In light of the challenges posed by COVID-19, organisations and individuals “committed to feminist principles and women’s and transperson’s human rights” have called upon the Delhi state government to take into account the “lived experiences of women, girls and transpersons” in the state’s response to the pandemic.

In a letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the signatories—including Urvashi Butalia, Vrinda Grover, Uma Chakravarti among others—appealed to the state government to recognise the “mammoth humanitarian crisis” created by a lockdown “outside the framework of health rights, women’s rights and human’s rights”.

The letter suggests a number of steps including ensuring lockdown as a public health measure, recognising the gendered nature of health bureaucracy, ensuring the health and safety of women health workers along with upholding the sexual and reproductive rights of individuals, and preventing racist and sexist messaging.

It further requests the state to engage with gender and sexual minority groups along with other marginalised communities and include them in the decision-making process.

With respect to the calls for social distancing, the letter states that declaring a lockdown without a “comprehensive human rights, women’s rights and transperson’s rights framework” will result in pushing marginalised communities into impoverishment, increased morbidity and fatality and loss of livelihoods among other dire consequences.

Signatories suggest that free testing in the public and private sector be made available to the poor and underprivileged. A call for simplifying the procedure was made as private tests allegedly require address proof in the form of Aadhar Cards, passports or election cards, which many displaced persons are unable to provide.

Further, the letter suggests strict action against police excesses along with online services and telephonic helplines to be provided to all women, gender and sexual minorities so they may consult doctors and lawyers for free “if they face any health problems, or discrimination and violence due to COVID-19 lockown and its aftermath”.

Citing the example of France, where hotel rooms are reportedly being provided for women in case of domestic abuse and other forms of violence at home, the letter suggests the state government partner with hotels to help students facing discrimination, violence and health emergencies.

With instances emerging of heckling and even stone pelting healthcare workers attempting to identify or treat COVID-19 patients, the open letter urges CM Kejriwal to implement measures to protect the health and safety of women health workers.

“The health bureaucracy is gendered with many women medics and health workers at the bottom of the health bureaucracy with the burden of containing and treating epidemics,” the letter states.

Suggested measures include ensuring all healthcare workers (including ASHA workers and ANMs) are provided with protective gear while preparations are made in the form of safe accommodation, health insurance, safe transport and home care assistance for women doctors, nurses and staff. Signatories further asked the Delhi government to set up a task force to look into the problem of women doctors and hospital staff facing discrimination, evictions and even rape threats.

The letter further claims that the media has reported an increase in the number of calls received by the National Commission of Women. Sociologists too, predict a spike in cases of domestic violence, matrimonial violence, sexual and other forms of abuse during a lockdown. “Adult women and women students should not be forced to return to abusive homes, yet face evictions from Universities or hostels or rented accomodation,” reads the letter.

Helplines, short stay homes for those not wishing to stay in an abusive home and availability of counsellors were some of the suggested measures. The letter also urges that cases of rape, cruelty and abuse be considered as urgent cases for courts to hear during the lockdown.

An “urgent release/parole” of women, gender and sexual minorities “who are convicted or under trial” was called for. Signatories requested state prisons must protect prisoners from COVID-19 by ensuring international standards of sanitation and hygiene are met.

The letter further asks the government to ensure no forms of “non-secular, racist, sexist and casteist messaging” is used. Instead, the messaging should clarify that COVID-19 afflicted are “not impure”, “contagious” or populations to be “treated as “termites””.

It also calls for a no-tolerance policy for “xenophobic speech or practices of boycott, ostracisation” that attribute the virus to entire communities of North East, China, or Muslims.

Further, signatories request the state to implement moves to ensure sexual and reproductive rights of all women and transpersons are upheld during the lockdown. According to the letter, this would involve advertising abortions as essential and emergency services, supplying condoms, pills and sanitary napkins as part of essential goods, permission for abulances and curfew passes for a family of a woman in labour along with ensuring adequate nutrition, medicine supply and provisions for pregnant women.

With Muslim women and children in the aftermath of the Delhi riots” being a vulnerable population, the letter urges the government to treat resettlement, compensation and support with utmost urgency. In view of protest sites having been vacated, the signatories condemned the removal of all art work and graffiti, in turn demanding that women’s and transgender persons’ right to dissent not be curtailed.

The signatories also request the state government to recognise the “grave risk to Dalit women, children and transpersons” and provide them with protective gear and decent wages for sanitation work. “Food security, testing, gears and health care must be provided to all such workers and their families free of cost in recognition of their essential service,” states the letter.

Special provisions for domestic workers, sex workers, daily wagers, single and elderly women, and widows were also suggested, along with food and health security for transgender persons and financial and mental health support for families caring for children with disabilites.

With a final urge to announce a gender budget to address the challenges faced by women and transpersons during the lockdown, the letter asks for a state policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which is “inclusive, non-discriminatory, participatory and diverse.”

Cover Photograph PTI