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Opinion: COVID-19 Only Re-Opened The ‘Pandora’s Box’ Of Domestic Violence

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TW: Domestic abuse, violence

We can all take responsibility for helping to bring about change, and keeping our friends and colleagues safe from domestic violence,” said Charles Clarke.

I want to pen down my thoughts on the injustices that have been occurring since years on the women in almost every nook and corner of the world. It is high time that the society, along with social organisations, intervenes in bringing an end to such age-old disturbances that still go on behind the closed doors, between newly married couples to old couples, or among the live-in relationships.

Unfortunately, these wounds and bruises on women are still present, despite the presence of 25 of the most powerful global organizations, including the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women). Likewise, it is even worse in India despite so many organizations operating locally, along with the laws and policy meant to safeguard women’s rights and safety.

Jadavpur University students protesting against domestic violence
So, when and how can there be an end to so many cases of violence against women in India for good? (Photo by Debsuddha Banerjee/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As stated in many reports, such violence has increased manifold during the lockdown due to COVID-19, around the world. There has been an upsurge of reports of such cases globally, mainly in countries like China, France, Italy, US, New Zealand and so on.

Yes, in India, right from dowry practices to rigid patriarchal influence, domestic violence is not something new, and not something we haven’t heard about. In some cases, justice is served while in some, the women continue bearing the intolerance until she is destined to survive.  

Coming to the issues of domestic violence in India, as per the National Commission for Women (NCW), the upsurge of these cases has been seen during the early lockdown period between February and May, especially from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Haryana. It’s shocking to know from media sources that around 700 cases were reported in Punjab immediately after the curfew and during the lockdown.

It’s also not the case that measures by the public authorities weren’t taken this time. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the Government introduced helpline numbers for people to direct their complaints to. The Kerala Government, being proactive as usual, launched WhatsApp numbers for the immediate reporting of such cases. In Punjab, the Jalandhar Police Commissionerate provided online counselling for those domestic violence survivors through teleconferencing. But, despite all such measures taken by the concerned authorities, instances of domestic violence during the lockdown, both physical and psychological, had taken a toll in India. 

So, when and how can there be an end to so many cases of violence against women in India for good? Why do women, no matter if they’re married or single, have to always take the brunt of the bruises and wounds, physically, psychologically, or emotionally? Why does she have to search for her respect again and again?

Why is it that no matter how educated a woman is, she is chained with the word called ‘duty’ when it comes to her abusive husband, abusive in-laws, and emotionally distressing familial and work ties? We have ended up with the question ‘why’ because the solutions have never been followed, or couldn’t be followed due to societal pressures and the lack of the right actions and right decisions.

This pandemic had led to many obstructions including the loss of jobs, led to the inaccessibility of police stations or social workers, and all these had severely impacted families with low-wage earnings or families where only one member of the family is the sole-earner. Some say because of the sudden frustration there has been a rise in cases and complaints as there is no one to listen and help at such wee hours, and everything just remains confined within the four walls of the house.

But, is a reason enough to lead to such cases? Is this the first time such cases and complaints have been lodged from such families? Of course, no!  In one sense, thanks to COVID-19 and the lockdown, the real truth and heartbreaking pictures have been displayed, re-awakening the concerned authorities, social workers, policy implementers, and the concerned citizens of the Nation.

But, this time, will any move turn out to be effective? Or adhering to the already-existing Domestic Violence Act, 2005, will any strong action be taken against the abusers, no matter if it is the husband or a lover, a person in the workplace or toxic in-laws repeatedly responsible for bringing fears into a woman’s mind?

 “It is your duty to serve the way you are asked to do, else you are not considered to be a good woman, a good daughter-in-law, a good wife, and a good mother.” This is what is being preached, even today, in most conservative and misogynistic families and societies in India to their girls. As they grow up, till she attains puberty, gets married, has their children, and at times even after their children are capable enough to settle down in their life, women and girls are compelled to perform these ‘duties’.

These claustrophobic traditions keep dominating the young minds unless someone dares to speak against it. When someone is suffocating because of such physical and emotional abuse, they dare raise their voice and that’s how a complaint is lodged. At the same time, millions are silently taking the brunt of the unheard pains on their shoulders for the sake of their family and society. And

I strongly feel that such violence can only come to an end when society puts an effort to bring some change in such conservative areas, changing their ‘illiberal’ attitude towards women.

