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In Covid Times, Indian Women Are Facing This Additional Threat To Their Health

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

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.

With the market closed and children at home, the burden of running family and kitchen has entirely fallen on women’s shoulders. Representational image

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.

Cyber Harassment

Special campaigns on the prevention of domestic violence like “#SayNotoDomesticViolence” are immediately needed.

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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