It’s time to also act on the pandemic of sexual and gender-based violence
The coronavirus, or COVID-19 disease, has infected at least 700,000 people all over the world. To combat it and to flatten the curve of infections, governments have taken extreme measures like shutting down schools, lockdowns, quarantines, grounding of all air travel, closing of borders and at an individual level we are self-isolating and social distancing.
As I watch rapid response to the pandemic take place, and as I reflect from my home as I self-isolate, I cannot help but draw parallels to another pandemic that I have been working on for the last seven years - sexual and gender based violence.
Gender-based violence ranges from non-verbal, verbal, physical, financial, electronic, political forms of violence targeted at someone because of their gender.
According to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, “At its core, violence against women and girls is the manifestation of a profound lack of respect – a failure by men to recognise the inherent equality and dignity of women. It is an issue of fundamental human rights.”
Every major institution, The United Nations, The World Bank and even the World Health Organisation has labelled it as a pandemic since at least one in three women around the world experience some form of violence least in their lifetime. This isn’t an issue that just women should care about, though. Every year UN Women organises 16 Days of Activism from November 25 to December 10 and last year launched the Generation Equality campaign so that men can become more involved and take urgent responsibility to end this pandemic.
In India, as a nation we began to pay more attention to this issue in December 2012 when men gang raped Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. She died and people of all ages took to the streets in outrage. The government launched the Nirbhaya Fund to end violence against women. Yet, the follow through has been lacking.
It is unfortunate that to date, less than 10 percent of the funds have been utilised in India. Sex education is not part of the education curriculum and we still don’t want to openly talk about the taboo that is sexual violence. Yet, given the silence, the reported numbers of cases are extremely high with the National Crime Research Bureau statistics indicating a rape occurs in India every 15 minutes. The pandemic is in our country and unlike the response to COVID-19, we are not acting fast enough to prevent it.
So, what can we do? Even though gender-based violence is a human-caused social problem, not an infectious disease, we can learn from the current coronavirus pandemic.
a) Data - First of all, we need accurate data, just like we need more testing of COVID19 to understand the scope of the problem. However, the silence around the issue prevents women and girls and gender minorities from speaking up about the violence. We must make it easier, non-judgmental and safe for people to come forward and report. Once you have the data, you can efficiently and effectively allocate resources including funds, medical help and personnel to address and prevent the violence in a timely manner.
b) Education - Just like we have viral videos circulating and an overload of information on how to protect oneself during COVID19, we can ensure that every single person right from a young age is able to recognise what are the different forms of sexual violence, how to prevent it and what are the redressal mechanisms available for survivors.
c) Funding - Pandemics need vast amount of financial resources to address it. The United States Senate just passed funding for USD 2 trillion emergency relief for COVID19 and India has announced a package too recently. Fortunately for gender-based violence pandemic, in India we have the Nirbhaya Fund, that is currently lying unutilised, which is unacceptable. We should insist on accountability in fund utilisation for health and counselling resources, effective helplines and integrated crisis centres, fast track courts, education and sensitivity training at all levels and measure the impact. If more are needed, so be it. Corporates and governments should step up and invest in fighting this pandemic as it impacts half the population and thereby the other half as we know full well with this pandemic, we are interdependent.
d) Legislation – Every day new policies are being passed on COVID-19 to meet the latest need. And it’s being enforced. We are ahead when it comes to dealing with gender-based violence because we have laws, and in India at least we have the necessary laws for most categories of sexual and gender-based violence. What we need now is better implementation and execution of it in an empathetic, sensitive, time bound manner so that justice is served and there is no abdication of responsibility.
e) Social norms - If we can quickly learn new digital etiquettes and Namastes for COVID19, why do we find it hard to bust gender norms and stereotypes that promote and normalise violence? At this point in time, we are showing that norms can be quickly adapted, so let’s put our minds to make our thoughts, acts and deeds gender neutral.
f) Individual action - Ultimately, it comes down to each one of us. Neither pandemic can be solved by just one type of person. A pandemic rips through society across class, caste and race. We are all in it together. We have to watch each other’s backs. Let’s educate ourselves about gender-based violence, intervene when we see something, advocate on someone else’s behalf and hold each other accountable.
It is my hope that we can use this time to focus on eradicating not just one but both pandemics whilst we are socially distancing and reflecting. Let’s emerge kinder, stronger, safer with more empathy.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)