“Didi, phone ab humaare paas nahin rehta hai, yahi rakhtey hain phone. Abhi toh sab theek hai. Hum bata denge aapko koi zaroorat hogi toh… Ya yeh bata denge (I don’t have my phone, he keeps it. It’s okay right now, I’ll let you know if we need anything… or he will),” said Mala (name changed) when we reached out to her on her number to check if her family needed any supplies.
The call was received by her husband, who gave us the information. When we insisted that we also wanted to speak to Mala, he preferred to disconnect the call.
The unprecedented lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 has also, as many reports have captured, resulted in an unanticipated crisis for food and essentials among the poorer sections of society. Migrant workers – including domestic workers like Mala – find themselves in a state of utter despair.
It’s not just that they are struggling to cope with the immense uncertainty of these times. Rather, it is the sudden loss of agency of these women – independent and mobile, bringing in vital incomes and important social connections through their relationships with wealthier employers – that renders them instantly reduced to the caricatures that patriarchal families make of them: servile, docile, voiceless and relegated to care work.
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For such women, urban employment has enabled small everyday freedoms – like being able to have a mobile phone, and to receive and make calls just for herself as she pleased – that have helped such women somewhat break free of the rigid social norms of the village, so deeply entrenched in caste and gender linked power structures.
Now, forced to be together indoors, households are falling back on age-old entrenched gender norms and an atmosphere in which men are quick to re-establish themselves fully atop the intra-household power structure. Poor urban households often share mobile phones and women almost always require permissions to use them.
While these permissions are granted for when they step outside the home to earn a living, it is a different story inside the house. In times of the lockdown, the man of the house keeps the phone – their sole slim connection to the world at large. He decides to take the phone call, have the conversation. He decides what information needs to be given to whom, and if the woman is ‘allowed’ to have a conversation. Her body, her voice is more policed than ever.
More urgently, a sense of privacy that women had been able to claim as a result of their financial contributions, is also now utterly lost. “Ab toh ghar mein hi band hain didi. Sab ek doosre ko dekhtey rehtey hain. Kahin jaa aur aa toh sakte nahin. Baatein bhi alag se ab nahin ho paati (Now we’re stuck at home only and keep staring at one another. We can’t go anywhere. I can’t even speak privately with someone,” Reshma (name changed), a domestic worker tells us in a whispered conversation about how she is coping with the lockdown.
For women in congested and highly patriarchal households, the freedom to express never existed within the home; with mobility suspended and access to communication devices highly supervised, the ability to converse freely is completely curtailed.
The little whispers are testimony to this new harsh reality.
The lockdown has more serious – and less obvious – consequences for women. Out of work and cooped up inside small homes, men – usually accustomed to unbridled mobility and freedom – are quick to find fault with women.
In a recent blog, Kalpana Vishwanath, co-founded of Gurgaon-based digital start-up Safetipin has highlighted how lockdowns across the world have resulted in a rising number of domestic violence incidents. For those in abusive relationships, the lockdown could well mean getting trapped with your abuser. Safetipin and child rights activists too, have called for helplines to offer succour to these vulnerable individuals, but there has yet been no state response on this.
We know from the images flashing on our TV screens that many such households have also opted to leave and find a way back home. These decisions too have been taken typically by the men, and the problems that women might particularly face in walking long distances without access to toilets and while having to attend to children, are likely not adequately considered.
It is abundantly clear that the nationwide lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Even as the government activates direct cash transfers to the accounts of women-headed households, is unfortunate there is little thought – leave alone policy attention – to the gendered dynamics of patriarchal households and the vulnerabilities of women in them. This is a reminder, once again, of the dire need to place the vulnerable woman at the centre of policy and action, especially at a time of crisis.
Saumya Baijal writes on gender issues. Mukta Naik is a Fellow at Centre for Policy Research.
Featured image credit: Reuters