Shelter Homes in Assam are not accepting new residents in the absence of relevant guidelines for the COVID 19 Pandemic
The safety of our homes has become rhetoric in the political narrative of the COVID 19 Pandemic. For those without it, the government claims to provide for shelter homes.
There are over 70 shelter homes in Assam and yet, homelessness looms large for women seeking shelter due to a dangerous mix of fear, confusion and lack of COVID19 related guidelines.
At 2 pm on Friday, the 8th of May, 2020, Anurita Pathak Hazarika of North East Network in Assam, received a call from Mamata Mishra, a local journalist. Mamata had come across a young woman wandering aimlessly on the streets of Chandmari (Guwahati). She did not seem very conscious of her surroundings and could not tell if she had a home or was looking for shelter.
Anurita asked Mamata to immediately called the State Women’s Helpline Number to inform them of the situation and to their credit, they wasted no time in contacting the relevant police department for immediate action. After hours of waiting, a harrowing experience for the women, the police finally arrived at 8 pm in the night, after about 5 hours. This was not the end of her troubles, however, as they soon left without having taken any action, citing that the woman refused to cooperate and that they had other ‘priorities’ to handle at the Thana. Mamta was at her wit’s end, she continued to console the woman and tried speaking with her. She contacted the police again.
In the meantime, Anurita continued to make several phone calls to the various kinds of shelter homes that could potentially give this helpless woman a place to stay. Swadhar Grehs and One Stop Centres are the usual response mechanisms for women in distress but the Pandemic has seriously compromised their services as the State COVID 19 advisory completely overlooks the threat to women’s safety and homelessness. Responses to Anurita’s incessant calls ranged from ‘It’s risky to admit her now!’ to
We can only admit her after she’s screened for the virus’, to
‘We do not have space to accommodate more women’ to
‘We need a medical certificate to consider admission’. to
‘We have beds available but we fear contamination ‘to
These are difficult times; we are clueless
A Government official was apologetic that they didn’t get proper instructions on pandemic related admission procedures.
Finally, at around 10 pm after repeated pressure, the aggrieved woman was picked by police for further assistance.
The Shelter Home authorities are clueless. They have not been issued any guidelines for functioning during the pandemic especially if any new woman has to be admitted. They should have a guideline or a COVID 19 Standard Operating Procedure to follow in this regard. All Police must be sensitised to respond to distress calls and prioritize them. The rescued must be sent to quarantine centres where they can be tested and thereafter referred to for shelter or rehabilitation.
The question remains. The state COVID 19 Advisory still lack an inclusive set of guidelines that do not keep the most vulnerable, especially women and children within its purview.
On the 13th of April, NEN Assam had written an urgent appeal to the Assam’s Social Welfare Department detailing the gaps in the States response to the COVID 19 in the context of women’s safety issues in both private and public spaces. Moreover, homes are located far away, not within the reach of women in rural areas. Based on NEN’s experience, a specific issue was pinpointed in the Urgent Appeal i.e. Shelter homes irrespective of the scheme they run, must be authorized with special protocols to provide shelter to any aggrieved women and their dependents. The Department responded that government and private run Shelter homes were operational in Assam. Is the mere operation of the home enough though if they do not have the sensitivity to support women in need especially aggravated by the Pandemic?
This is not the only such case. There are many like her in Assam alone and if we do not rise to the occasion now, we will have failed as a society to protect the vulnerable women when they need it the most.
There is an immediate need to develop protocols for homes on pandemic related procedures to admit women and recognize their issues as a public crisis. All measures to deal with the COVID 19 crisis will remain defeated if they are not gender-responsive.
NEN had issued a Memorandum and Standard Operating Procedure, designed to clearly articulate responsibilities of various departments and their agencies to provide assistance to women in vulnerable situations during a pandemic.