Teaching our sons how respecting a woman is the most valuable culture to adopt before falling in love with a woman. When men from such societies will learn to stand up for women, knowing when to keep his male ego aside, and fight when the abusive or toxic in-laws commit severe punishment and treat their daughter-in-law as their ‘slave’ and constantly disrespect her emotions and existence.  

 Out of all the kinds of domestic violence, the emotional and psychological abuses can be considered to be really disturbing and toxic, particularly for women who are introverts and are bogged down by her family’s insupportable thoughts and vision.

In the words of Aisha Mirza, “It is not the bruises of the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.” 

No one purposely gets married to a violent partner. Often, in the case of arranged marriages, only after the marriage do women come to know of the true colours of her husband and her in-laws. But, despite that, due to societal pressures, the woman’s desires are put off, and she is either convinced that it is her destiny or that it is too late to break the cage.

On the other hand, it is heart-wrenching to say that, in case of love marriages too. There are, in fact, incidences where she realises that even with her man, whom she dated for many years and loved so much, after marriage she is now more obliged to fulfil his family duties and live a caged life. She has to sacrifice her dreams and emotions rather than being his wife and the woman she always wanted to be.

Representational image.

I feel that in India, it is said that a woman is not just married to her life partner but to his entire family. In the fear of society, honour and respect, some make their way out with all courage in their heart while some silently agree to pass their entire life inside a dark shell. In this context, I would say, I know a woman who has gone through such emotional abuse despite being in a ‘love marriage’, for whom she had left her own family and had to surrender herself to the new conservative cultural shock. Not that she silently agreed to stay inside the dark shell, but she took a stand for herself and today, she got all that she had lost. But unfortunately, healthwise, it was too late for her, and she is still coping with her mental illnesses today. 

To end domestic violence, to end more such visible and invisible cases, the age-old stereotypes have to be broken with a sound mind and clarity. We have to make people aware, especially the illiberal families that get a girl married. No one should have the right to restrict anyone’s freedom and dreams and should shower her with the same love and respect they demand from her for their son and to his family and society. 

Social organizations working on gender equality must immediately come forward and must be given the authority to take strict actions against such families when such cases are reported.  Thanks to the initiative taken by the All-India Council of Human Rights Liberties and Social Justice during COVID-19 for filing petitions for the survivors. The Delhi High Court had also issued notices to various government bodies to respond appropriately to this distress. But, the question remains: How well are these measures implemented and monitored?

Are these measures implemented equally for all families? Because in India, apart from the middle-class families or low-wage families, such incidences are also often found in the so-called high-class, and even conservative families. Also, considering the situation of the pandemic, are these measures effective enough to immediately have an impact?

 As in European countries like France, Germany, Italy initiatives like Mask-19 Campaign has been put in place, in association with the pharmacies, likewise, the Government of India can take such steps in association with the local pharmacies, grocery stores, supermarkets etc.

In fact, in New Zealand, the concept of providing immediate shelters to survivors is another good initiative which can be replicated in India with the help of some Government guest houses or hotels, in association with the respective social organizations or concerned police authorities.

Although some states in India have started the concept of WhatsApp chats to access counselling services or online counselling sessions, more such apps and immediate support measures should be taken up through a missed call service or normal text messages. This should also make accessible police stations or the public authorities of the concerned locality.

Another measure could be the online platforms on social media that could be a modem to reach particular agencies that can help women and those fighting for gender inequalities. In today’s world, social media can be a powerful tool and therefore, should be used efficiently. 

However, apart from the feasible initiatives that could be taken by the respective organizations, it is the duty of every citizen to report any such violence occurring in their locality. In fact, being neighbours, friends, or relatives or even any distant family friends, it is high time we are sensible and listen to the survivor if she shares her feelings, and give her adequate support and courage to report and seek justice.

Hence, no matter whatever initiatives are taken by the concerned local authorities, the law and the Government body, responsible social organizations must keep trying to make people aware, especially the youth, to raise their voices against the injustices and fight for a good cause. For this to happen, firstly, the age-old stereotypes, such as forcing a girl to get married early, that a woman has to give birth after her marriage even if it is not her wish, and the stereotypes like ‘marriages happen between families not only between two people’ should be completely erased from the minds of the people.

Secondly, the entertainment world in India can bring such revolutionary change. Introducing more movies like Thappad, Pink or any such shows that can send strong messages making a significant impact on gender inequalities, and can help women come forward to fight for her right in the society. The same can also influence men to develop a sensible outlook on women.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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