The lockdown had its most severe effect on the daily-wage community. But Swati Bedekar, an educationalist turned social-worker from Baroda transformed this situation as an opportunity to engage women to serve the country and also earn a living for the family in these trying times.
Almost everything changed in the country after March. The coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing lockdown threw light on the hidden issues with which our country still struggles. Millions of people were suddenly pushed to the brink as economic activity grounded to a halt. In a parallel crisis, doctors and frontline workers faced severe shortages of PPE( Personal Protection Equipment) kits across the nation. Amid this storm, Swati Bedekar, a Vadodara based social worker, stood uniquely poised to confront these challenges. She had a way to kill two birds with one stone.
Swati Bedekar has never shied away from challenges. Early on in her teaching career, she realized that a lot of girls dropped out of schools when they started menstruating. Fighting against orthodoxy and social stigma, she encouraged young women to wear pads. In 2010, she started the Sakhi Project, a non-profit employing women to manufacture low-cost sanitary napkins. As the organization grew, they also began to manufacture hand wash, soaps, adult diapers, and knickers. They had also deliberated with district collectors and health officials to include changing rooms in rural schools so that girls could have a safe place to change their pads. But a lot of times, these changing rooms would not have any access to water, so they taught several women to make hand sanitizers.
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When the outbreak spread in India, the demand for hand sanitizers skyrocketed. The team by then already had two crucial assets in place: women with expertise and a license to produce hand sanitizers. All the great work they did previously started to fit like pieces of a puzzle. Wasting no time, they immediately started manufacturing hand sanitizers. They distributed them in the ‘bastis’ in Baroda for free. To inculcate the habit of using sanitizers in communities where their use was uncommon, they also started supplying masks and hand-sanitizer to banks, thus greatly amplifying their reach.
It was during this time that a doctor friend of Swati told her that there was a shortage of PPE kits. The kits were vanishing from the market. Even the ASHA workers were going out into the field without kits. Swati decided to smartly use the resources at her disposal to do something about it. She knew they had access to polypropylene, a polymer commonly used to manufacture sanitary napkins, and also required to make PPE kits. She approached the WHO, which provided them with the guidelines and design specifications.
But the lockdown meant that they couldn’t get together to teach everyone. Undeterred, they used video calls to set up their training. As of now, they have more than a hundred women making hazmat suits using just the stitching machines they have at home. Once stitched, these kits are collected and treated with UV radiation. Since they didn’t have enough time for in-house approvals, they decided to partner with other companies and organizations authorized to do so. These licensed organizations pick up the finished products and run quality tests. After successfully clearing both, the organization distributes it to areas as per requirement.
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Over a hundred women from Baroda, Narmada, and Haloi have managed to make and distribute over 3000 of these kits. Swati Bedekar remarks that if they had access to automatic machines, the number could have been a hundred times more. The women have developed a sense of confidence to do things on their own. “The amount of respect they get in the family is huge. These women are managing the livelihood and household chores. Helping these women get the respect they deserve makes me immensely happy.” says Swati.
However, numbers are not the important part here. What is remarkable is how these women saw a challenge and acted. Their achievement becomes even more dominant, given the fact that these women are often side-lined, expected to do nothing more than run a household. Sakhi Project’s deftness in pivoting their existing infrastructure to face the outbreak while continuing to provide dignified employment to hundreds of women during these trying times speaks volumes about values and determination.
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