In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Asia Collective (SAC) and Minority Rights Group (MRG) International, with funding support from the European Union and Norad, launched a sub-grant programme to fund short-term projects that sought to examine and address the specific issues that South Asia’s minorities have been facing. A total of 18 initiatives were identified to receive assistance from the SAC and MRG, across 6 countries. The types of interventions are broad and varied, and include documentation and advocacy efforts, public awareness campaigns, and engagement with traditional and social media to address and combat COVID-related misinformation and disinformation. All initiatives made a concerted effort to highlight the minority dynamics of the pandemic.
In this section, we briefly profile a campaign by Porsesh Research and Studies Organisation (PRSO) to raise awareness about COVID-19 prevention strategies among Kabul’s Sikh community.
Porsesh Research and Studies Organization
Kabul, AfghanistanProject summary: Porsesh Research and Studies Organisation (PRSO) aimed to raise awareness about COVID-19 prevention measures at two dharamsalas (shelter or rest house) serving the Afghan Sikh community.
Context and intervention:
After the terror attack on their community on 25 March 2020, many of Afghanistan’s Sikh families shifted to and lived in two main dharamsalas in Kabul, for safety and security reasons. Around 400 people, including children and the elderly, lived in these two congested dharamsalas without basic amenities, making the residents among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
Between May and July 2020, PRSO, with the support of the South Asia Collective (SAC) and Minority Right Group (MRG) International, organised a campaign to raise awareness about COVID-19 and help the 400-odd Sikh community members to prevent an outbreak in the dharamsalas.
PRSO designed, drafted and printed awareness-raising posters and pamphlets—on social distancing, washing of hands, sneezing, using of masks and sanitisers, etc.—in three languages, included Punjabi. Pictorial posters and pamphlets were also printed.
While the Sikh community members were initially hesitant, they eventually responded positively to PRSO’s campaign. Already hit by the double trauma of the terror attack followed by the pandemic, some participants noted that PRSO’s campaign gave them a ray of hope, and vital information on how to survive and withstand the pandemic. The participants welcomed the pictorial Punjabi banners and posted them on the walls of the dharamsalas. The children in particular were keen to learn about social distancing, and how germs are killed by sanitiser.
PRSO continues to work with the community, and is now marshalling resources to provide them psychosocial and psychological support. Those interested in aiding PRSO may reach them at: Email | Facebook | Website
In this section, we briefly profile two SAC-supported initiatives in Bangladesh: an initiative led by Indigenous Peoples’ Development Services to study the impact of COVID-19 on Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples community, and another campaign by Initiative for Right View to raise awareness among and assess the needs of the indigenous Munda community.
Indigenous Peoples’ Development Services
Dhaka, BangladeshProject summary: Indigenous Peoples Development Services IPDS formed a network of volunteers to collect data about the livelihoods situation of indigenous peoples, their access to government relief efforts, the availability of PPE particularly to indigenous female nurses, etc. Insights gained during the IPDS study—in particular, the finding that 62% of the ethnic minorities in Bangladesh’s plains were pushed into extreme poverty—were widely covered in the media.
Intervention, findings and advocacy efforts:
IPDS is an organisation that works mainly for the protection and promotion of Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples community. As part of the project, they collected data from 1205 interviewees in the Mymensingh, Dhaka, Syihet, Rajshahi, Rangpur and Barisal divisions. Data collection was led by Indigenous peoples living in Dhaka city, including indigenous women working in beauty parlours and garment factories. At the end of the study, a press conference was conducted on 27 August 2020, with journalists from five leading daily newspapers in attendance. All five daily newspapers carried reports detailing the study.
On 20 August, during the project period, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organised a webinar on the national implementation of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The President of IPDS raised the issue of indigenous peoples and their situation during the COVID 19 pandemic, and received assurances from the policy makers and government authorities present that indigenous issues would be included in the report.
