Kalahandi, India – On September 3, Ranjita Majhi, a 33-year-old Kui-speaking woman from the Indian state of Odisha, eastern India, gave birth to a baby boy.
She was delighted because she had taken out a loan of 30,000 rupees ($ 400) for the delivery. As she was severely anemic, her health complications prevented a normal delivery.
As a result, Majhi had to travel 60 km (37 miles) to a government hospital in Bhawanipatna district, where she underwent a Caesarean section.
Everything was fine in the Majhi house for four days. But then the child died.
“I don’t know how to repay my loans, now the child I took out the loan for is not with me either. They said they didn’t even know how he died, ”she told Al Jazeera, wiping away tears.
Doctors at the Bhawanipatna District Hospital say they also don’t know how the child died.
But activist Roshnara Mohanty of the NGO Ekta Parishad alludes to malnutrition. She says that access to the forest is essential for tribal women and prevents them from suffering from intergenerational malnutrition.
In 2009, Majhi left his village of Rampur in Kalahandi to settle in the city of Madanpur Rampur. She and her husband belong to the Kui speaking Khond tribe, but did not have any land.
With reduced access to the forest, they migrated to the city in search of livelihoods and began to work as casual laborers. Her husband started working in a small restaurant while she was working as a housekeeper.
Containment of COVID has exacerbated the crisis
In 2020, India’s COVID-19 lockdown resulted in a massive collapse in livelihoods, sparking an epidemic India has been trying to tackle for decades: hunger.
Majhi’s husband, like countless other marginalized people, lost his job in May this year as a devastating second wave of COVID was at its peak.
While 50 percent of households in rural India have been forced to reduce the number of meals since the lockdown was imposed as part of an immediate adjustment for food security, around 68 percent of households have reduced the number of meals. number of items in their meals, according to a to study by the People’s Archives of Rural India.
Nisha, 30, who bears her first name only, tells a similar story as her anemia has worsened over the past two years.
“I haven’t been able to see a doctor for the past few months, even though I have unbearable pain in my ribs because I don’t have the money. Only the social workers helped us, we did not receive any other ration, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Nisha is a Dalit, who sits at the bottom of the complex caste hierarchy in India, and lives in a slum in the Shahdara region of New Delhi. She works as a ragpicker and says she picked up at least one bag of biomedical waste every day during the peak of the second wave of COVID.
Most of the time, she has crushing headaches, sore ribs, and fatigue that does not allow her to work. Yet she must work to support her children’s education.
“What to do with rice? “
Having to return to hazardous work environments is a story shared by many Dalit and Adivasis (tribal) women.
The State of Work in India 2021 report (PDF) shows that 83% of women lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, with 47% of women and just 7% of men unlikely to recover from job loss.
Beena Pallical of the National Dalit Human Rights Campaign said most marginalized women have been pushed into work that has placed them in dangerous spaces and made them susceptible to catching the virus.
But they had to do the job because the system is working against them, she said.
“Dalit and Adivasi women die younger than dominant caste women, and nutrition and health have always been a struggle for Dalit-Adivasi women. You add the livelihood crisis and the hunger crisis during the pandemic, and the effects on marginalized women would be manifold, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Studies show that 56 percent of Dalits and 59 percent of tribal women are anemic, while the national average is 53 percent. In 2016, India class 170 of the 180 countries where women suffer from anemia. Dalit women die 15 years earlier than dominant caste women, according to a United Nations study (PDF) says.
Dishanti Majhi, 25, is from Khaliamunda, a tribal village in Kalahandi district, Odisha state. Dishanti, like many others in her village, is heavily dependent on forest products. She worked in the fields and sold leaves of siali, a climbing plant with large leaves used for making plates. The government relief packages she received contained only rice and flour, with nothing to supplement nutrition.
“I had rice and vegetables after selling forest products and siali leaves at the local market. It’s closed now and I have no way to make any money or buy any products. We don’t get any work either. The government only gives rice as aid, but what to do with rice only? Dishanti asked.
