The National Commission for Women sounded an alarm in early April that domestic violence cases had spiked in just the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown, as had distress calls. This was echoed by the UN Secretary-General who used the term “shadow pandemic”. Since then, across the world, police, shelters and helplines have confirmed that although the incidence of domestic violence was always higher than we liked to admit, there was an alarming increase in its frequency during the pandemic. Women, and gender and sexual minorities were confined indoors with their abusers and even making a call or stepping out for shelter were likely to be very challenging.
To those working in victim support services and advocacy against gender-based violence, this is no surprise. Had the state, society or media paid any attention to decades of feminist studies or reports, we would have known how to brace for such a spike. But when the pandemic hit, whole societies took cover with zero social protection in place, triggering a humanitarian crisis to equal the impact of COVID-19.
Till date, public discussion of the pandemic’s impact on gender violence is confined to domestic violence. But violence cannot be categorised in airtight boxes—domestic violence; rape and sexual assault; street sexual harassment; workplace sexual harassment; custodial rape; conflict-related sexual violence; communal violence; war; drone strikes; caste violence. Violence is the short-hand language we use to communicate power play and, as such, different kinds and contexts of violence lie on a spectrum which is defined by inequality and the desire to control.
The only real trickle-down effect we know of is proliferating brutalisation. Structural violence, as in the deep-seated inequalities of Indian society, creates a climate where state violence is tolerated because we are conditioned to granting others power over us and condoning its abuse. Those who are instrumental in carrying out the state’s coercive orders internalise that sense of entitlement. When the constable who is rewarded for brutality with undertrials goes home, the only language he has mastered is that of coercive force. The child witnesses daily violence and understands it to be the normal language of human interaction. The male child who gets everything he reaches for knows he is entitled and that he can grab with impunity—because every other authority figure, political, social and economic, does.
While we have been focused on domestic violence, as in every other crisis, we could anticipate a rise in other kinds of violence too. Most rapes are perpetrated by people known to the victim; now lock them together in a small joint family home and imagine the terror. Remember that the lockdown made access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, very difficult. The tedium of lockdown is the new context of marital rape, with frustration over income uncertainty proffered as justification.
The lockdown rendered hundreds of thousands jobless and homeless. People fainted and died on that brutal walk home. What happened to their children? How many were raped or trafficked? We will not know how many girls were married forcibly and early in desperation to see them safe and fed. We can only imagine the plight of women and girls with disability, left alone to fend for themselves in the aftermath. As the streets emptied out, how many women selling vegetables or tea—allowed to work a few hours a day—were made more vulnerable to harassment by passers-by or police? With “work-from-home”, how many new forms of workplace harassment have emerged? We will know only with time, how many new kinds of violence have emerged as products of this extended period of desperation, tedium and “no one is looking” impunity.
Violence is the ominous, omnipresent, obvious reality in the lives of girls, women, sexual and gender minorities and many, many boys. What we know from every complex emergency in history is that sexual and gender-based violence is both early warning of a crisis as well as one of its most brutal consequences. Far from shadowy or surprising, sexual and gender-based violence was the most predictable consequence of the lockdown. Systematic creation of a support infrastructure (easy access helplines, secure shelter services with enabling cultures), bystander intervention awareness and gender violence sensitisation of the police and administration especially for crisis contexts, would have mitigated the epidemic of violence. But the truth is we simply do not care enough.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2020 under the title ‘The invisible pandemic’. The writer is an independent scholar and founder of Prajnya, which has worked for gender violence awareness since 2008.