On 29 July, IPDS had participated in another webinar, where Abdul Mannan, Bangladesh’s Minister of Planning, was present. The IPDS representative made a presentation on the situation of Khasi and Garo indigenous peoples living in Sherpur and Moulvibazar districts, and raised the weakening health and economic situation due to COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown. A key finding, that around 92% of indigenous households surveyed reported decreased income during the lockdown, was shared with the Minister. The Minister assured IDPS that local administrative machinery would be mobilised to ensure the access of the indigenous community to government services.
IPDS made a report on the special situation of indigenous peoples living in the plain lands, and shared it with a number of indigenous organisations and NGOs.
Fazle Hossain Badsha, he Convener of the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples, Fazle, cited the IPDS report in various webinars and made recommendations to provide financial support for indigenous peoples faced difficulties because of corona outbreak.
The President of IPDS, as a member of the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) thematic group on Ethnic and Religious Minorities, made an appeal to the NHRC to provide support to indigenous vulnerable people. On 22 July, NHRC issued a letter to the Senior Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, along with the Deputy Commissioners of various districts. The demands raised by IPDS were mentioned in the letter.
Initiative for Right View
Khulna, BangladeshProject summary: Initiative for Right View conducted an awareness campaign about COVID-19 among the Munda population in Khulna, and also conducted a needs-assessment of the vulnerable community for effective advocacy with local authorities.
Context and intervention:
The indigenous Munda community is a small ethnic group living in remote villages of Koyra Upazila in Khulna district, Bangladesh. Geography, along with chronic economic and food insecurity and marginalisation from services, have made the community particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2020, the Super Cyclonic Storm Amphan had also left a trail of devastation upon the community, damaging houses and washing away several embankments, leaving them doubly vulnerable. To add to this, even when some local medical facilities have been available, the Munda community has historically had to face stigma and discrimination.
IRV, with financial assistance from the SAC and MRG, conducted an awareness campaign about COVID-19 prevention strategies among the community. A needs assessment survey was also conducted, and the findings were used to prepare a situation analysis report. The report, along with a position paper, were used in advocacy efforts, for which local and national media was mobilised.
Even before the onset of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s minority communities were reeling from structural oppression, which has manifested in the form of social discrimination, economic marginalisation, and, increasingly, violent targeting at the hands of emboldened state and non-state actors. Caste discrimination has, for centuries, remained endemic, even against those who have opted to convert from Hinduism to other religions. In the months leading up to the pandemic, India had witnessed widespread and protracted non-violent protests in opposition to the BJP government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which was fundamentally discriminatory to India’s Muslims—and to other Muslim communities such as the Rohingya from Myanmar. The state response was brutal, and continues to be unrelenting. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant nation-wide lockdown have, therefore, been particularly grave for India’s vulnerable minorities, who have had to grapple with its still-unfolding consequences while simultaneously facing an increasingly hostile state.
Against this backdrop, Minority Rights Group (MRG) and the South Asia Collective (SAC), with funding support from the European Union (EU) and Norad, started supporting a number of short-term projects across the country, each one seeking to examine and address the minority dynamics of the pandemic. We profile three of these here: a survey to study the forms of discrimination faced by the marginalised Christian Mukkuvar community in southern India; an effort to set up protection mechanisms to assess the problems faced by Rohingya refugees across the country; and an attempt to track, log and document instances of State violence and structural oppression against minorities in the context of the lockdown.
Organization for Community Development
Kanyakumari, Tamil NaduProject summary: A detailed survey to understand and document the forms of discrimination faced by the Christian Mukkuvar indigenous community in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, while accessing the government’s response and relief measures in the wake of the pandemic.
Context and intervention:
The term Mukkuvar refers to the community of marine fisher people professing Catholic religion living in Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu) and Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) districts in southern India. They were one of the earliest communities to get converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The community is socially and economically backward and has been categorized as a Most Backward Community (MBC) by the Government of India. At present, the total number of Mukkuvar people living in the coast of Kanyakumari in 44 villages is 148,539, living as 37,211 families. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown hit the Mukkuvar community badly. With no community-level mechanisms in place to deal with the crisis, a community that is totally dependent on the fishing industry suffered terribly after they were prevented from engaging in their livelihood for several months on end.
