work from home, but how?


This article is a part of our new blog series titled, ‘One Day in the Life of‘. 

As I plugged in my laptop, I remembered to also plug in my cell phone for charging. They were both low on battery, as am I, perpetually. All three of us are not used to staying at home during office hours. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns caught us by surprise. The only person who is happy to see me at home all day is my daughter. She is three and unable to decide if she is overwhelmed with my prolonged presence at home or excited to have someone around all day, to participate in her shenanigans.

I have often heard from people that work from home is favourable for women, but I doubt that they knew of experiences of single mothers. My day starts early and oscillates between stories, nap time, fact-finding, relief coordination, cooking, cleaning, the alphabet, nap time.  It ends late, very late. My phone is like me. It switches between playing rhymes and riddles for my daughter and receiving calls from our community mobilisers.

It has been over a month now (at the time of writing this piece) that we are in a complete lockdown. If someone had suggested, two months ago, that we would be working through a prolonged lockdown amidst a global pandemic, I would have laughed it off. As a grassroots organisation’s co-executive director, whose existence depends on fieldwork, I would never have thought that we could function from home. However, the current scenario has taught us to embrace an unfathomable work culture. Our phones are our workplaces, and WhatsApp is what keeps us connected. Our new work from home timings are 10 am-4 pm. But to be honest, I am most productive post lunch and dinner, because that is when my super active daughter takes long naps.

A few days ahead of the lockdown, I had brought home a few necessary documents, just in case. I am not sure if this preparedness was a result of the panic that the world was already generating or,  just how the social sector is always prepared to go on the front-lines in case of any calamity.

I had anticipated that the effects of this pandemic are going to be catastrophic, more for some than others. This meant that SAKAR’s involvement was inevitable, more than ever.

Despite the preparedness, by the time the clock strikes 3, I am already exhausted. My co-executive director and lifelong friend, however, has been a human silver lining in this adjustment. While co-managing the organization, co-mothering our daughter, she also helps with the emotional burden. Juggling between cooking, cleaning, managing hygiene, home schooling our daughter, engaging with her, while adjusting to the new work culture and responsibilities has been a master class in planning, and the perks of mutual support for the both of us.

I guess there are benefits of working in a feminist organisation that no one is talking about; the support, solidarity, and our daughter having two mothers, is a reality created only in such spaces.

Within days of the lockdown, we conducted a survey for our understanding of the urban and rural spaces we engage with, in and around Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. We live and work in a small historical Indian city, known for its architectural history and artisans. As such, our major engagements have been with the communities ranging from blacksmiths, zari (thread/brocade) artisans, cobblers, chakki (mill) workers to field workers, and domestic helpers. Most of these communities have lost their entire livelihoods. Whatever little savings they had, were mostly drained. A total lack of preparedness, either for a lockdown or a crisis, was weighing them down, severely. Our work in rural spaces is more about advocacy. People with inaccuracy in their documents are facing the cancelation of their subsidy cards. We are identifying such groups and individuals and facilitating the work to streamline the process at the administrative level.

Apart from this obvious chaos, the ongoing flow of fake news and WhatsApp misinformation has been on the rise. This has been particularly threatening because of its communal fervour. As a team, we have had multiple communications and online meetings around authenticity and responsibility regarding information sharing.

The pandemic has exposed our brazenness as a community. As a single woman, often referred to as ‘unmarried’ in our country, parenting a child in this digital age seems like a monumental task to me. I often wonder how I would keep our daughter from this toxic exposure of irresponsible actions and responses. I try to get her to memorise alphabets and struggle with finding new and engaging ways to keep her busy, productively. Watching her innocently colour outside the lines, I wonder how rules, regulations and expectations are selective and discriminatory. It took just a few influential sources running news headlines to demonise an entire community and undermine efforts to moderate the crises. The repercussions of such effortless sensationalisation for ratings and profit generation have made life challenging for a lot of people. Our community mobilisers have been constantly trying to cauterise the Islamophobia, and squash rumours that have been on the rise.

While working with various communities we did observe a few patterns that were developing. The difficulty to address domestic violence was one of them. Normally, our  community mobilisers would go door to door to informally collect information and communicate with women, as talking to those who live in single room houses with their abusers, via phones is simply not possible.  However, any such kind of communication under these circumstances is only likely to complicate their lives rather than be of any help. Another observation was that, initially, men seemed to shy away from accepting the relief or aid material, forwarding women and children to receive them, but over time they started to accept aid without feeling shame. It took us some time, patience and discussions to de-stigmatise the fact that men are struggling in the pandemic as well. 

The journey has not been easy for us. As an organisational head, I had to standardise the ‘work from home’ system. It was difficult to explain to field workers that being at home does not equal a holiday, we can still contribute in various ways.

The vulnerability of our sector is that we cannot be omnipresent, yet, every minute someone needs us. It is difficult to manage the expectations of people and ourselves. We have to be selective in prioritising who we service and that is definitely one of the most difficult tasks of our jobs.

As I eventually begin to go to the office on alternate days, 9 am-1 pm, so that one of us (my silver lining and I ), keeps our daughter company, I wonder about the important questions that need to be addressed post this pandemic. We definitely need more systems in place to work with communities remotely and think about work from home options whenever needed.

As I am switching between household chores, attending to and home-schooling our daughter and keeping SAKAR up and running, I keep reminding myself that I had chosen myself to effect change. And, I intend to continue doing it in the most efficient way possible.

Nitika Pant is a co-founder of SAKAR, which was established in 2005. Nitika and her organisation promote gender equality and minority rights. She is specially concerned about the health and education of adolescent girls in Bareilly, where she lives.

Bedotroyee Bhattacharjee is a communications associate at Gender at Work.

Image credit: Bedotroyee Bhattacharjee

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