The pandemic and the accompanying lockdown bring in their folds severe hardships for women who are thus disproportionately affected.
This is the 4th post of our COVID-19 Series.
While the world sits at home fighting a health battle every hour, the women’s lot is to suffer more and face the social ramifications of the pandemic. Women across the world, and especially in Asia are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. Maria Holtsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at UN Women Asia and Pacific said that “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality” and rightly so, as we see multiple cases of domestic abuse against women. There are thousands of individual reports on social media platforms which is evident by the fact that the hashtag #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic has been discussed more than 3000 times on the Chinese social media platform, Sina Weibo.
According to the data accessed by the PTI, the National Commission for Women (NCW) in India received 69 complaints pertaining to domestic violence on email since the lockdown till 30th March. The chairperson of NCW Rekha Sharma apprehends that the number must be higher, however, women don’t have the adequate support and capacity to come out of their houses and ask for help. They are scared due to ongoing violence and abuse. The pandemic creates logistical problems for women who are not able to reach out to the police or call out for help to friends or family due to isolation or social distancing. There is fear instilled in their minds that if they go to police stations, they will be at a larger risk of abuse by their husbands. Lack of financial resources and non-availability of health facilities makes women all the more vulnerable who then find it even more difficult to reach out for the required medical aid. Rural, migrant, disabled and other categories of women have been deeply affected due to loss of jobs and access to other economic activities.
The Culture of Power Dynamics
Domestic Violence is one of the most common gendered forms of violence in a patriarchal setup. The practice of sexual abuse stems from the constructions of gender and sexuality wherein men want to exert power over the bodies of women and deprive them of their bodily sovereignty. Women are repeatedly subjected to violence in order to maintain and reinforce the idea of oppression. This problem is not merely limited to physical abuse and violence. Another underlying problem which stems from domestic abuse is the culture of marital rape. When men pay no heed to the meaningful consent of women and treat them as their property, the dividing line between rape and consensual heterosexual activity is often smudged. Therefore, women’s agency is completely taken away in cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
The spaces for women even during normal times are not safe and the isolation in wake of the epidemic makes those spaces an even bigger arena of power conflicts. Aggravated by unknown distress of financial pressure and stress, the abusers would want to assert domination over their partners to satiate this lack of control over life. This consequently reduces women as mere objects owned and controlled by men, wired to function in order to please men. Therefore, power dynamics are a major contributor to the increased cases of domestic violence against women.
Apathetic Legal Infrastructure
Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code was a step taken for reducing domestic violence cases by criminalizing cruelty by husbands and in-laws. Even though this helped women to get out of abusive relationships, this application of this section is restricted in its scope as it does not take into account the day to day experience of violence in the household. Daily occurrences of mental and emotional agony during the course of marital life are often not looked into by the Court which only considers more violent and serious cases of physical and sexual abuse which can be established through medical evidence. These incidents take place in households where due to familial and societal pressure it becomes difficult for women to approach the Court. This shows failure of the judiciary as often this process is a long drawn one with a conviction rate of less than 10%.
A study by the International Centre for Research on Women stated that at the primary stage, women are afraid to approach the police to file their complaints. This is because police do not take up their claims seriously and women have to go through the mental trauma of character assassination. While there is establishment of All Women Police Stations, it remains a token attempt because of a lack of staff and infrastructure. Therefore, in many domestic violence cases, the victim is deprived of the power to take legal action.
Responses of Other Nations to the Increased Cases of Abuse
Almost all the nations are facing a manifold increase in the number of abuse cases reported since the lockdown. China’s Hubei province, an initial epicentre of the outbreak saw domestic violence reports nearly double while the calls to the women-helpline in Tunisia have increased fivefold. These nations are increasing awareness and providing women with hotlines to help them out during the crisis. Nations such as France, have decided to fund for hotel rooms for the victims of domestic violence and set-up counselling centres for women since there was a 36% increase in the number of cases of domestic violence. In addition to this, France has also decided to provide financial assistance of an additional one million euros to the organizations working for helping the domestic violence victims. In Spain and France, the government came up with a unique idea wherein women can go to the pharmacist and request for a ‘Mask 19’ which shall be the code word for domestic abuse. The pharmacist can then contact the authorities and try to save women from abuse. India could install the same measures in order to provide financial support and security to women.
The problem becomes clear that with the increased interaction of men and women in shared households, the cases of abuse are rising. The lack of vision and poor planning by the government was one of the major factors which had an adverse impact on the situation of women who were already vulnerable in their places. Had there been a proper warning before the lockdown these women would not have been forced to stay in their matrimonial houses and would have a chance to move to a safer shelter. It is pertinent that immediate steps are taken to help these women. While the healthcare system in India is already overloaded, teams of doctors and paramedical staff should be made available in every part of the country for assisting women undergoing abuse.
There should be no reason why the police should take the shelter of a pandemic for not understanding the gravity of such cases and registering the cases of sexual abuse. Special women forces should be asked to take charge which should assist women in need. Even though it might not be feasible to go to the courts while the pandemic persists, women facing violence could be transported with immediate effect to safer places away from their husbands. The Supreme Court has decided to go ahead with video conferencing for the disposal of urgent matters. This requires that the courts should be more vigilant and sensitive and take up these cases on priority through virtual means by providing immediate relief to abused partners. Therefore, it is concluded that it is necessary to put a check on these rising cases of domestic abuse before this deeply affects the entire world.
The author is a student at NLSIU, Bengaluru.