The Organization for Community Development (OCD), with financial assistance from Minority Rights Group (MRG) and the South Asia Collective (SAC), conducted a survey to study in detail the plight of the already isolated Mukkuvar community during the pandemic. Between 16 June and 15 September, 200 members of the community, including 126 women, in 44 coastal villages were interviewed. A team of 5 interviewers from within the community was trained by OCD for this purpose. The survey respondents included fisherfolk, head-load fish vendors, housewives and educated youth. The information gathered was consolidated and analysed to produce a survey report (available in full here) that is being shared with government departments and other advocacy targets, for better inclusion and to formulate future project plans that address issues that facilitate the exclusion and discrimination faced by the Mukkuvar community.
Based on experiences gained during the project implementation and the insights offered by the survey report, OCD has evolved two further project plans for the immediate future.
OCD’s full survey report is available here.
The Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (ROHRingya)
New Delhi, IndiaProject summary: Setting up protection monitoring mechanisms in Rohingya settlements in Bengaluru (Karnataka), Ghaziabad, Mathura, Meerut and Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh) to regularly assess the specific problems, including the spread of COVID-19, encountered by the community during the project.
Context and intervention:
The Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (ROHRIngya) a local non-governmental, non-profit organization formed by young Rohingya activists based in New Delhi, India. The main mission of ROHRIngya is to highlight, prevent, and address human rights violations of the Rohingya community. ROHRIngya carries out its activities in India and monitors the conditions of Rohingyas in India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent containment measures undertaken by the Indian Government have had a severe impact on Rohingya refugees in India. Most Rohingya families have been unable to cover their basic needs due to disruptions to their livelihoods. As ‘illegal migrants’, they do not have access to social protection programs or other assistance offered by the government. Many families are unable to feed themselves and there are increasing reports of malnourishment in the community. The intersectional discrimination that the Rohingya community faces in India on account of being refugees and Muslims has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Most significantly, the right-wing Indian media has been baselessly villainizing the Rohingya as deliberately spreading COVID-19 within the country.
While there is a general understanding of COVID-19 and social distancing in the Rohingya community, there are also high levels of misinformation which has impacted their ability to take appropriate precautions. Fears of being discriminated against or even attacked are preventing Rohingya refugees with ailments, including COVID-19 related symptoms, from accessing health facilities. Children of school-going age are housebound and unable to access education during the lockdown. Lack of ICT equipment limits their access to online education options. There are also reports of intimate partner violence, gender-based violence, and violence against children in households.
UNHCR, its implementing partners, and other NGOs are assisting Rohingyas in their main areas of operation. However, the issues are particularly pronounced in other locations with smaller concentrations of Rohingyas which have limited to no access to relief, support, and communication initiatives. These are identified as follows: Bengaluru in Karnataka, South India, and Ghaziabad, Mathura, Meerut, and Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh in North India.
ROHRingya, with financial assistance from Minority Rights Group (MRG) and the South Asia Collective (SAC), is setting up protection monitoring mechanisms in Rohingya settlements in the above locations to regularly assess the specific problems, including the spread of COVID-19, encountered over the next three months of the pandemic. This information is collated and disseminated/used appropriately for the following purposes:
- Sharing with key stakeholders - UNHCR, its implementing partners, local NGOs, and government agencies - to strengthen their responses and allocate available resources where required. For instance, Rohingyas with ill health will be appropriately linked to health services.
- Informing the development of social behaviour change communication (SBCC) materials for the Rohingya community on COVID mitigation and other relevant issues (for instance, gender-based violence, misinformation about social distancing).
While the project is ongoing and scheduled to come to a close only at the end of October, several crucial findings have already emerged from ROHRingya’s research about the living conditions of the refugees in different conditions in the settlement such as access to healthcare, necessities, sanitation, information about COVID-19. There are several important accounts provided by our participants about their personal experiences during the lockdown and its subsequent impact on their lives.
The second phase of the research entails conducting research on the assistance required in various settlements camps in terms of requirement of food, masks, sanitizers, hygiene products and to gain a more in-depth understanding of the immediate needs of the Rohingya population in India.
