COVID Fight: Why Are South Asian Women Leaders Still ‘Invisible’?

Despite their contribution to crisis management amid COVID, women leaders in this region continue to be invisible.

4 min read
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Women leaders in South Asia continue to remain invisible in the global discourse on women’s leadership in the COVID-19 crisis. The group Women for Politics argues that despite high levels of gender inequality in South Asia, the region has many positive examples of effective leadership of women politicians fighting the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up discussions about the effectiveness of leaders worldwide in handling crises, and women political leaders in Germany, Norway and New Zealand have dominated the headlines as examples of effective leadership during this current crisis.

While these women are being looked upto for their success in tackling the crisis, we studied their counterparts including some women sarpanches and MLAs in India, mayors in Nepal, Health Ministers in Sri Lanka and Bhutan, MPs in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to understand the work of women political leaders in South Asian nations.


The political leadership demonstrated by these women is different from the conventional form of leadership. This alternative style of leadership has shown itself to be collaborative, empathetic, relying on transparent communication. Women leaders, along with the frontline health workers, have shouldered the responsibility of outreach work, including conducting sanitation drives in their constituencies. This sense of ownership has helped them rally people behind the fight to the COVID-19 crisis.

The work of these women politicians across South Asia was captured in Beyond Victims Series by Women for Politics with an aim to highlight their work, despite the limited resources, difficult geographies and existence of patriarchal structures.

An analysis of women politicians’ work across the region shows some common leadership traits while dealing with the challenges of developing nations.


Keeping the Public Updated

In India, KK Shailaja in Kerala redirected resources and devised a communication strategy to continuously update the public and combat fake news and myths about the pandemic. Sarpanches in Punjab, Bihar and other states maintained WhatsApp groups and used social media to communicate directly with families about essential supplies, information and updates on COVID-19.

These examples of direct and honest communication with their constituents about the outbreak, and measures for containment, has helped build credibility with the constituents.

Collaborations to Ensure Awareness and Essentials

While many of these women took up the responsibility to protect the community, they also mobilised the community to fight the COVID-19 crisis.

Mayor Kantika Sejuwal in Nepal has been working in collaboration with Army, Police, District Administration, and teachers to incorporate best practices to mitigate the risks of the pandemic.

Sarpanches and MLAs at the grassroots of India have collaborated with women and young volunteers to stitch masks, deliver sanitary napkins, and spread awareness on the virus. Pinky Bharti (ZP Chairperson, Bihar) mobilised community resources to run community kitchens, deliver essential supplies and manage quarantine centers ensuring a shared responsibility and active community participation.


Thinking Ahead: Using Tech, Preparedness & Adaptability

Bhutan Health Minister Dechen Wangmo proactively responded to the pandemic with a preparedness plan and implemented early screening, enhanced testing and mandatory quarantine that has resulted in no COVID-19 deaths, so far. Sarpanch Vijanandbhai (Gujarat) leveraged Digi Pay to ensure government cash transfers.

These women politicians have updated themselves with information on the disease, policy guidelines and continuously worked on adapting to the changing situation and consequently responding to the community needs.

Having preparedness plans that are adaptive to dynamic challenges leveraging technology, staying informed and updated – have been key factors for these women leaders to stay ahead in the battle and contain the COVID-19 crisis.

Inclusion, Empathy and Transparency

MLA Danasari Anasuya (Telangana) identified communities living in inaccessible terrains, and organised for the timely supply of essentials. MP Fawzia Koofi in Afghanistan is running a fundraising campaign for people living in poverty and affected by Taliban, alongside actively participating in peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Sana Ahmed, Ward Councillor (Kolkata) made arrangements for the fasting muslims during Ramadan as well as removing the wreckage from Amphan cyclone. MP Sultana Nadira in Bangladesh has paid rent for two hospitals utilizing her funds beyond her work during COVID-19. Member of Provincial Assembly Shaheen Raza unfortunately passed away by contacting with the virus while doing door-to-door ration distribution campaign and inspection of quarantine centers.

One may argue that the region is still far away from gender equity in politics, however, there are these positive examples of effective leadership of women politicians in fighting the COVID-19 crisis.

Despite their contribution to crisis management in their respective communities, women leaders in this region continue to remain invisible in the global discourse on women’s leadership in the COVID-19 crisis. 

While we get a grasp on the nature and effects of this epidemic, we need to be inclusive in our debates on success of women’s leadership and recognise the achievements of women leaders in South Asia.

(Sugandha Parmar is an advocate at Women for Politics. Sugandha holds an M.A. in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and an M.A in Human Rights Law from SOAS, University of London. She works for a philanthropic organisation based in India. She @sugandha_sp.

Akhil Neelam is an advocate at Women for Politics. He is a graduate of Ashoka University where he was a Young India Fellow. He has worked with various government departments in India on policy and governance. He works as a public policy consultant. He tweets @akhilneelam.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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