“My children are at home and my husband is also unemployed. I work so much more now, at home and in the forests when I can, but just can’t eat like I did two years ago. I have fallen asleep hungry for several days and most of the time I only have one meal so that my husband and children can have more meals, ”she added.
Women eat last and least
Rajendran Narayan of the Stranded Workers Action Network and Hunger Watch says job losses have been disproportionate for women, even in the informal sector.
“Care and domestic work have also increased at home for them. The workload for them has increased, but the salary has decreased. In the homes, women are the last to eat and have the least to eat. A hunger crisis at home means that women will automatically have less to eat, ”he said, adding that the situation is particularly serious for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
“We are facing a crisis which may not be clear now, but which will have such long-term effects on public health and nutrition that we must intervene now.”
The federal government declared relief initiatives in March of last year to mitigate the effects of COVID. The free distribution of food grains to ration card holders was deemed insufficient as only rice and lentils were included in 2020, while the latter are now excluded.
No such relief initiative was announced during the second wave lockdown.
In Kasdol, Chhattisgarh state, Kaushalya, a Dalit woman from a forest-dependent community, was unable to access the mahua, harra and other leaves she previously sold. She said she was unable to make ends meet for her children.
Marginalized women have not only struggled to access subsidized or free food grains, but also cash transfers from the government.
“Many women I talk to claim that they were afraid of catching the virus by going to banks for money transfers, and many have not received their rights at all. Usually there are conflicts with forestry departments, ”Rajim Ketwas of Dalit Adivasi Manch in Chhattisgarh told Al Jazeera.
The increase in anemia among pregnant women in marginalized communities could also be attributed to changes in cash transfers under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
“NFSA Demands Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women Receive Rs 6,000 Cash Transfer [$80] annually. The federal government toppled the NFSA and replaced it with the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana scheme which reduced the amount of this transfer to 5,000 [$72]Said Narayan of the Stranded Workers Action Network and Hunger Watch.
The government’s budget for 2020-2021 has also significantly reduced the amount allocated to the program by 48%. A study (PDF) conducted in rural areas of Bihar state showed that 41 percent of households with pregnant or breastfeeding women reported that they were unable to benefit from antenatal and postnatal check-ups after the onset of the pandemic.
Lakshmi Devi Bhuiyan, a 60-year-old Dalit resident of Barwadih village, Latehar district, Jharkhand state, has no children to support herself. She complains of constant headaches from anemia and other illnesses and appears weak.
Bhuiyan and her husband worked occasionally and did not own any land. Many elderly Dalit women have to continue to work intensively into old age.
“Our house is almost falling. We received no money sanctioned by the Modi government – no old age pension, no 500 rupees [$7] support, nothing at all. We voted for him and look at us now, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera repeatedly contacted the Federal Department of Women’s and Children’s Development for comment, but they did not respond.
‘Harmful Notions About Vegetarianism’
Sylvia Karpagam, public health researcher and physician based in the southern state of Karnataka, explains how lack of nutrition has an intergenerational effect on women, especially those from marginalized communities.
“When a young woman from a marginalized community becomes pregnant, she is already suffering from malnutrition due to her caste, class and gender disadvantages. The child is also doomed to be undernourished even before reaching the age of one year. This continues until adolescence, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Karpagam says addressing the issue of caste is crucial in tackling malnutrition among marginalized women.
“Accessibility to nutrient-rich foods may be reduced for families in marginalized communities… The point is that what the government currently offers is not in itself enough for a person to have access to complete nutrition. Eggs, meat, poultry and dairy are the first to disappear from a person’s diet when they lose access to money, and these should be the government’s priority for relief. She told Al Jazeera.
“Instead, the system continually propagates unscientific and harmful notions about vegetarianism, applying a binary view of the dominant caste and the upper class on the issue of nutrition and health.”
Meanwhile, Ranjita’s troubles are far from over.
“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to keep my oldest child alive too. My husband and I have no more money to feed the family. What will my other child do? God only knows.”