When the lockdown was announced, all I complained about was how hard studying from home was. Never did I think of the women who are stuck with their abusers. That is the case for so many women across the world since the current pandemic shut down everything and confined us to our homes for months on end.
Historically, India has not done too well on the subject of gender-based violence. What else can be expected from a country which has been recognized as the world’s most dangerous country for women? But that is nowhere near the inequalities which many women face around the world. Approximately one in three women around the world experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Nearly four in every ten female homicides are committed by an intimate partner, often at home.
This pandemic may have increased domestic violence, but for many who have worked on the issue, it has only confirmed what we already knew: for most of the female population, the home was never a safe place.
Today, as the numbers rise, we all need to acknowledge that this is a crisis we can no longer ignore.
We can no longer tolerate patriarchal norms and governing bodies that overlook domestic violence and dismiss it as a “family matter.”
No longer can we accept that so many women live in fear in their own homes. This should very well be our wake-up call. We owe this to the many who succumb to the repression and violence they face in their own homes, even after this pandemic is a thing of the past.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the statistics for violence against women has risen significantly and rapidly. This is what is called the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ within the larger pandemic of COVID-19. This pandemic has taken away all the services dedicated to helping domestic violence victims like health services and essential services, such as domestic violence shelters and helplines are already at capacity.
The increase in violence is not just because of physical confinement but because of so many other factors which the pandemic has caused. The world is facing massive economic dislocation, looming unemployment, frequently the threat of hunger and poverty also comes along. There is no disagreeing that both men and women are impacted by this global crisis, but it has been noticed that violence against women typically increases during periods of high unemployment.
While there are several laws protecting women like the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act 2005, there are several problems with the implementation of it. The Act prohibits a wide range of abuse against women such as physical, emotional, sexual and economical which are all defined in detail under the Act. Additionally, the scope of the Act also covers women who are in a live-in relationship and not married.
While all these are great legal initiatives against domestic violence, the question of implementation remains. If one glances at these laws in action, you will see several shortcomings like the refusal of the police to file a case in some cases and the delays in the criminal justice system. So, it is a long journey from the point when women decide they want to stop living in a repressive environment till the point they get appropriate legal resolution. First of all, they have to go through the pain of narrating one’s story again and again and defending it too. All this while they are burdened by the fact that society wants a victim to appear powerless and timid.
This brings us to the fact that it is quintessential to address the root causes of violence – women’s powerlessness. Society has normalized and justified domestic violence for so long that women themselves are unable to speak up against it. We are all now looking at the next big step which is awareness.
Women need to be made aware of what counts as violence and what is not acceptable behaviour, maybe this will push more women to recognize it and report it to their family and friends if not immediately to the police or legal authorities.
We also need to create supportive social circles where women feel safe enough to share their stories of abuse. Right now, the conversation on social media and in general has made violence a very light subject which of course makes the victims feel like what they are facing is normal.
In current times, both social support systems and legal discourse are hard to get. A resolution which can prove to be appropriate is recognition by the administration and law enforcement agencies of the magnitude of the problem. The priority should be reaching out to women in distress which evidently needs to be categorized as an essential service. There is a need to create safe spaces where women can be taken to and where they can live in the absence of a safe environment at home.
Since several hotels are not opening up right now because of the pandemic, their rooms can be converted into safe spaces and the women can be given some sort of security. Whereas in rural areas, the first point of contact for the victims can be the frontline health workers along with women’s self-help groups and panchayats.
As the government is trying to flatten the COVID-19 curve, we also need to pitch in and make sure that the shadow pandemic curve does not rise more than it is already. This should not be a competition between the two curves, but we do need to relocate resources back to this crisis of domestic violence. This pandemic has shown us not to take things for granted, well the same goes for women’s lives. These lives are too precious to suffer so much.