As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, women and girls face a heightened risk of domestic violence and exploitation.

According to UN Women, this “shadow pandemic” is the result of economic, health and security strains brought on or worsened by movement restrictions, crowded homes and reduced access to peer groups and social networks.

In two blocks of rural Jharkhand, India, PCI staff have been supporting women’s self-help group (SHG) members to discuss these vulnerabilities with their daughters and neighbors and help prevent violence in the home. The outreach efforts are an extension of PCI’s collaboration with the International Center for Research on Women and the Jharkhand State Livelihoods Promotion Society on the Umang project. Umang, which means “happiness” in Hindi, aims to support girls’ empowerment and challenge the acceptance of child marriage at the household and community levels.

According to Sushmita Mukherjee, PCI/India’s Director of Gender & Adolescent Girls, each block mobilizer is averaging 100 calls per month to local women. During these conversations, they discuss the family’s well-being, the impact of COVID-19 on their livelihoods, how to access government support services, and any anxieties and other challenges they might be experiencing.

“Our calls are like ventilators,” Mukherjee said. “They [are] able to vent their emotions freely and openly to someone whom they trust.”

Through these remote check-ins, staff have learned that many families are currently living off savings, as most people have lost their jobs as carpenters, masons, barbers and domestic workers. SHG members who had opened small tea shops and other similar business ventures have been forced to close as well.

This shortage of resources at home and inability to work has led to families eating fewer meals or buying groceries on credit. Block mobilizers have spoken to some women who feel pressure to “eat last and least” as primary caregivers.

The day-to-day increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases is also making it difficult for pregnant women and mothers to access antenatal care and/or services for newborns and infants. Other challenges include lack of access to sanitary napkins, which has made it difficult for women and adolescent girls to manage safe sanitation and hygiene practices. Several women also shared how men in the household are lashing out through verbal, physical and sexual violence.

“Women don’t raise their voice and keep tolerating,” one call participant said.

PCI’s Umang project staff used the results of these initial conversations to develop more structured tele-sessions on how to address some of these challenges. Topics have included the role of mothers during lockdown, how to support adolescent girls with nutrition and menstrual hygiene management and COVID-19 safety measures.

“We have encouraged mothers to have good communication with daughters and to have a healthy schedule for the day,” Mukherjee said. “[This] would enable them to cope with any sort of mental stress and anxiety.”

Block mobilizers have also used this focused discussion time to address coronavirus misinformation and how to prevent stigma and discrimination toward returning migrant workers, people who contract COVID-19 and those who work in health care settings. Each phone session is followed by a weekly quiz to motivate participants to remain connected with the topics. Follow-up calls are also made to see if women have shared the information with other SHG members.

“One of the participating SHG women informed us that she addressed a case of stigma and discrimination in her village,” Mukherjee said. “When a city ambulance driver returned home after work, the villagers were not ready to allow him to enter, fearing the spread of infection. … On hearing the noise, this SHG leader went to the spot and gained an understanding of the situation. She explained the precautionary measures they may take to support this person to continue his duties and also enjoy a family life. She was able to convince others, because she had gotten the right information from the tele-sessions.”

Now, as some areas begin to reopen and life shifts toward a new normal, PCI’s Umang team is making sure SHG members and participants of other village organizations know how to meet safely and protect themselves in public, emphasizing the importance of handwashing, wearing a mask and maintaining a safe physical distance.

“We want to support them as far as possible,” Mukherjee said. “To bring these women out of any mental stress and support them to continue with their growth and development plans and see the life beyond COVID-19.”