How a Women’s Organization became ‘chief architects’ of the COVID-19 response in Southern India

March 1, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Aysha Shamsuddin

We live in times where solidarity has emerged as more critical than anything else. Not even a day goes by without coming across some extraordinary stories of solidarity and leadership. I would like to discuss one such story of a women’s solidarity network- Kudumbashree from Kerala, a small state in southern India.

Kudumbashree means ‘prosperity of the family’. It is a unique antipoverty initiative comprised of an organizational component, which is part of the government of Kerala, and a state wide grassroots network of self-help groups formed by 4.5 million marginalized women.  In existence for the last twenty years, it operates in multiple domains including local economic development, rural and urban development, agriculture services, education, care of vulnerable social groups and so on. Kudumbashree women are organized in a variety of entities such as collectives, consortia, producer-owned companies, joint liability groups, group-owned micro enterprises etc. Strong bonds of solidarity nurtured among Kudumbashree women serve as the backbone of these entities

The network’s COVID-19 response exhibits extraordinary leadership displayed by everyday women working under incredibly challenging situations. When COVID-19 struck Kerala, Kudumbashree members came together to support the government of Kerala by taking on challenges such as food security, provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), combating social isolation and so on.

Inaugural ceremony
Shylaja (white saree second from right) with her team during the inaugural ceremony of subsidized restaurant. Credit: Kudumbashree

Take Shylaja, for example, who was leading a community kitchen that distributed free, freshly cooked meals to the homeless, elderly and quarantined migrant returnees. In the first days of the pandemic, her collective collaborated with the local government of her town, Guruvayur, to start a community kitchen in the town hall. When I asked Shylaja what inspired her to this selfless service she had a very definite answer “I was hardly in the public realm before I joined Kudumbashree. I was mostly confined to the four walls of my kitchen. But now I feel worthy of myself. I have a new sense of purpose in life”.

Kudumbashree’s community kitchens  and subsidized restaurants expanded rapidly across the state to respond to rising needs during the pandemic. Collaborating with local governments, Kudumbashree women transformed vacant public infrastructure into community kitchens and kick-started more than a thousand community kitchens across the state. Special community kitchens were opened for migrant workers or “guest workers” (as they are fondly known by the Government of Kerala).

These outfits also provided home delivery services and started take-away counters even in the remotest corners of the state. More than 16,000 Kudumbashree farming groups served as a lifeline for these eateries by donating 116 metric tons of agricultural commodities.

Shylaja's collective in kitchen
Members of Shylaja’s collective in the community kitchen.
Credit: Kudumbashree

When community kitchens faced resource constraints, Kudumbashree women joined hands with local elected representatives to find sponsors. Together they approached entrepreneurs, local community leaders and the general public to raise funds and resources to run the kitchens.

Kudumbashree women also came to the state’s rescue when it experienced a shortage in hygiene and personal protection products. It immediately undertook a needs assessment exercise and assigned its textile and chemical microenterprises for exclusive production of sanitizers and masks. As of September 2020, Kudumbashree had become one of the main suppliers for masks and sanitizers to frontline institutions and local businesses in Kerala, selling more than 7 million cotton masks and 9300 litres of sanitizers.

Kudumbashree women also became active conduits of information on the pandemic. Through 300,000 what’s app groups, its members effectively reached out to communities, promoting a highly culturally inclusive awareness campaign

Balsabhas, children collectives formed under Kudumbashree designed numerous activities to deal with social isolation among children. More than 2,500 Kudumbashree women work monitoring the health and wellbeing of elderly from disadvantaged families through telephonic needs assessments. Nearly 800 Kudumbashree women work closely with local governments to address the essential needs of quarantined elderly people. Most recently, Kudumbashree has also launched an awareness generation campaign on protecting the elderly from contracting the virus.

Kudumbashree poster about Covid
Kudumbashree poster developed by women in Malappuram district to raise awareness on COVID -19. Credit: Kudumbashree

Lessons to learn

COVID-19’s impact on women and girls is colossal. According to UN Women “by 2021 around 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day — including 47 million pushed into poverty as a result of COVID-19”. Against this backdrop, women-centric poverty alleviation initiatives like Kudumbashree assume immense significance.

Kudumbashree women did not remain as mere beneficiaries of COVID-19 responses. Instead the organization transformed their role into chief architects of the COVID-19 response. So where did these women derive this strength and capacity from?

In the late 1990s, the Government of Kerala embarked on rapid democratic decentralization, giving exceptional powers to local governments. One of the key philosophies of decentralization was encouraging people to identify their own needs and problems and empowering them to make their own decisions by making them active participants in local development planning.  To achieve full decentralization, mass mobilization and awareness generation was indispensable. A central strategy employed by the then government was the launch of a massive public campaign popularly known as the “people’s planning campaign”. One of the priorities of this campaign was ensuring the active participation of women in the democratic planning process. The campaign launched massive capacity building initiatives for women to nurture women’s leadership at the local government level. In addition, the state government made it mandatory for local governments to earmark 10 percent of their funds to women’s development projects.

Community kitchen in Ernakulam
Kudumbashree Community Kitchen in Ernakulam district. Credit: Kudumbashree

Kudumbashree was an outcome of these reforms. Ever since its inception, the organization has been utilizing its women’s collectives for local development planning and concerted community action. What sets the Kudumbashree initiative apart is that, unlike other mainstream development interventions, it empowers women to address the root causes of poverty not just by providing credits or subsidies but through enhancing their critical consciousness and self-image through large-scale capacity building initiatives. Kudumbashree women were trained to work closely with local governments, be it for fighting food insecurity, strengthening the local economy or for tackling social issues.  Equipped with these skills and knowledge imparted through these capacity building initiatives, Kudumbashree women have now made their mark across various  political, economic and civil spheres in Kerala.  In the  recent local elections, out of 16,864 Kudumbashree women who stood for election, more than 7,000 emerged victorious.

As countries and civil society organizations across the global north and global south ponder feminist recovery plans for a gender neutral COVID-19 recovery, Kerala’s role in promoting gender-responsive policy-making and its Kudumbashree intervention are worth exploring.

Thanks to Ananya Mukherjee Reed, Provost and Vice-President Academic, The University of British Columbia, Okanagan, Canada for comments on an earlier draft of this article

March 1, 2021
Duncan Green