We are going through a time which is witnessing a unique challenge, in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by a newly identified coronavirus which has threatened human life all around the globe. This health pandemic is further accompanied by an “economic pandemic”, which has threatened the livelihood of billions.
However, in these tough times, there is another shadow epidemic of domestic violence, which is putting the physical and mental health of many women in Indian households in danger.
The latest data released by the National Commission of Women show a two-fold increase in gender-based violence. Globally, a vast number of cases continued to be reported in the UK, France, Spain and other western countries during lengthy lockdown enforced to contain the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.
The reasons are manifold. First, traditionally, women’s role in the family has been as a primary caregiver, which further gets deepened during any medical emergency or disease when women assume the role of informal caretakers. With the market closed and children at home, the burden of running family and kitchen has entirely fallen on women’s shoulders.
The little saved money is already washed out, leaving behind episodes of daily quarrels between a husband and wife. These small quarrels may not result in immediate fight or violence, but as famous psychologist Sigmund Freud highlighted, the frustration builds up over time, which comes out later in the form of anger and violence.
In some households, due to widespread anxiety about the Coronavirus, even a little sneeze of women produces the virtual fear of Covid-19 and provides an instantaneous reason for starting disputes and triggering violence. This anxiety is accentuated when women return from a neighbours home or local grocery shop and sneeze or cough. The following abuse often involves derogatory remarks about women’s character and their family lineage, causing extreme mental trauma.
There are many reasons which may cause a man to behave violently. First of all, the lockdown has brought a chain of job-loss and unemployment. The resulting high level of stress is causing a significant amount of frustration in men. Living the whole day inside the home has debarred men from performing their previous work.
This no-work has perhaps given to the rise of a sense of powerlessness and perception of diminished masculinity. As a defence mechanism of primitive ego, a man often retreats to exert coercive control on day to day things. Any disobedience or deviation from his line of thought leads to quarrels. A recent case of a man harshly beating his wife, leading to injury to her spinal cord when he lost a game of Ludo, is an example of this coercive control.
There is also another component to the pain of the half population; sexual violence. When men are at home, and there is nothing to do, they often demand random, frequent and untimely sex. The increasing demand often sees “request” of something novel and different from routine sex. The fear of refusing sex and its repercussions are resulting in non-consensual painful sexual experiences and followed trauma for women.
Those women living in conservative cultures are especially vulnerable to sexual violence as traditionally they do not have much say and choice in the act of sex. It must be mentioned that the difficulty of accessing on-counter contraceptives has further increased the gravity of sexual abuse. Women working in night shifts during lockdown are facing unwanted, inappropriate and traumatising sexual advances.
A fraction of the things mentioned above were happening even before lockdown. But due to the lockdown, women who were earlier having a support network in the form of friends, family, co-workers, etc. have become almost cut-off from them.
To that, reporting domestic violence under normal circumstances has always been very difficult in India, which has become impossible in the time of the Coronavirus as the state machinery is busy tracing and handling Covid-19 patients. The continuous family pressure and fear of torture by in-laws, and the tendency to hide it from children to save relationships are the biggest bottlenecks in reporting domestic violence.
It is not that women are the only population who are facing domestic violence. A significant number of men, although comparatively very less, are vulnerable to similar challenges. However, the violence may not manifest in physical form, and subside itself in the form of emotional abuse and attack on the self-esteem of a man. Similarly, older people, after their 60s, may face massive mental trauma due to frequent comments on the purpose of their existence.
As all schools are closed, children are already forced to stay at home round the time. Those children who are orphans and living with their relatives are especially susceptible to unpaid, coerced child labour and emotional abuse during the lockdown. Most importantly, people, and especially women, with some form of physical or mental disability, are the most vulnerable group during this lockdown period.
Finally, with the increase in the use of social media during the lockdown, there is another challenge in the form of cyber harassment. This challenge is involving offensive and sexually explicit messages and advancements through mails and social media leading to bullying, sexual trolling, blackmailing and mental violence to which teenagers are especially vulnerable.
The institutions must not run away from this gross problem just by saying that this is the “collateral damage” of Covid-19, and “it will ease out over time”. To combat the situation, multi-level planning and efforts, along with cooperation from different strata of society, are needed.
There can be organised formal campaigns on public platforms and social media with an emphasis on good interpersonal relations among family members during the lockdown. Special campaigns on the prevention of domestic violence like “#SayNotoDomesticViolence” are immediately needed.
Governments must ensure the wide publicity, quick attendance and rapid resolution of complaints on 24×7 women helpline. A specially empowered separate unit for the prevention of domestic violence must be installed at all police stations across the country. Those first responders must be trained in law enforcement, emergency options and psychological support.
Additionally, older people and women must be made more financially empowered during such lockdown by DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) schemes. The government must develop policies and institutions which can fight and further prevent the spread of fake news related to Covid-19. This effort will help eradicate unnecessary anxiety among the masses.
In local villages and Mohallas, the network of Asha/Anganwadi can be exploited to form self-assistance groups, look out for any sign of abuse, and offer counselling and psychological support. This step will also help women to be in contact with each other and get emotional support. For this step, firstly, Asha’s pay must be increased. Women must stay connected with the outside world with the help of closed social media/Facebook groups where they can ask for support or break down the feeling of isolation. This effort will immensely help in coping with stress during the lockdown.
The whole family can do a lot of productive work together, including cooking new recipes, playing collective games, exploring a new hobby, etc. However, no change comes overnight and, hence, a prolonged public conditioning or behavioural nudge is needed, which can change the rudimentary mindset of society, and especially men, and induce gender amity. A strong message from law enforcement should reach all sections of society that no impunity will be available in such cases of domestic and sexual violence.