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The COVID-19 pandemic meant that a lot of work had to be done at the community level. Fahima Akter*, working as a credit officer at BRAC Microfinance, took on the challenge head on. She travelled across Bangladesh, helping families through their financial crises, and providing life-saving information. The inevitable exhaustion that the world had been experiencing throughout most of 2020 was catching up to Fahima.
78% of the world’s workforce has experienced deteriorating mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The intensity of mental stress that Fahima had to bear while maintaining a work-life balance felt worse, as it was not the same case for many of her male counterparts.
Fahima’s frustration was growing. The workload had doubled. She had not seen her children for weeks, to maintain safe distancing. She had been travelling to remote corners of Bangladesh since the lockdown was partially lifted, collecting savings, providing funds, distributing liquid soap sachets and creating awareness among people about COVID-19.
Fahima remained busy, but deep down, she was left feeling anxious and isolated. She could not share her thoughts with her family or vent to her colleagues as they were all on the same boat, engulfed in anxiety.
Double burden of the pandemic
Women are worse affected by the pandemic – through increased burden of unpaid care work at home, layoffs, lack of access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, and restricted mobility. Cases of violence against women increased by 24% in 2020, as recorded by the BRAC Community Empowerment Programme.
BRAC Microfinance, which has a workforce consisting of 36% female staff, tried to understand what its staff members were experiencing. ‘Moner Kotha’ (meaning speaking one’s mind), an online forum, was organised for the women staff body, with gender specialists, psychologists and consultants.
The intensity of mental stress that Fahima had to bear while maintaining a work-life balance was not the same case for many of her male counterparts.
Around 7,685 (90%) women, consisting of frontline workers and managers, participated in the forum. There were 300 batches of staff within three weeks of inauguration. 160 specialists from BRAC’s gender, justice and diversity programme and human resources department conducted the sessions.
A space to unload
Women face different challenges than men. In the Moner Kotha discussions, issues which were commonly faced by the women staff included pressure from family to discontinue their job while living away from them; receiving insensitive comments from colleagues; and having to visit community people amidst the fear of COVID-19.
Joya* said, “My landlord accused me of spreading COVID-19, because I have to go out for work. He has been asking me to look for a new residence. All my day’s effort gets dampened by these kinds of negative remarks”.
“I am glad to be able to express myself at this forum. These sessions should be frequently held across all organisations for all staff”, shares Sharifa*.
BRAC understands and promotes mental health at the workplace. A Facebook live session was organised, where Senior Director of BRAC Microfinance and Director of Gender, Justice and Diversity talked about work culture that is responsive to the staff body’s mental health. Field staff and managers suggested to amplify promotion of gender-responsive behaviour and maintain timely office hours.
Fahima, Sharifa, Joya, and thousands of others want to bring positive changes in the world. Today there is more acceptance than ever before that women bring different experiences, perspectives and skills to the table, and make irreplaceable contributions to decisions, policies and laws that work better for all. In order to prepare the women field staff to make this world a better place, BRAC Microfinance’s Moner Kotha forum was able to provide women with psychosocial support. In the wake of a global pandemic, frontline workers were provided tele-counseling (Moner Jotno Mobile E), in the hope to take some load off their shoulders and help them continue their courageous work across the country. BRAC understands that demonstrating support begins with showing up – and listening.
*Name changed to protect identity
Tanishaa Arman Akangkha is a senior communications officer, BRAC Microfinance. Taposi Roy is gender lead, BRAC Microfinance. Kamran Ibne Abdul Qader is a communications specialist, BRAC Microfinance.