Gendered impact of infectious diseases noticed in some recent epidemics like ZIKA, SARS, and EBOLA is appearing in COVID-19 pandemic also as a crisis within a crisis. It concerns peace in domestic life which already faces problems all over the world.
A press report of a small survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective in 62 villages in 18 districts in the State informs that at least 81% of families reported some kind of domestic violence during the lockdown. Of these families, 25% were found to be facing acute hunger.
Stories of several instances of conflicts in families – between husband and wife, and between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law – and also abuse of children and the elderly appear in newspapers adding substantially to the global trend in increase of domestic conflict under healthcare restrictions on movements. Complaints made to the National Commission for Women (NCW) and some NGOs working for women have increased manifold.
Rudely threatened by the spread of the pandemic and thoroughly disturbed by drastic measures like lockdown restrictions, life at home is not the same as in pre-pandemic days. Household members compelled to stay at home experience among themselves more conversation, more interaction, and more sharing of everything at home. The consequence in many cases is not better understanding and bonding, but enormous increase in verbal and physical clashes.
“Stay at home, stay safe” seems to have become a self-contradictory dictum wherever home life is full of domestic conflicts of varied types and on different scale. This crisis within the pandemic, if left unchecked, may disrupt and weaken our fight against the main enemy.
Sexual harassment of women in the workplace and a chain of reports from women from different walks of life in the upper and middle strata of society giving rise to “Me Too” Movement in many countries have not subsided yet. The new wave of the age-old problem of domestic violence occurring at home is presently making news as a “gift” of lockdown meant to drive away COVID-19 infection. Neither the workplace nor the home seems to be a safe place for women who fall victims to the double-edged sword. Violence against women in shelter homes is also growing.
According to some press reports, the NCW has registered an increase of at least 2.5 times in domestic violence complaints since the nationwide lockdown. Between March 25 and May 31, it received 1,477 complaints whereas in these months last year, only 607 complaints were received.
In April and May, 3027 complaints were received by the NCW across 22 categories of crime against women of which 1,428 (47.2%) related to domestic violence. During the previous three months from January to March this year, a total of 4,233 complaints were received in which 20.6% (871) related to domestic violence. NCW constituted a special team to handle these complaints expeditiously.
Increase in the number of cases may be indicative of more instances of violence or more reporting of cases, or both. In India particularly, domestic violence is silenced by victims themselves and their supporters who accept them as part of ordinary family life. A Tamil saying that “it is the hand that beats that hugs also” reflects the submissive attitude of the victims.
A study by UNICEF shows that children are exposed to at least 30 different forms of physical, verbal, and emotional violence and abuse in their homes and that the burden of household chores, and day-to-day restrictions are imposed solely on girls. UNICEF has cautioned that if early childhood development is not prioritized in COVID-19 responses, young children would face disproportionate risk and irreparable loss. A girl child suffers more than a boy inside the house.
More than three months ago, UN Secretary-General called for domestic violence “ceasefire” amid “horrifying global surge.” His aggressive attack that, “for many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest…in their homes” and candid assertion that, “…lockdown and quarantines are essential to suppressing COVID-19. But, they can trap women with abusive partners” highlight what many do not want to admit or speak in our country. He appealed for “peace in homes around the world” and urged nations “to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic”. The UNO has to prevent violence everywhere “from war zones to people’s homes” as stated by the Secretary-General.
A comment from the WHO Regional Office in Europe echoes the views of the UNO that “every country in the region is already all too familiar with the scourge of inter-personal violence”. The nexus between compulsory “stay at home” and spurt in domestic violence in lockdown period is not unbelievable. Living conditions at home make “stay at home” a punishment for most people aggravating anger and frustration causing violent behaviour. Unemployment, loss of livelihood and decrease in income due to lockdown make domestic life miserable for those deprived of their work-life.
Lockdown certainly has no inbuilt condition to promote domestic violence. It has only aggravated the reality. If reports and statistics suggest a link between lockdown and domestic violence, lockdown is often blamed for restricting movements and normal activities which create psychological problems. But, the malady lies in gender relations prevalent in a society which includes sharing of work and responsibility in the household, mutual respect and regard among the members, acknowledgement of each one’s role and contributions in running and managing the household. Understanding and accommodating oneself to economic and other conditions of the family are missing in many families. That home is a joint enterprise is hardly acknowledged.
The UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women) has already noted that domestic violence is one of the greatest human rights violations. It forewarned that the number of victims of sexual and physical violence by intimate partner was likely to grow if pandemic were to continue thus anticipating a severe blow to family happiness under COVID-19.
Several nations have initiated action to deal with this problem as a social-psychological one. In France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Spain, pharmacies and supermarkets have become what is termed as “safe ‘go to’ places” where the utterance of a code word “MASK 19” signals an urgent request for protection from domestic abuse. In the UK, there is a national domestic violence charity called Respect which helps women and children seeking help against violence. Requests for help from women in distress were reported to be increasing in Australia also.
The Commonwealth Secretariat is working in collaboration with partner organisations in many other countries to check growth of domestic violence during the pandemic. The ILO and UN Women, and European Union have called upon G7 nations to take measures to promote gender equality amid COVID-19 crisis. Justice for Women Amidst COVID-19 has been developed by UN Women, UNDP, UN Office on Drugs and Crimes, World Bank, and Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.
As national and international efforts to contain domestic violence amidst COVID-19 are on, India should also activate its machineries to implement legal rights and protection for women already in place.