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Celebrating women’s leadership in WASH during COVID-19

Published on: 26/05/2021

Women leaders

Notes from an online discussion - Interpersonal communication is key in combating the crisis.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women. Several studies have documented how women have been the worst hit due to the pandemic, induced economic slowdown, and the heightened unpaid and care work responsibilities especially with respect to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). At the same time, however, women have shown great strength and leadership in managing the uncertainties and challenges unleashed by this crisis.

Celebrating the 2021 International Women’s Day theme- #ChooseToChallenge –  IRC in collaboration with the India Sanitation Coalition, WaterAid India, and Water For People India – announced a call to nominate women, who demonstrated perseverance, ingenuity and initiative in the management of water, sanitation, and hygiene services during the first wave of the pandemic. The nominees were then invited to share their stories in an online discussion on World Water Day (22nd March).

The champions included women from all walks of life - frontline workers, community mobilisers, local government leaders, artists and more – from across the country. The discussion touched upon their motivations, challenges and how they overcame them. Some of the highlights of the discussion have been captured below.

Meet the champions

Neeru Ben Neeru Ben, a community mobiliser in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), was able to motivate 54 families to build individual household toilets during the pandemic. According to her, honest and dedicated efforts bring result. To overcome resistance, she tried differential reasoning with the community. And with consistent efforts she was able to build trust in the community, which was crucial to her success. She noted that the support of other women in her organisation also strengthened her to pursue her endeavours.

babita Babita Padhi, a sanitation worker from Berhampur (Odisha), ensured that her self-help group’s (SHG) work of door-to-door waste collection continued during the pandemic. She mentioned that understanding the importance and the value of her job gave her the motivation to continue, despite the risks involved. She added that the misinformation, particularly the stigma associated with frontline workers, was one of the challenges that she had to face. Thus, she highlighted the need to share correct information.

Jayalakshmi, Jayalakshmi, a resident of Chennai (Tamil Nadu), took a loan to build a household toilet during the pandemic. Her husband had resisted the idea of taking a loan for the construction of the toilet but he began to value its significance with the pandemic. By getting the toilet built in her house  Jayalakshmi, also the zonal head of an SHG federation, was able to influence other members in her community to follow her lead. This resulted in three additional toilets being built in her village. Additionally, while her SHG suffered the repercussions of the pandemic induced lockdown, in terms of money and limited mobility, it took up the charge to raise awareness and make masks.

Bhawna Bhawna, a theatre artist engaged in spreading awareness on hand hygiene via street plays in rural Rajasthan, noted that plays help in getting the messages across. While hand hygiene awareness messages have been part of her act for a long time, they became even more significant during the pandemic. In addition, information on other COVID-19 appropriate behaviour was added to her repertoire.

Shobha Devi Shobha Devi, a Sarpanch (elected representative of rural local government) from Bokaro (Jharkhand), took up raising awareness on COVID-19 appropriate behaviour on an urgent basis with the pandemic. At the same time as urging people to reduce movement, she assured them the local government’s support through various ways. She noted that the pandemic induced lockdown had economic repercussions, particularly in terms of livelihood. On the one hand, she reinstated supply of essential services and on the other she leveraged a combination of funds (including local government funds, personal contribution and fundraising) for the distribution of  grocery packets and hygiene kits.

Anita Devi Anita Devi, a community mobiliser from Barbanki (Uttar Pradesh), made use of her past experience of working as a Swachhagrahi, i.e., a volunteer motivator engaged to bring about sanitation behaviour change in rural areas under the Swachh Bharat Programme, during the pandemic. She noted that her previous experience of awareness raising helped her to continue doing so, albeit with more focus on hand hygiene. While working on sanitation, she had been able to motivate people to build household toilets. During the pandemic she was able to motivate them using the same arguments.  Further, she was engaged in creation of quarantine facilities and the necessary arrangements for those migrating back to the villages. She mentioned, however, that with the pandemic she had to adopt novel ways of going about her work – to minimise public meetings and carry on maintaining physical distancing. She attributed her success to the relationship of trust she has as a member of the community. She ended by highlighting the importance of delivering correct messages because once people become aware, they themselves become advocates.

Rahita Rahita Ghosh Mondol, a frontline worker engaged as an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) in Birbhum (West Bengal), ensured that adolescent girls in tribal areas had access to sanitary napkins despite the closure of schools and shops as a consequence of the lockdown. She used her privilege of mobility as a frontline worker to liaise with a local NGO to distribute cloth sanitary napkins to the disadvantaged community. She highlighted the relationship of faith and trust due to her long-term association with the community, as the key motivators to pursue her endeavours.

Renuka Renuka Kotambkar, a Mukhiya (elected representative of rural local government) from Wardha (Maharashtra), noted the significance of teamwork for an effective COVID-19 response. She created a team of 11 people comprising of frontline workers (ASHA, Anganwadi workers), teachers, and community members including women and youth for community monitoring. Her reason to engage women and youth was primarily to focus on the converted members of the community, as men denied practising the correct behaviour at first. In terms of relief work, she leveraged local government funds for the distribution of medical kits and provided employment to households that needed economic support under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme. Further, she undertook awareness raising initiatives on COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. Consistent communication between her and her constituents, according to her, has been key to raise awareness and build confidence as well as get information on their needs.

Shipra Saxena Shipra Saxena, WASH specialist with UNICEF (Odisha), shared the Odisha experience of women at different levels undertaking initiatives to tackle the pandemic in the state. Women elected representatives of rural local governments set up medical camps and quarantine centres for returning migrants. Further, convergent efforts by women bureaucrats heading various departments (engaged in health, women and child development, minorities development and more) resulted in an effective strategy to counter the pandemic. Additionally, women journalists played an important role in reporting from ground level. And women’s SHGs contributed by making masks and soap for local consumption. She concluded by highlighting the important service of raising awareness through interpersonal communication provided by frontline workers, such as Anganwadi, ANM, ASHA, Swachhagrahis, and more.

COVID-19 is an ongoing crisis in India. The online discussion brought to the fore the ingenuity of champions to counter the crisis by focusing on both prevention and treatment. It also highlighted the significance of effective communication especially, in terms of awareness raising on appropriate behaviour and myth busting. Effective and interpersonal communication was the key response strategy adopted by the champions across sectors, from the village to the higher levels in bureaucracy, to counter the crisis.

The discussion, which was held in a mix of Hindi and English, can be viewed below:

The stories of the champions have been compiled into a compendium, which is available here -

The online discussion and the compendium have been possible thanks to the nominations sent by the following organisations - Aga Khan Development Network,, Water For People, Ernst and Young LLP, One Drop Foundation, WaterAid India, UNICEF India, Mahila Housing Trust.

Photos by SusanA India chapter