By Niharika Boro & Javid Majeed
The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our times and the greatest challenge we have faced since World War II. Except for Antarctica, the virus has spread to every continent since its emergence in the Hubei province of China in December 2019. Although the lockdown announced by countries across the globe is the right step in fighting the pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 people so far, it has resulted in cascading effects in terms of vulnerabilities and abuse to different sections of society, especially women.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has foregrounded the fault lines in the family as an institution. The Sanskritized and pseudo-modern families have further added to the woes. The cracks in dysfunctional families have widened in quarantine exposing the thin threads holding families together. Dysfunctional families all of a sudden under one roof have become oxymoronic per se.
As per the UNTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not gender neutral, as it affects men and women differently. Therefore, we must not be gender blind in our responses to the pandemic, or else women will carry a disproportionately higher economic cost than men.” Apart from the economic misappropriation, women will bear the brunt of social, cultural and psychological trauma for years to come. The death of a loved one, a grave personal illness and loss of income rank among the most stressful experiences a person can endure, according to psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, women are facing these stressors. The current pandemic is not just a medical tragedy. Even after the medical threat disappears, psychiatrists say that people across the globe will battle psychological scars for years.
The Indian scenario
As per data from The National Commission for Women (NCW), which received complaints from across the country, there was a more than twofold rise in gender-based violence. The total complaints rose from 116 in the first week of March (March 2-8) to 257 in the final week of March (March 23-April1). Complaints of rape or attempted rape have risen sharply from 2 to 13, while cases of domestic violence have increased from 30 to 69 over the same comparative period. Similarly, complaints relating to “right to live with dignity” too have doubled from 35 cases to 77.
The initial data suggests that the longevity of lockdown and social isolation will give rise to growing cases of gender-based violence. Most of the victims will not be able to reach out because of restrictions on movement as well as a lack of privacy at home. Research suggests that in situations of crisis or calamity there is an increase in violence against women due to anxiety and uncertainties in men. This anxiety multiplies exponentially with every passing day with thoughts of uncertainty whether they will find a job, whether there will be pay cuts, uncertainty over accessing meals two times a day, and access to liquor. All these anxieties and uncertainties culminate into women’s distress further. The data suggests that women are already paying for such anxieties with signs of no mercy from men. The dysfunctional families reduced to cohabitation post lockdown have exposed women to shame in front of their children, adding to their psychological distress for ages to come.
Although the reason and nature of violence could be at varied levels, depending on the class of society, it shares a deep connection to the society we are brought up in. Masculinity is celebrated. In fact, being macho is considered a virtue. This has been quite normal for a traditional patriarchal Indian family. In a patriarchal society like ours, men have found women an easy target for all their mischief. This might be because men are considered macho and woman weak. The role of a woman is limited to begetting children and household chores. As rightly outlined by a contemporary feminist, Ann Oakley, gender roles are culturally rather than biologically produced.
Measures to contain the pandemic such as quarantines and closures of schools imply additional household work and responsibility. Instead of being a help to them in this critical hour, the egomaniac men with patriarchal mindset are pleased to unleash their terror on women. Lockdown per se should never mean that you save me from virus and I abuse you at my will.
The long socio-psychological cost
This will be a long lockdown and the government must ensure resources to help women in distress, one stop centers which can provide legal and socio-psychological help to survivors of gender based violence. The UN has raised concerns regarding the access to police, medico-legal teams and NGOs by women in distress. Post lockdown will have a huge socio-psychological cost on the society in general and women in particular. In India, the effect of the lockdown could be far bigger than what we estimated. And in such a dark hour where the police is busy controlling the masses for social distancing, they are less likely to react to women’s issues. The police is not the first port of call for victims of domestic violence and, therefore, alternative arrangements have to be put in place. The strict lockdown enforced to check the spread of coronavirus in the country has closed the only avenues to escape violence such as moving to natal homes or contacting local police or NGOs.
This lockdown should be taken as a better lesson during the worst time to bring awareness, as experts suggest India has reformed when in crisis/calamity. We must learn lessons from France and Italy which anticipated a rise in violence against women and announced assistance points at supermarkets and pharmacies along with funding to NGOs to report such cases. Though the Thali Bajao and Diya Jalao appeals by Prime Minister Modi can be debated regarding their scientific validity, it has created a positive vibe among people in quarantine from a socio-psychological perspective. While we stood for our frontline workers and thanked them for their commitment and service, the real heroes are women who have been fighting abuse for ages. Let’s all stand up for those mothers, sisters and daughters who have been keeping the faith in family intact despite abuse.
Niharika Boro is freelance writer & Javid Majeed is research scholar based in Delhi.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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