The Polis ProjectProject summary: An ongoing effort to document stories of violence by State actors against citizens during the lockdown period, and to build a lockdown violence database to facilitate the detailed analysis of patterns, mechanisms, categories, state actors and victims of violence.
Context and intervention:
In December 2019 protests against the unconstitutional implementation of the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) erupted across India. Protests were met with unprecedented State violence that included illegal custodial detention and torture of Muslim underaged boys. Anti-CAA protests were met with police brutality and hate speech. The Polis Project was approached by student organizers, who asked for support in tracking the growing Police violence against citizens. As a response, the Polis Project researchers set up an anonymous system to track, log, and document instances of State violence against the protestors, from illegal detentions and use of tear gas to custodial torture and surveillance. Mapping the ecosystem of violence, its abettors and enablers helped understand how dissent was being crushed through administrative and policing techniques. Since then, the project has expanded to document the violence during the Delhi pogrom in February 2020.
The current phase of the Watch the State (WTS) research, therefore, focuses on documenting and analysing violence, structural oppression, and human rights violations perpetrated by the State and its enforcement agencies against minorities in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown. The Polis Project seeks to bring to light such excesses and to establish the gaps in transparency and accountability between the State and its citizens with particular attention to India’s minority communities.
The Watch The State project has collected data related to violence witnessed during the various phases of the coronavirus- related lockdown in India, including:
- Police violence: the police enforced lockdown measures using violent methods
- Executive orders: executive orders by the central and state governments such as enforcing the Epidemic Diseases Act (1897), the National Disaster Management Act (2005) , including various arrests and detentions of citizens that were found to be violating lockdown orders (we believe such acts of violence against citizens by the state are not the way to enforce a lockdown during a public health crisis)
- Judicial action: The orders by the judicial bodies of the country that have taken action against the government’s harmful actions and in some cases the government’s inactions such as during the plight of the migrant workers who were forced to walk hundred of kilometers home due to lockdown measures being implemented without any warning.
- Surveillance and privacy violations: Various state governments have implemented surveillance measures that invade privacy of citizens and have led to data leaks of private details of citizens. These include the rise of technology-based solutions such as mobile applications that citizens are forced to download.
- Violence against and non-COVID-19 deaths of migrants walking home, healthcare workers, journalists and other citizens who have experienced violence by the hands of the state.
- Crimes against minorities reported during the lockdown: crimes against Muslims, Dalits, and citizens from India’s north-eastern states have been reported. They have been stigmatised and blamed for the spread of the diseases solely based on their faith or their physical appearance.
Suchitra Vijayan, the Executive Director of The Polis Project, spoke at the Rights Con conference panel 2020 about the Watch The State project. Francesca Recchia was part of a panel discussion at the Milli Archives Consortium for the International Archives week. The project is also presented on the Human Rights Defenders Hub website.
The Polis Project aims to continue working and expanding the scope of this project. The general public can help with raising awareness of the Watch The State project by amplifying our work on social media and contributing to the organisation. You can support The Polis Project at: Patreon | Facebook | Website
As of September 30, Nepal’s coronavirus tally had increased to 77,817 with 20,891 active cases in the country. So far, 56,428 people have recovered from the disease in Nepal while the death tally at the end of September was 498. The highest number of cases in the country until the first week of October was in Kathmandu district with 24,043 cases and 103 deaths. Morang follows with relatively lesser 3,969 cases and 35 deaths, and Rupandehi with 3,047 cases and 27 deaths.
In data collected in August, Province 2 has seen the highest number of deaths related to Covid-19 in the country and also reported the highest rates of job and earnings losses. The pandemic has impacted nearly everything from employment and education to meeting basic needs of families including nutrition throughout the country. The pandemic response has been mismanaged at best, and largely uneven. Some local governments have declared grants on agriculture, livestock, poultry farming and different fruits and vegetables production, and have also made attempts at restoring the livelihood of migrant returnees under the Prime Minister Employment Programme. Some I/NGOs have also taken up the mantle to provide food and essentials to low-income families in the country.
