We are living in the time of Covid-19 pandemic caused by a newly identified coronavirus. This pandemic along with collateral economic crisis has threatened human life all around the globe. 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, India show a two-fold increase in gender-based violence from month of March to April. 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 none-to-little saved money is already washed out, leaving behind episodes of daily quarrels between husband and wife. These small quarrels may not result in immediate fight or violence, but, as famous psychologist Sigmund Freud highlighted, the frustration gets building up over time, which comes out later in the form of anger and violence.
In some households, due to the widespread anxiety about Coronavirus, even a little sneeze of women produces the virtual fear of Covid-19 and provides an instantaneous reason for starting disputes. The following abuse often involves derogatory remarks about women’s character and their family lineage, causing extreme mental trauma.
There are many reasons which cause a man to behave violently. First of all, the lockdown has brought a chain of job-loss resulting in high level of stress and frustration in men. Living the whole day inside the home has impeded 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. To overcome this “inferiority,” 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.
There is also another component to the pain of the half population, the sexual violence. When men are at home, and there is nothing to do, men are often demanding random, frequent, and untimely sex. The increasing demand sees “request” of something novel and different from routine sex. The fear of repercussions of refusing sex is 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 in the act of sex. 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.
Reporting domestic violence under normal circumstances has always been very difficult in India, which has nowadays become impossible 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 the relationships are the biggest bottlenecks in reporting domestic violence.
It is not that women are the only population who are facing domestic violence. As all schools are closed, children are already forced to stay at home round the clock. Those children who are orphans and living with their relatives are especially susceptible to unpaid, coerced child labor and emotional abuse during the lockdown.
Older people, after their sixties, may also face massive mental trauma due to frequent comments on the purpose of their living. 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.
To combat this epidemic, multi-level planning, efforts, and cooperation from different strata of society are needed. First and foremost, women must learn self-care and keep practicing it over the time. Then there can be organised formal campaigns on public platforms and social media with an emphasis on healthy interpersonal relations among family members. Special campaigns on the prevention of domestic violence like ‘#SayNotoDomesticViolence’ are immediately needed.
The 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 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/Aganwadi health workers 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.
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.
Shubham Pandey is Research Scholar of Cognitive Science at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, working on understanding the nature of human emotions. His interests outside academics include poetry, people, and public policy. Email: [email protected]