- May 7, 2020

This is one story as part of the Voices of People with Disabilities during COVID19 Outbreak series

Names have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned in the story.

IDA interviewed three women who all live in different parts of Rajasthan, a state in northern India. It is the largest Indian state by area and the seventh largest by population. They are all actively involved in local DPOs and are advocates for the rights of women with disabilities.

Chandni is a  woman with physical disability, (impairment in one of her legs), in her 30s. She lives in a conservative environment where women are not allowed to leave the house alone and their hair must be covered. She is currently unable to leave the house as only male members can do so to fetch food and basic products. Chandni is the president of a local organisation of persons with disabilities (DPOs): “work has given me a new meaning in life. It makes me feel empowered, happy and confident, working is my identity”. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, she is unable to continue working.

She used to also support a Child Helpline, an emergency phone service for children in need of aid and assistance, especially those who run away from their homes or are homeless. This NGO is an intermediary between the child and the government. “Cases of children that experience domestic violence has increased and I’m unable to do help. I feel useless”, says Chandni.

Zainab is a Muslim woman in her early 40s who has a physical disability and faces restrictions in using her hands. She is married and has children.

Zainab and her family have a grocery store in their home. She is used to handling it but due to COVID-19, she is only allowed to have it open from 7am to 11am, meaning income has fallen. “Customers are being very rude as the price of things have increased and they accuse me of taking advantage of the situation”, she says.

Another main issue Zainab’s family is facing is to procure items for the grocery shop they own. Police presence is very high and Zainab even struggles to go to the market to buy things for her shop. Passes are hard to get for shopkeepers, and she has not been able to get one. 

Living in the intersection of womanhood, disability and financial barriers

Chandni’s arranged marriage had been planned for many months. Her wedding was scheduled for the end April, but has been postponed due to COVID-19. This has serious financial implications for her family. As is commonly found in households with an unstable financial situation fathers often take loan for weddings from local money lenders, and renovated the house ahead of ceremony. “We do not have much money to spend and my family is very worried”, she says. It is common to borrow money from local money lenders instead of the bank, but this means that interest rates are being increased day by day. Chandni’s family are afraid of being chased after for the money and be threatened by the lender. Chandni explains that in her town, due to stigma and false attitudes “it is not easy for women with disability to get married, and I’m already 30 years-old”. Women are often expected to get married since they are 18-years-old. This has caused pressure on Chandni and the financial issues have created tensions within the family.

Barriers to sexual and reproductive health and rights are also aggravated during the pandemic in Rajasthan. Both Chandni and Zeinab told us about difficulties they face accessing feminine hygienic items including sanitary pads: Chandni used to buy sanitary napkins for herself, however, she now has to ask a family member to get it for her: “I’m afraid to ask for it and I know they’re hard to find now-a-days”.

Zeinab told us that in many families, men are those who usually leave the house so “women are shy to ask them to get sanitary pads”. 

Barriers in accessing information

Chandni explains that information is not accessible for persons with disabilities in her area. “Blind persons are obliged to rely on the radio, as digital information is not always accessible”, she says. An additional issue is that a big part of the population is illiterate, meaning many cannot read information on COVID-19. She says that “lack of information hits persons with hearing impairments the hardest, as they rarely have access to sign language interpretation or captioning”.

As president of the DPO, she takes responsibility in solving queries of persons with disabilities, and disseminating information. Her main sources are TV and information shared by NGOs, state level and district level DPOs. Special focus is put on persons with disabilities residing in rural areas as they rarely own a TV, radio or have internet. Chandni explains that there are “help volunteers” that work with the government to provide information and carry out a survey to collect data on who is getting food and who isn’t, especially those who are unreachable through the phone.

On the other hand, Zainab relies on the newspaper and WhatsApp groups to obtain information but she confirms that “none of this information is accessible, those who are blind might be able to access it in some way or another but what happens with those who don’t have phone, deaf people or those who can’t read?”. Zaynab asks. She says that DPOs don’t have resources to make information accessible so the best they can do is coordinate with local authorities on how to disseminate information.

Food and product shortages

Chandni informs that the advocacy efforts are focused on providing people in the villages and remote areas with food. The government “ration food system” provides persons living under the poverty line with 3 raw ingredients (such as rice). However, many people have not been included, specially persons with disabilities.

Moreover, Zainab, as a Muslim woman explains that “it is a sad time for Ramzan (also known as Ramadan) because due to the lockdown, we cannot get the food we need, specially non-vegetarian food because it’s both expensive and hard to get.” Fasting is very important during this time, as drinking and eating is only allowed twice per day from 7pm to 4am. In 4 days, they have only been able to eat meat once.

DPOs such as the one she collaborates with are helping with delivering “ration food kits” to persons with disabilities who are unable to obtain it for themselves, many of which have high support needs and are below the poverty line.

Lack of medical assistance and transport

Chandni explains that the population in the area has only recently started trusting western medicine. However, “now there is a widespread lack of confidence of patients towards doctors as many are receiving medicine and medical instructions without being touched. Diagnosis is not properly given”. Doctors are maintaining social distancing with patients meaning for example that pregnant women are struggling to get regularly checked up. For instance, Chandni tells the story of a the pregnant wife of a man with a psychosocial disability (member of the DPO) who needed a sonography done but the government health clinics in the villages do not have such machine and she would have to go to the nearest town or city to get it done. As public transport is currently unavailable, she cannot have access to this type of medical attention. Ambulance service is free in India, but “not everybody has access to this information, meaning they often stay at home and do not receive medical assistance”, says Chandni. 

Increased abuse and Violence

“Whatever freedom we had before, this is completely gone due to COVID-19”, says Zainab referring to women having to stay at home. She says that most of her time is dedicate to the male members of the house and she barely has time for herself. Household chores have increased, keeping her very busy. She has no help from other family members: “even my daughter complains about having to help me, she gets irritated and has fights with my son”, she says. She admits that fights have increased and so has the abusive behavior of her husband. “The verbal abuse keeps happening and I feels suffocated, I’m dying for the lockdown to be over to leave the house, before husbands used to be out most of the time but now we’re stuck at home 24/7”, she says.

Sneha, a married woman in her early 20s with a physical disability told us that upon the pandemic outbreak, she decided to spend the confinement with her parents, who live 20km away from her husband’s home and her husband accepted it. However, she says fights in the house have increased between siblings as they sleep in same room and there is only one bed.

She explains how her basic freedoms are now limited. In her village, there is a lot of police everywhere who often stop and interrogate people, which makes her feel very intimidated. “I’m terrified of leaving the house. I feel like my freedom is gone and I’m in jail”, she says.