The lockdown is making women more vulnerable | Opinion
The focus of the fight against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has so far, correctly, been on preventive strategies, succour for the poor and migrant workers, and the economic repercussions. But the pandemic has also thrown up several social issues, many of them gender-related. One such issue is an increase in domestic violence. Women are more vulnerable when they are literally trapped in their homes, and kept away from people who could help them.
This violence has several dimensions. In India, such a situation can exacerbate the already weak position of women within the family — resources are normally limited for them, given that they are usually economically disempowered, and their voices are not heard. In addition, given their marginalisation within the family structure, they are most likely to be forced to be caregivers for those who have contracted the virus and are quarantined at home. This makes them vulnerable to becoming infected and also to violence if they refuse to carry out these duties.
Gender-based violence tends to increase in crisis situations such as natural disasters, epidemics and conflict. There are reports that in February, China saw a tripling in domestic violence cases compared to the previous year on account of the lockdown then in place, according to activists.
For women in India, with the law and order machinery already overstretched, it is unlikely that domestic violence will be a focus at the moment. For those already in abusive situations, medical care and counselling will be difficult to find, let alone support systems even within the family.
The prolonged economic deprivation and fear of job losses often tend to create frustrations which fuel domestic violence. Kerala, now a model state in its handling of the virus, has had a past history of domestic abuse brought on by unemployment and alcoholism, despite its other enviable social indicators. The situation in less developed states as people are driven indoors and face economic disempowerment will only be a lot worse.
Parental homes, once a refuge for many battered women, is no longer an option as the elderly are most vulnerable to the disease. The victims of domestic violence also now face the prospect of economic marginalisation as the labour market shrinks for women. So, in many ways, the woman is more dependent on her spouse or partner, even if in an abusive relationship.
In India, this is relatively uncharted territory but nevertheless one which merits attention. It may come as a surprise to many, given its patchy track record on gender equality, that Uttar Pradesh (UP) has risen to the occasion and launched a special helpline for women victims of domestic abuse. The UP police have titled the initiative “Suppress corona, not your voice” as part of what it calls an enhanced response to cases of violence against women. This is online and accompanied by a picture of a woman wearing a mask. The underlying message is that wearing a mask to stop the spread of the virus should not mean that you cannot make your voice heard on domestic violence. The police have asked victims to call a helpline number and assured victims that women police officers will visit them in the event of a complaint. This is the sort of reassuring response that women victims need at this moment. It will not detract from the other duties of the police and sends out the right message to abusers — that they cannot use the isolation and deprivation that women face as a result of the virus to visit violence on them.
Other states should consider emulating the UP example. This can bring about a modicum of hope and security to women facing domestic violence in a difficult and challenging context we are witnessing today.