As part of the series of ASAP Conversations we have been talking to our partners who are spread across the region and outside as well in order to understand their situation in the current context of the Covid 19 pandemic, especially concerning sexual and reproductive health services and safe abortion.
Usha works with Vikalp Sansthan in Udaipur district, Rajasthan. Their work is mainly with the scheduled casts, scheduled tribes and minorities, especially, the most marginalized among them, such as, adolescents, single women, single mothers. They work on issues, such as, child marriage, adolescent rights, women’s rights, abortion rights. They engage youth to break social norms and build a new world that is based on equality.

Nandini: The work that Vikalp does is very important because you work in places and with communities who are often not reached even by the government programs. What was the situation before the pandemic and when you started the work through Vikalp, what was the thought behind that?

Usha: As you know Rajasthan has always been a feudal and deeply patriarchal state. The whole country is patriarchal but Rajasthan was a kingly state and therefore, the feudalism here was very strong that led to many problems. In my own family there are issues of casteism and patriarchy that are deeply entrenched and girls are married off as young as 10 or 12 years old. When I was in class 10, I was engaged and my marriage was to take place 2 months later. However, I had seen the condition of my own mother and of the women around me and the poor conditions they lived in if they did not get the chance to study and were forced into child marriages. They faced physical abuse in their marriages, lived under several pressures and I realized that I did not want to live such a life of the women I see around me. Therefore, I rebelled and fought back for the next 3 to 4 years when finally, my engagement was called off and I was successful. I was determined to study more, take my life forward and also help the girls of my family to take their lives forward. I got my courage from there as I felt I am successful now and completed my Post-Graduation (P.G.) and came into this sector. I felt I have changed my life but there are many girls like me in our society and community who want to move forward in life but are forced into child marriage, face domestic violence and get trapped into abusive situations. So a few of us got together and founded Vikalp Sansthan (organization) that focused on gender rights and child marriage. At that time, twenty years ago there were very few organizations that were working on gender and rights issues. No organization focused on issues of gender rights, child marriage, girl students dropping out (that is linked to child marriage), and domestic violence – these issues were considered as domestic or private issues but these issues needed to be talked about. The communities we work with have high rates of domestic violence and child marriage, around 50% to 40% or even lesser number of girls are able to study till class 10, child marriage rates are as high as 60% to 70%, and rampant domestic violence. Geographical distance is also very high and the communities are scattered, casteism is also rampant and caste-based injustices are layered. The caste groups that are at the lowest in the social order are exploited by all the castes above. They have no access to education, or government schemes or hospitals and they face discrimination everywhere.
Women had no access to sexual health and reproductive rights or make choices for their own bodies, such as, how many children to have which is decided by the husband and his family, or if she wants to have sex with her husband. Women could not imagine terminating a pregnancy as it would be perceived as an illegitimate pregnancy. Women have no rights because when she becomes a child bride she is denied of education, gets trapped in abuse and domestic violence, does not have a say in any important matters affecting their lives.
The situation is such that in our society a general caste man would sit on the higher platform and the lower caste person has to sit on the floor but when the lower caste man comes back home, he sits on the higher platform and his wife will sit on the floor. Despite all this silencing and control, the girls from these communities expressed their needs to talk about gender-based violence and gender issues. This is significant as 20 years ago it was extremely difficult and dangerous even to talk about issues of child marriage and gender issues; talking about abortion was perceived as promoting ‘murder’, and anyone talking about these issues were seen as anti-social and you could be killed for talking about these issues. However, we felt it is very important to talk about these issues and challenge unjust social norms.

Nandini: Thank you Usha I can understand that how difficult and challenging your work is. You have shared already but just to clarify during the current pandemic when there is COVID 19, what is the situation of child marriage, girls dropping out from schools, and domestic violence? Are these cases increasing and what is the impact on women’s rights, especially, their sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Usha: Already the situation of women was very bad and the pandemic has aggravated their situation further. Basic food grains that is being distributed by the government is only reaching women in urban and more accessible areas, and those in remote areas and from marginalized communities are getting left out. Another issue is that drop out rates of girls has gone up. We feel that maybe till July or in the next coming months things will not normalize and girls will drop out more. Government is suggesting to study online but in remote areas there are neither smart/android phones. Rajasthan government has suggested to educate through radios but girls don’t have access to new academic year books, and they have the higher burden to shoulder household responsibilities including, farm work and animal husbandry.
Therefore, once the schools reopen the drop-out rates of girls will increase. This will also aggravate the economic situation because they already belong to poor families and most have a father or a brother who are daily wage laborers. Many of the earning family members have lost their jobs and see their daughters/sisters at home as burdens. Therefore, girls will be also be forced to travel for daily wage labor or forced into child marriages.
The other issue will be that of nutrition and it is linked to health, because there are less resources at home and men will get the first priority and the maximum share. This will affect their health adversely.
Domestic violence has also increased already. Men are under tremendous economic pressure due to lack of jobs/income and the debts that they have to pay back. Therefore, there is a lot of mental health issues, stress and domestic violence.
Abortion rights will also be affected adversely – men are constantly at home and there is no transport available. Therefore women will try to use unsafe home remedies to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The ASHA workers are also only focusing on COVID 19 relief. Women are therefore unable to get the help they need from anywhere including medical facilities that are currently inaccessible and forced to either use unsafe methods or continue with an unwanted pregnancy.

Nandini: Thank you for raising these points Usha. These stories are not heard in the mainstream media at all. Of course Covid 19 has made a bad situation even worse. Abortion was anyway considered a sin and now due to the current pandemic the health systems are completely ignoring or neglecting the demand for abortion services. Therefore, what are the main learning from the current situation, how will it help us shape our demands and decide the future course of action to build a better work?

Usha: First and foremost, we need a strong mechanism which is centered around women’s rights and SRHR. An active mechanism that does not get limited into any form of discrimination, be it based on caste, community, gender, etc. so that we can support each other better.
However, the mechanism has to be provided by the government because NGOs are limited in their scope and dependent on police or other public health systems to respond to issues of domestic violence etc. Therefore, our learning from current situation of COVID19 is to demand strong and responsive systems from the government, that does not discriminate, that is transparent and can be held accountable.
There should be awareness on issues and what steps will be taken to respond to them very clearly so that vulnerable communities/women feel stronger and are able to reach out for support if needed, and the perpetrators will be afraid of the consequences and this will be the first step towards equality in society.
Secondly, the public health situation and the situation of children and women’s health is very weak in the communities and this should be addressed urgently. SRHR should be strengthened and women and girls should be able to say no to their partners and to society, similarly they may also say yes and that should be celebrated as well.

Nandini: To summarize Usha’s comments that in a democracy the public infrastructure should be people centric and not as per the whims on bureaucrats or politicians. The taxes everyone pays (directly and indirectly) should be used for people’s welfare to build more hospitals, schools, and roads, but keeping people’s needs, especially, the needs of women and girls in the center of all the plans whose rights cannot be overlooked any longer. Thank you to all our listeners. We end the conversation here and if you have more questions please send us emails in

Usha: Thank you for the discussion and all the thoughts I had for all these weeks, I could articulate them and it was really helpful.