“Didi was sobbing on the phone. She said her husband had lost his job and was venting his frustration on her. He would beat her every single day and even fling things at her sometimes,” said my friend Anamika (name changed). “She can’t even come back home due to the lockdown.”
On normal days, Anamika’s sister could have gone to her natal home, called up the police, or, at least, sought medical care. However, currently, these systems are methodically focused on dealing with COVID-19 cases.
The government is constantly emphasising the need to fight the coronavirus as well as the economic pandemics side-by-side. But we hardly get to hear any concerns about the third pandemic that is lurking round the corner – domestic violence.
Anamika’s sister is among the hundreds of women who have witnessed a surge in domestic violence in the past two months during the pandemic. The latter has only mushroomed the former, having forced many women to stay locked inside the “home” with their abusers, for months on end.
Between March 23 and April 16, the state-run National Commission for Women (NCW) registered 587 cases of domestic abuse. This number is a massive rise from 396 complaints reported between February 27 and March 22. But given that the commission relies primarily on online interactions, helpline numbers, and postal services for registering complaints, does this number display the whole picture? Well, not all women have access to these sources of communication. For instance, 57 % of the Indian women have little to no access to phones. Therefore, their chances of registering complaints are severely constrained.
The government appears to have given a cold shoulder to the concern that the lockdown puts a heavy burden on the women’s shoulders. Women are the primary caregivers in the family, looking after most, if not all, the domestic work. And with everyone indoors amid the lockdown, women’s domestic duties have multiplied.
The Odisha government urged men to not ask women to prepare food multiple times a day as though the lockdown were a holiday. While it is so kind of the government to have implored them to stop burdening women with domestic tasks, it is unclear why it didn’t ask them to share these tasks. Is domestic work a “woman’s thing” and hence, embarrassing for men? Is it less of a toil compared to the tasks that men perform?
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The answer to both the questions has to be a no.
The overload of domestic work, primarily regarded as the women’s field of work, gets close to breaking their shoulders when they are being abused in their own homes. “Stay Home, Stay Safe” is the mantra that is being remembered in this pandemic. But what does not need further emphasis is that for many women, staying home is anything but safe. Besides physical and sexual violence, women are subjected to verbal, emotional, and even economic abuse.
It was the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA) that broadened the definition of domestic abuse to include various types of abuse. The Act guarantees protection, maintenance, and compensation to the survivors of domestic violence. However, it is unfortunate that some provisions of the Act are governed on patriarchal lines. For instance, if Anamika’s sister’s ordeal is taken to court during this lockdown, it is she, and not her husband, who will be sent to state-run shelter homes for “protection”, where she is more prone to catching the coronavirus due to overcrowding and poor hygiene. Why not send the abuser to these shelter homes so that the woman may stay safe in her home?
In these trying times, the sheer necessity of the lockdown cannot be denied. It has definitely played a major role in containing the virus and, in turn, saving many lives. But the hastiness with which it has been implemented has left the vulnerable in the gutter, including the women. As noted, the NCW and the PWDVA have proven barely enough for women’s safety and security, especially during the lockdown.
France financed 20,000 hotel bookings for women seeking refuge from domestic abuse during the lockdown. Canada reallocated $50 million to support shelters for survivors of domestic violence. The Indian government too has to prioritise the safety and well-being of women as much as they are mulling over saving lives and protecting the economy.
It has to alert the police to increasing domestic violence in every nook and corner of the states. Besides, the organisations mandated to aid women have to open up ways of communication that are accessible to women from all walks of life, including those who cannot afford smartphones and postal services. For instance, countries like Italy, Spain, and Argentina have adopted Mask-19 wherein a woman asking for such type of mask at the pharmacy signifies that she is in trouble, thus alerting the pharmacist to contact the authorities.
Our battle is against three parallel pandemics. And neglecting any of them could throw the nation in a severe quandary. The government also has to place an attentive ear against the walls behind which many women, just like Anamika’s sister, are sobbing inconsolably.
Their voices must not be left unheard.
Praharsh Prasoon is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University. Besides academics, he is usually involved in reading, writing, public speaking, and music. He writes on his personal blog therarecandor.blogspot.com.
Featured image credit: Reuters