As a nationwide lockdown to tackle the novel coronavirus continues, we witness a steep rise in the cases of violence against women since March 23. Whether it is our country, or elsewhere, we were already in a critical position with regard to violence against women and now, with the lockdown in place, such cases are on a constant rise. The quarantine life does not seem to be very safe and healthy for a large number of women who are subjected to domestic violence and sexual abuse.
A piece in The Washington Post highlights the fact that women being locked up at home with their violent partners is a nightmare for them. The national helplines of many developed countries for reporting sexual abuse have recorded a substantial increase in the number of calls calls after lockdowns came into place.
In the case of India, we usually come across a very low percentage of cases where women report violence. The National Commission For Women (NCW) recorded as many as 257 cases of crime against women between March 23 and April 1 including two dowry deaths and 13 cases of rape/attempt to rape. A nationwide lockdown came into force on March 25, and a comparison of data shows that the number of cases of crime against women rose to more than double the number of cases registered in the week prior to the lockdown.
India also has a very high rate of crimes against children. Given the lockdown, there may come a time when people from a lower socio-economic background may go hungry on a larger scale, as is presently being experienced by a range of migrant laborers stranded in various cities. In such a time, the possibility of the exploitation of women by a financially better off person in the family or in the neighborhood, for example, increases.
A National Plan: Ensuring Security and Protection for Women
A five-point suggestion has been already proposed by the UN Women for the governments to take up. In addition, the following measures must be immediately undertaken by the government:
The helpline numbers should be issued state-wise in coordination with the National Commission for Women. Moreover, the governments must take responsibility for publicising the numbers through automated services, SMS, advertisement in the newspapers etc., for women to know about the facility.
Allocate separate packages to provide necessary security and protection to women facing violence.
Financial assistance and other necessary services must be extended to women from the informal sector or from socially and economically deprived backgrounds so that the burden of survival does not make them more vulnerable.
Facilitate alternative accommodation for women in vulnerable condition so that they do not have to share the same space with their abusers. Empty hotels and other buildings may be made available for women in vulnerable conditions.
Launch government-led campaigns to ensure that the entire burden of domestic work does not fall on women alone. Care work and the other household work must be equally distributed.
Strict security and protection must be ensured at hospitals for women doctors, nurses and patients, so that no one falls prey to sexual violence.
Area-based community help may also be developed in coordination with various women rights groups.
Counselling facilities should be made available for women under trauma.
These demands are gaining ground in several countries, and some of them are already implemented them after a large number of women registered cases of violence. We should adopt these measures to combat further challenges amid this massive public health crisis. The better we prepare, the better we fight the crisis.
Seeing the scale of violence, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of the UN Women, called it ‘a Shadow Pandemic’. We must fight it and make a statement about our collective humanity and social and political responsibility during a time of crisis.
In her statement, Phumzile writes:
“The violence that is emerging now as a dark feature of this pandemic is a mirror and a challenge to our values, our resilience and shared humanity. We must not only survive the coronavirus, but emerge renewed, with women as a powerful force at the centre of recovery.”
Let ‘No tolerance to domestic violence and sexual abuse’ be our slogan as we fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Satarupa Chakraborty is a researcher at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and a member of the Delhi State Committee, All India Democratic Women’s Association. The views are personal.