Just like most other disasters in the world, the Coronavirus pandemic too has had a differential impact on men and women. The 2014 Ebola virus and the 2015 Zika virus outbreaks have also proved that women are more vulnerable than men in various ways, which reinforced the persisting gender inequity concerns, especially for the developing world.

At a time when supply chain disruptions in medical products have largely hindered women’s menstrual and reproductive health in India, they have been the majority amongst the Covid-19 warriors across the world. 70% of the world’s healthcare and social workers are women. In India, estimates show that qualified female healthcare workers account for almost half of the country’s health force and are among the more vulnerable groups—women account for a staggering 88.8% of trained nurses and midwives.

Women’s bigger role in the healthcare sector in India makes them the frontline staff in the ongoing war against Covid-19 and exposes them to this deadly disease in a multitude of ways. As the collateral damage seems to be lopsided, women across India play a seminal role in plugging the medical supply disruptions as well. Indian self-help groups (SHGs) dominated by women have contributed towards the production of masks, sanitisers, and protective gear to meet the burgeoning demands of the health sector.

The Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM), established under the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, has within its ambit 69 million women employed in approximately 7 million SHGs. This movement—which started 15 years ago and was aimed at providing livelihoods to poor rural women—has been an invaluable resource in these tough times.

These SHGs have contributed in holistically addressing economic and social needs that have emerged at the community level during the Covid-19 outbreak. The SHGs have consolidated their efforts to work on issues like social distancing, use of masks, quarantine, and psycho-social issues of migrants, care of elderly population, mental health, and well-being, amongst others. Women in these SHGs are creating awareness in the local communities by means such as telephone calls, wall writings, pamphlets, social media, etc.

According to reports in April, about 20,000 SHGs produced over 19 million masks and 100,000 litres of sanitiser all over India. Since the production is decentralised, these items have been delivered to the masses without having to undergo the logistics of transportation. SHGs have also initiated work related to the provision of rations or cooked food to poor and vulnerable families using the Vulnerability Reduction Fund or with support from state governments and the local administration.

The footprints by the SHGs as community warriors against Covid-19 can be felt across various Indian states. For example, in Tamil Nadu, each PDS shop has been stationed with two SHG volunteers to ensure that people in the queue maintain adequate distance. In Odisha, rural women organised in these SHGs produced more than 1 million cotton masks for police personnel and healthcare workers.

In Kerala, an SHG named Kudumbashree is helping dispel fake news through its network of WhatsApp groups with more than 100,000 women as members. These platforms are specifically leveraged to disseminate urgent and authentic information regarding the pandemic. It is also involved in running 1,300 kitchens across Kerala and are providing food to those who are bedridden or under quarantine. The Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM) and the numerous women SHGs operating under it played a crucial role in combating the socio-economic impact of the pandemic in rural Maharashtra. These women even contributed approximately ₹11 lakh to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund through a MAVIM-driven donation campaign.

Further north, we see a similar scenario in SHG operations using diverse methods. JEEViKA, an organisation in Bihar has stepped into the information, education, and communication (IEC) domain to disseminate awareness and preparedness materials for the outbreak. Prerna, an SHG in Uttar Pradesh, has attempted in communicating messages on social distancing by street art and wall paintings. A few SHGs in Jharkhand have opened a 24x7 helpline called Didi, which provides verified information to migrant labourers on evacuation and return processes to their hometowns in Jharkhand.

For a few years now, in consonance with India’s digital drive for financial inclusion, the government has turned towards SHGs to facilitate this process. Women in SHGs are also working as bank correspondents, referred to as ‘bank sakhis’. Even during such distressing times, they are helping with the distribution of pension, providing door-to-door service to remote communities to access their account credits from direct benefit transfers.

In addition to combating gender issues in society, even at times of zoonotic disasters like these, women are the worst sufferers. However, there is no denying that like most difficult times in the past, women have again risen to the fore in India’s fight against the ongoing pandemic.

Views are personal. The author is a junior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. He acknowledges Vani Kaushik at WB National University of Juridical Sciences for her research assistance on this piece.

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