Prohibitory orders imposed on August 19 in Kathmandu were eased in early September, though some restrictions remain in place, to aim to alleviate the economic crisis brought forth by the pandemic. Yet, purchasing power of people has been severely curtailed, and the economy is likely to continue to suffer in the near future. This trend holds true throughout the country. One of the major issues that has aided the spread of the pandemic, even six months after the first case was reported in the country, remains lack of information. People, even in the capital, are not aware of the proper way to use masks, remain reluctant to use masks, and make light of the coronavirus – comparing it to the common cold.
In such a situation, there have been some movements and voices to combat misinformation, including fact-checking social media, creating podcasts to disseminate facts and so on. The work of the sub-grantees is also geared toward countering misinformation and providing valuable information in many languages, a necessity in a multilingual country like Nepal.
Digital Broadcast Initiative Equal Access
Lalitpur, NepalProject summary: Between June and September 2020, Digital Broadcast Initiative Equal Access delivered public service announcements (PSAs) PSAs in seven languages, encompassing a range of issues including basic information related to COVID-19, the identification of rumours and misinformation, and the importance of maintaining social harmony. Around 25 per cent of the Nepalese population was covered, through 250 FM radio stations.
Context, intervention and impact:
While there have been many message deliveries in addressing Covid-19-related issues, very often this resulted in an infodemic. In this context, with Digital Broadcast Initiative Equal Access (DBI EA), applying all aspects of communication and verifying media products through social behaviour change communication (SBCC) validators, including in this project with the South Asia Collective, was able to effectively disseminate information about the pandemic to Nepalis from different linguistic minorities.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nepal, DBI EA produced three high-quality creative audio PSAs in Nepali, and in six local and regional languages: Tamang, Newari, Gurung, Tharu, Bhojpuri and Maithili. The PSAs covered issues including basic information on Covid-19, measures to stay safe, checking rumours vs facts, importance of validating information, trusting valid source of information, etc. Then, DBI EA contacted 250 FM stations in the 77 districts of the country to disseminate the PSAs. Over a period of two and a half months of broadcasting, DBI EA found that the information proved vital to the focused communities.
DBI EA received more than 500 audio responses in the form of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and in Facebook Messenger. The responses were largely from people in remote areas and different ethnic groups whose parental language is not Nepali. These responses show that the PSAs worked well to meet the objectives of the project. For instance, one listener from Karnali Pradesh asked: ‘Does a person infected with coronavirus continue to have fever or will heal or get fever again? Is it ok to take other injections or not?’
A listener from the Sudurpaschim Province asked whether ‘using an alcohol-based sanitiser can kill the coronavirus in the hands so can a little alcohol kill virus in the stomach? Or can alcohol be dangerous?’ which helps counter misinformation.
A listener from Province 5 asked: ‘I heard that there was a shortage of health supplies before the number of infected people reached 100. How can we win the battle with the coronavirus in this way? There should be no shortage of health items at this time. How can we win the battle without weapons?’
A listener from Karnali Province said: ‘We have not received any information about the coronavirus from the local people’s representatives and the ward office. Why is that? Is it only in our ward or elsewhere? I want to know about this?’
Challenges, lessons and future plan:
Designing messages on COVID-19 was not easy at the beginning. Following the World Health Organisation guidelines and the notices issued by the Government was a must at every stage for good script writing. The people recording the messages could not come together in the sound studio due to the pandemic-related restrictions. Despite these challenges, DBI EA was able to produce the PSAs and send them to the respective broadcasting outlets.
In the process, DBI EA learnt how to produce radio content in adverse situations and manage human resources online. In such a situation, IVR and other social media applications like Facebook Messenger also worked. DBI EA learnt that radio stations in remote areas are ready to broadcast vital and urgent health messages as well. They broadcast the radio PSAs without charge.
Dhanusha, NepalProject summary: LIFE's strategic interventions included the translation of key COVID-related messages to Bhojpuri and Maithili, megaphone announcements at the local level, FM programmes, air PSAs, broadcast interviews, and the designing of a story board for dissemination on social media platforms.
