July 25, 2020 3:55:23 am
A study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, brings confirmation that the coronavirus lockdowns are making Indian women more vulnerable to violence at home — a fear that activists and academics have voiced from the start. Mapping the complaints of domestic violence received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in April-May against designated red, green and orange zones, the study found that complaints of domestic violence rose 131 per cent in red zones, where there were stricter curbs on mobility, relative to green zones. The study also found that cases of harassment, sexual assault, and rape decreased during the period, perhaps correlating to less exposure to “public spaces, public transport, and workplaces”. It also highlighted a spike in Google searches for “domestic violence helplines”.
Early into the pandemic, the United Nations had warned of a “shadow pandemic” of intimate partner violence as women across the world are locked in with their abusers, unable to seek help. In India, too, activists have flagged a dip in calls to helplines as a sign of women’s inability to reach out for assistance. The UCLA research warns against reading the dip in reported sexual violence as a sign that women are safer at home. It underlines that the patriarchal violence faced by Indian women, in their homes and outside, is deep-rooted and capable of taking on different forms. The pandemic is not just a public health challenge. It also threatens to disrupt the systems and institutions that provide a fragile immunity against toxic social inequalities. For Indian women, the snapping of access to mobility, income, and circles of solidarity outside the family can have terrifying consequences.
The UCLA research ought to serve as an urgent SOS for governments and policymakers. Unfortunately, the Union minister for Women and Child Development has debunked the fears of a spike in domestic violence during the lockdown as “scaremongering”. Instead of denial, local governments, police and ground-level health workers must prioritise the safety of women, innovate on ways to communicate with them, and set up shelters where they can be removed out of harm’s way. Women’s needs, like those of all vulnerable groups, must be placed at the heart of the emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis. They cannot wait till the end of the pandemic for help to reach them.
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