Domestic violence - looking at the pandemic from a gender lens

There are millions of women living in India witnessing and experiencing another pandemic within the pandemic – the virus called domestic violence.

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. Who would have thought in late December when we saw the first mentions of an epidemic-like situation in Wuhan, that months later the world would come to a standstill because of COVID-19.

The pandemic the world over and in India has seen a phenomenon quite unprecedented. The repercussions are immense and each country has a huge set of issues to address. While we understand that the weak get weaker and the vulnerable more vulnerable, the gender angle to this entire issue is even more complicated and frightening to understand.

From a gender lens

People in the lockdown are losing jobs. It has made us all immobile, confined to our homes and waiting for the news channels to give updates and news on those affected, recovering and those who have succumbed to the virus.

Have you thought about how the implications of all this affects different people differently? There are millions of women living in India witnessing and experiencing another pandemic within the pandemic – the virus called domestic violence. This, as practitioners like us know, is a grave issue, we didn’t quite see this coming in the way it seems to have!

Lockdown and men

Since lockdown, women are stuck at home with everyone, particularly their spouses and children. Men are losing jobs or being closely monitored on various tech platforms by their bosses. There is a trust deficit across the country in different industries. Are people being productive? Are they actually working?

In the informal sector the problems are much worse. Men here are typically daily wage earners who either have small shops, odd jobs, sell on carts and earn a living by the day. They are reduced to staying at home all day. The man who would take all the decisions in the house is now forced to stretch his hand to take food from someone who cooks and delivers to the slums. The man lies idle all day, hopelessly wondering how to run the house and when he will be able to go to work, and if there will be any work left, once all this is over.

Lockdown and women

Those men who would earlier gulp down stress with toddy, are today reacting by beating up the weakest in the house – the women and children. Where will the violence survivors go? On a normal day she could wait for the man to leave the house and run for help if it’s too much to take, or just regenerate herself in the time that her husband is away. Today, she is stuck with the abuser all day and night and is unable to seek any support.

Women are also the care givers and the ones to look after the entire households. We cook, clean and run the house as usual, more so now with everyone at home. Domestic help or daily wage earners have been asked not to come to work and many don’t receive any pay during the lockdown period. In the formal sector, women continue to report to their bosses, go through the same trust deficit issues that their male counterparts experience and a step more – harassment and chiding remarks from male bosses on “Surely you will be cooking, will you have time to work? Why don’t you take leave?”

Globally, one in three women experience gender based violence and most of this is intimate partner violence. And it is proven that this violence only increases during a crisis. By mid-March many countries like Australia, Brazil, China and Us experienced increased violence at home and one police station in China had 162 reports in Feb of Intimate partner Violence.

Closer home in Bengaluru, the NGO Parihar who runs the Vanita Sahaya Vani received 30-40 calls a day in March and continue to do so. The National Commission for Women has received a 100 percent increase in calls on its helpline 181 with issues of domestic violence.

Lockdown and children

Many children are silent sufferers during this global pandemic. They see violence, experience abuse. and deal with trauma all alone. On a normal day they would easily escape all these by running away to school or play with friends.

In fact, there have been cases in slums and rural India that I have personally heard from children, where parents have felt that the child is anyway not in school and hence its best for her to be married. At least there will be one mouth less to feed.

UNICEF estimates one in 6 children globally between twp and 14 years of age experience regular punishment and abuse and seven in 10 experience psychological pressure and stress. One in 10 girls under 18 experience forced intercourse. All this increases during crisis again

The data from Childline with 1098 as the number, cited widely says that over 1,000 cases a week are reported with three in 5 cases coming for girls and the rest for boys

The Makkala Sahayavani in Bengaluru has received double the calls it usually does during the lockdown (all data available in public domain).

Domestic violence as a result of lockdown

The pandemic has clearly caused another pandemic, that of violence. It’s brewing in millions of households and not restricted in any way to certain strata of society. It stems from uncertainty, an unprecedented health crisis, fear of losing jobs, proximity to the partner for weeks, frustration, excessive work and responsibilities at home and inequities in our head owing to patriarchy.

What will happen?

My fear is that post-lockdown the world will continue to see increasing cases of domestic violence. Homes may break, children could lose parents, women may be abandoned, and society will need to find a way to recoup. Do we have the capacity to address this?

The Government has a 181 helpline that offers little support for consequences of violence like mental health and counselling and also psycho-socio support.

Also, helplines are insufficient to handle the rise in the number of cases. A number of helplines are not equipped with the right kind of counselling support for women and children. The helplines are also not widely known to all and are not advertised by police and government.

The immediate place for a survivor when she experiences violence that is severe is a safe space. In a patriarchal country, women are respected only when we are in our marital homes. Women are taught that they have to stay in the marriage. The first thing that disintegrates when a woman is to leave home is her self-worth and respect from others. If this is not enough, there aren’t enough spaces for women to go to, like shelters and hostels. Her access to legal justice is the next long battle.

Shelters even on a normal day has limits of the number of individuals they can house. With minimum space to be maintained between people these numbers are lower now.

Need of the hour

What we need is a huge coming together of civil society, building an armour around ourselves collectively. A combination of interventions is required. Immediate relief support like dry rations for families that need it, and livelihood options for women once the lockdown is over. Post lockdown when women are able to leave their homes, they will need immediate mental health support and counselling. This period of lockdown is the best time to prepare field teams towards this. Tele-counselling and city-wide helplines are important. Legal counselling and training of front-end staff to identify cases is also important.

The immediate need is to have huge awareness campaigns to build knowledge on what is identified as domestic violence and what are the immediate steps to take and helpline details. NGOs and activists should advocate for swift action by police and the law. While the pandemic caused by the virus continues to play havoc the pandemic that is going viral should be controlled.

Our own role

It doesn’t stop with governments and civil society. As bystanders, as society, each of us has a role to play. We should be together in sisterhood or human-hood, as you choose. It’s important to check on families on phone, reach out to people who we recognise as vulnerable and offer support – of hearing them out at least. What we could do for starters is make it a point to call up two people we know every day, just to check on them and assure support.

 (Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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