Tribal women: Enveloped by TRIPS, the Pandemic, and a History of Neglect

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    Tribal women: Enveloped by TRIPS, the Pandemic, and a History of Neglect

    Gender inequality is a perverse form of discrimination which undermines women’s identity and agency and deprives them of their rights. This extends to women, particularly those in marginalised communities, like tribal women. 

    By Pradeep Baisakh

    How long have we heard that developing gender-responsive social protection systems is central to combating poverty among women and girls? How long have we been aware that this requires a long-term financial commitment to social protection?

    We know that while the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the lack of protection to the most marginalised, women and girls have been the most impacted.

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    It has been a week since the International Women’s Day was observed as a day to highlight the empowerment of women. It was also an occasion to show how the women across the world face several forms of violence, exclusion and discrimination.

    During the ongoing war against Ukraine by Russia, the United Nations has warned that the war will force millions of people to flee their homes, increasing the risk of violence against women and girls.

    The Pandemic

    The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that women and girls, particularly those from marginalized groups as tribal communities, communities discriminated by work and descent (CDWD), older women, women with disabilities and women refugees, have faced multiple forms of discrimination during and after pandemic due to state apathy, cultural prejudices, loss of income and familial negligence. The pandemic has pushed hundreds of millions of people including women into poverty, devastating their lives – and most profoundly the lives of the women from marginalized groups.

    Femicide is an extreme and lethal form of gender violence that continues to affect thousands of women and girls all over the world. COVID-19 led to an increase of femicide from France to Singapore. In Latin America and the Caribbean, at least 4,091 women were victims of femicide in 2020.

    Tribal women migrant workers in Asia have been hit particularly hard due to loss of employment, and there have been reports of hunger, torture and violence. They have witnessed state violence due to their displacement from their lands during the pandemic. Tribal and rural women play an important role in the food security of their countries.

    There have been similar exclusionary practices against refugee women, women with disabilities and older women across the globe.

    Vaccine Inequity

    During the ongoing vaccination drive, there have been gross inequalities in access to vaccinations between the global North and the global South. There has been less availability of vaccines for the low and middle-income countries due to the intellectual rights protection of the COVID-19 vaccines. This has been a result of the opposition to the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) waiver by the European Union (EU), UK, Germany, France and others as well as due to the hoarding of the vaccines by rich countries.

    That TRIPS has had a devastating impact is evident from the low rates of vaccinations in Africa. Barely 11 percent of Africa’s population are vaccinated currently. Can we imagine what the consequences of this massive unvaccinated population across the world? Can we hazard a guess if another COVID-19 variant could emerge from Africa and retard the pace of recovery from the pandemic?

    Tribal Woman Odisha Rajkishor Mishra Covid-19 pandemic

    Coming back to the issue of women. In the circumstances where everyone was locked indoors, there has been little research to establish how women have been discriminated in the vaccination drive undertaken by governments. There is an absence of credible data to establish gender discrimination in vaccinations. Evidences from the field however suggest that women from marginalized communities worldwide are facing obstacles in accessing vaccines due to cultural prejudices, lack of technology and vaccine prioritization.

    Tribal women, because of their gender and because of the history of discrimination they have faced, besides, of course, because of their often difficult-to-access abodes have borne much of this hurt. (Besides, of course, we know from experience of the unwillingness and the hindrances to reach them even in the best of times.)

    Hopefully, we get to see data on the subject, sooner rather than later. Hopefully, that data is also complemented by anecdotal evidences.

    Need a peoples’ vaccine

    The governments must declare COVID vaccine as a peoples’ vaccine and ensure universal and equitable access to them.  For this the EU, UK, Germany and France ought to support the TRIPS waiver of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics so that everyone, particularly women, and more particularly, tribal women across the world get access to free vaccines. Special measures ought to be taken by the governments to stop violence against women by putting a proper legal mechanism in place – speedy justice and exemplary punishment for the aggressors.

    Oxfam puts the logic at the heart of the matter when it says that a year ago, the barrier to beating COVID-19 was science but today it is inequality.

    Scientific developments, the computer age and twenty-first century industrial scales and efficiencies have ensured that the wold can be vaccinated to end this pandemic. But instead, rich countries are hoarding vaccines and protecting the profits of their pharmaceutical corporations instead of saving lives.

    Looking at the vaccine inequity from the lens of tribal communities, particularly tribal women, will help us realise how essential a people’s vaccine really is.


    Pradeep Baisakh is a senior journalist. He can be reached by email: [email protected]

    Image: Banner image from Living Farms; Inset picture by Rajkishor Mishra.

    This article has sourced material from the GCAP statement issued on the occasion of International Women’s day 2022.

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