How Population Foundation of India is spotlighting women in the fight against COVID-19

After 18 months of strategising communications and field work to keep COVID-19 in check, Population Foundation of India’s anthem celebrates the contribution and sacrifices of Indian women during the pandemic.
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Himmat Hai Toh Jeet Hai anthem

The COVID-19 pandemic unfolded stark gender inequalities, and women around the world felt the brunt of it equally. From serving at the frontlines to tending to household chores whilst still holding onto their professional lives, women have had more than their share of workload confronting them 24/7 ever since the pandemic began. 

In fact, a majority of Indian women put themselves at risk to ensure the wellbeing of their family members, says Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Population Foundation of India (PFI).

Poonam, who has been a strong advocate for women’s health, reproductive and sexual rights, and rural livelihoods for more than four decades, says the bias is also reflected in the gender gap in the rate of COVID-19 vaccination.

Across rural and urban India, many women faced sexual harassment, as they had no choice but be locked up with their perpetrators during the lockdown phases over the last one and half years.

The pandemic reversing years of developments in gender equality prompted the organisation to launch Himmat Hai Toh Jeet Hai, a campaign to empower and inspire women and young girls to take control, and hold the decision-making power around their bodies and health, in September 2020.

Weathering COVID-19 

When COVID-19 cases were increasing around the world, Poonam says it felt imminent that India would soon be facing the pandemic. The organisation immediately began conducting telephonic rapid assessment surveys with adolescents and youth in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan to understand the level of knowledge, attitude, and practices regarding COVID-19.

Approached by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, it then developed a set of guidance notes on COVID-19 response and mitigation for village health, sanitation and nutrition committees, mahila arogya samitis, rogi kalyan samitis and resident welfare associations. The PFI oriented state and district nodal officers to ensure that the messages get communicated at a grass root level.

Working with Uttarakhand National Health Mission, it prepared guidelines for local taxi drivers, hotels, restaurants, and security staff on the necessary precautions.

Poonam says the guidelines focus heavily on behavioural change for people from all walks of life because everyone, regardless of their educational and professional background, were new to the pandemic. 

Over the last 18 months, these guidelines have been featured as a response to the pandemic challenges on MyGov, the government of India’s citizen engagement platform, and as part of the Stigma and Discrimination campaign in English, Hindi and eight regional languages. 

The organisation reached 150 districts across 25 states and union territories and over 500 civil society organisations in their mission. 

Besides several studies and awareness around COVID-19 preparedness and family planning, especially in rural India, the PFI disbursed small grants to organisations in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, and Jharkhand that are actively tending to the needs of poor and marginalised communities.

However, Poonam says having her colleagues adapt to a new and unfamiliar system of working from home was an initial challenge, and so they had to rethink strategies.

Recognising women fighting the pandemic

The Himmat Hai Toh Jeet Hai campaign in its second phase launched an anthem by the same name, presenting homemakers, teachers, medical professionals to  “celebrate the courage and fortitude of women.” On Facebook, the video has garnered over 6 million views.

In an on-going emphasis on COVID-appropriate behaviour, the song also urges people to get vaccinated and continue to wear masks and maintain physical distance. 

According to film and theatre director Feroz Abbas Khan, who helmed the campaign to execution, the anthem hopes to ensure an optimistic attitude in people while reinforcing a sense of social responsibility.

“Things are now opening again and hopefully, schools will re-open too, so young people can have a place to learn, meet friends, and grow. We must ensure the community are protected via vaccinations and the continued use of masks, hand-washing and physical distancing,” he adds.

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Edited by Anju Narayanan

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