‘Corona’ because of their looks. This represents the worst of racial and gender prejudice.
Several economists have pointed out that we are wrong to presume migration is only from villages to big cities. People also move from smaller villages to the bigger ones, from villages to small towns, and also from the smaller towns to the big cities.
The work of the women who migrate, or the ones who stay back, is in many ways the same. If they move with their husbands, they still have to ensure that there is fuel and water in the temporary shelters where the poorer migrant workers live. Back in their villages, they are burdened with the same tasks as they wait each month for the remittance to arrive. In either case, even if they find work and add to the family income, it is barely enough for survival. At a time like this, when there is no income, how will these people survive, irrespective of whether they stay back in the city, or eventually make it back to their homes?
This is a story that has yet to unfold, one that will have long-term consequences on the health of the more vulnerable among them, namely the women and the children.
(The translated version of the English original was published in the opinion page of Mathrubhumi daily of May 10, 2020)