Context and intervention:
LIFE Nepal, an NGO based in Dhanusha district of Province 2, focuses specifically on the needs of girls, Dalits, Muslims, youth, and people with disabilities. It endeavours to build the capacity of communities through the transfer of modern technology, believing as it does that ‘information is the means of empowering people’. LIFE Nepal advocates on key issues such as the promotion of girls’ education, quality education for all, early grade reading, accountability of local governance, women and youth empowerment, provision of life skills and income generation opportunity to poor and marginalised communities, conflict resolution and peace building, cultural promotion through curriculum development in the local language, capacity building, resilience against climate change, and against gender-based violence.
To restrict the spread of Covid-19, the Government of Nepal called for a nation-wide lockdown in March 2020 and the local government, too, announced restrictions in movement that directly affected school-going children. In Province 2 alone, around 1,377,746 children (from 5,532 schools and 474 Early Child Development Centres) have been deprived of education. Many children are showing symptoms of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorders, and so on. There have been more than 200 suicide cases in Province 2 within the 6 months (from March to August), including some children.
In this critical situation, LIFE Nepal provided humanitarian support by raising awareness on Covid-19 through media and social mobilisation to make community people aware about the symptoms of Covid-19 and the preventive measures to be taken. In close coordination with the provincial government and UNICEF, LIFE Nepal started megaphone announcements on Covid-19 to reach communities without access to FM radio, television, or social media. LIFE Nepal also started media mobilisation, including public service announcements (PSAs) and talk programmes through 32 FM stations in Province 2. At the same time, LIFE Nepal broadcasted animated videos through local TV, started a Facebook account named ‘Covid Kura’ (Covid talk), and posted and disseminated more than 1 million informational materials (posters, flyers, display flex and hoarding board) in close coordination with local governments and service providers. LIFE Nepal was able to reach around 14,000 primary school children with the learning package and informational material. The SAC grant was used as a part of this larger project.
All the interventions carried out by LIFE Nepal have had a wide reach. More than 1,170,651 people have been reached through megaphone announcements and 320,000 through FM radio programme. Likewise, 78,000 viewers have been reached through social media and thousands of people connected with LIFE Nepal through Covid-19 response events. Provincial and local governments have appreciated the responsibility and rapid response undertaken by LIFE Nepal during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although the situation is far from normal, people have learnt to embrace safe behaviour like avoiding crowds, wearing a mask, and frequently washing hands with water and soap or using sanitiser. People have understood that preventive measures can be taken to combat Covid-19. Effort are still being made to reopen schools and to continue learning through alternative methods, but a lack of sufficient infrastructure and human resources makes these difficult. The situation remains worse for low-income families and it is likely that children will be deprived of education and nutrition, and they will probably have to forego education and instead enter the labour market, with the possibility of being abused and even trafficked. Hence, continuation of similar awareness-raising events for child rights during and after the pandemic would be a most needed action.
In this section, we briefly profile a SAC-supported initiative in Bahawalpur, Pakistan to raise awareness about COVID-19 among the Hindu community.
Pakistan Rural Workers Social Welfare Organisation
Bahawalpur, PakistanProject summary: PRWSWO engaged former local government representatives from the Hindu community to conduct awareness-raising community meetings.
Three former elected representatives of local government were identified in the area of Tehsil Yazman, Bahawalpur, Punjab. Eleven meetings were organised, at a mandir and at home-based places of worship for the Hindu community. During the meetings, COVID-19 protection measure—Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as advised by the government—were detailed to the public. An FM radio show comprising interviews with former Hindu councillors was also aired. The engagement of community elders ensured that it was possible to disseminate PRWSWO’s messages widely among the rural community.
Later, a press conference was organised in Ahmedpur East Tehsil, with Hindu religious leaders and former elected local government officials in attendance. The leaders briefed those in attendance about the COVID-19 situation in general and its impact on the Hindu community in particular Hindu community. They also detailed the need for the adoption of precaution measures. Brochures were distributed widely among the community.