Written by Sohini Bhattacharya
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the globe leaving behind a trail of destruction, most countries are implementing different versions of lockdowns to facilitate social and physical distancing. The basic assumption underlying almost all these policy decisions during a crisis like this is that the effect of the pandemic is gender neutral.
This cannot be farther from the truth.
At a first glance, 67 per cent of the world’s healthcare workers are women, they are naturally more prone to infection. Women are already burdened with three times more unpaid care work than men. During lockdowns the burden increases manifold. As the lockdowns impose stricter control on one’s mobility, they put women in abusive relationships at extremely high risk of damage from physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
As government directives close schools, colleges, universities globally and the workforce largely switches over to working from home, women and girls are left more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse. In support of this, data from west African countries in the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak showed that concurrent with the lockdowns and closure of workplaces, schools and colleges, there was a steady increase in rape, sexual assault and violence against women and girls. NGOs working in Sierra Leone reported an upshot in teenage pregnancy rates from rapes and assaults, as young women and girls were at much higher risk at home. Overall, over one year, sexual violence increased 40per cent.
Globally, violence against women affects one in three women. Closer home, the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16) (NFHS-4) suggests that 30 per cent women in India in the age group of 15-49 have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. The report further reveals that 6 per cent women in the same age group have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. About 31 per cent of married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by their spouses.
In 2018, a United Nations study suggested globally, home was the most unsafe place for women. Of all female murders, an overwhelming 82 per cent happen in their marital homes, and are committed by an intimate partner or a family member. As special cases, the dowry related death and honour killings have found special mention in the report, where the natal home of a woman also frequently becomes a dangerous place for her.
Global lockdown and the rise in domestic violence cases
As more and more countries have entered lockdown, globally there is an alarming upshot in domestic violence related distress calls to support helplines and response shelters. From the Hubei province in China to Brazil, from France to the UK, countries from all continents have already noted a rise in violent crimes against women. In the province of Hubei in Wuhan, China, which is the heart of the first outbreak of the Coronavirus, domestic violence reports to police tripled during the February lockdown period and rose to 162 from 47 last year. According to local activists, 90 per cent of the new cases have their roots in the COVID-19 related lockdown. In Brazil state-run shelters are estimating 40-50 per cent rise in demands from endangered women. European countries report 20-30 per cent increases in calls to domestic violence helplines, from Catalonia to Cyprus. In Spain, where lockdown rules are among the strictest, with heavy fines levied on anyone not complying, domestic violence related fatalities have been reported in Valencia. In France, the interior minister has reported domestic violence incidents have shot up by more than 30 per cent since the country went into lockdown on March 17. Paris alone reported an up shot of 36 per cent. In the UK, calls to the national abuse hotline has gone up to 65 per cent last weekend. Minister Priti Patel has stated that survivors of abuse will be allowed to leave their homes seeking shelter and help from the police notwithstanding the lockdown.
Impact of lockdown on domestic violence in India
In India, the National Commission of Women has recorded 291 complaints of domestic violence in March and is now only receiving complaints via email. Alarmingly, the hotlines run by NGOs and volunteer organisations, that are usually the avenues for women to report such attacks are eerily silent. Most activists, as well as experts who run these shelters or have been intimately associated with domestic violence work at the grassroots, believe that this drop probably reflects the continuous presence of the abuser at home during the lockdown. With curtailed mobility and a police force that is more than apathetic towards gender-based violence, women are losing even the avenues that could have saved them from abuse, and in extreme cases, death.
Under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), police are not the first responder for women who experience domestic violence. The counselling centres are supposed to reach out to the complainants. During the lockdown the closure of these services can be lethal for women who need them. Even the Sukoon centres of Haryana which were established near the gynaecological wards for victims of sexual and physical abuse who needed medical attention as the first step are currently not running. India direly needs an alternative alert system and a swift response to rescue women from dangerous situations. The UP police had released an emergency helpline number 112, but it was not specifically a domestic violence related helpline but a rather generic number to send alerts about violent crimes. Also, there is no word about the efficacy of that helpline.
Recommendations to the government to ensure the safety of women during the lockdown
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described the surge in domestic violence across the globe horrifying and has urged all governments to think of this problem when they create and enforce policies. The Gender Equality Minister of France has announced that the French government will pay for up to 20,000 hotel nights for survivors and finance pop-up counselling centres at grocery stores for easy access to abuse survivors. Also, inspired by Spain, women are being given codewords such as “Mask-19” in pharmacy stores, which can act as an alarm-response mediator.
Here are some recommendations to the governments in the current context
1. It is critical that governments utilise a human rights and intersectional based approach to ensure that everyone, including the most marginalised, has access to necessary information, support systems and resources during the current crisis.
2. The state governments need to declare helplines as “essential services” that should remain open during lockdowns.
Disseminate information about gender-based violence and publicise resources and services available.
3. Increase resourcing for NGOs that respond to domestic violence and aid — including shelter, counselling, and legal aid — to survivors, and promote those that remain open.
4. Encourage the equitable sharing of domestic tasks at home.
5. Provide for the continued provision of healthcare services based on medical research and tests — unrelated to the virus — for women and girls.
6. Ensure women’s timely access to necessary and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services during the crisis, such as maternal health services, safe abortion etc.
As the steps to contain the transmission of the virus might require more stretches of isolation and confinement for the public, the government at the Centre and state levels need to address the upsurge in domestic violence immediately. For a lot of women, home is not the safe haven as normally believed. Their lives depend on the emergency response systems remaining functional.
[The author is the CEO & President of Breakthrough India and US]