A public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic affects people differently and academics who have studied these episodes found that all these episodes had deep, long-lasting effects on gender equality. Although we still do not have enough research on the gendered dimensions of this ongoing pandemic, we have evidence and research from earlier public health crises like the Ebola crisis in African countries in 2014, Zika in India in 2015–6, and recent outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, and bird flu. Evidence suggests that with school closures there’s an increase in drop-out of girls from education, there’s a rise in teenage-pregnancy rate and also increase in domestic and sexual violence.
It is also interesting that one of the most striking statistic from Sierra Leone, one of the three countries worst affected by Ebola brings out that from 2013 to 2016, during the outbreak, ‘more women died of obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself.1 This was due to the unavailability of sexual and reproductive health services during the Ebola lockdown. Comparing this to the present scenario, in an article published in the World Economic Forum, Dr Natalia Kanem, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), has already warned that the coronavirus outbreak has “severely disrupted” access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV) services “at a time when women and girls need these services most”.2
Women also constitute a major section of the health-care providers who are at a high risk of being exposed to the virus. “Data from the State Council Information Office in China suggest that more than 90% of health-care workers in Hubei province are women, emphasising the gendered nature of the health workforce and the risk that predominantly female health workers incur”.3 Another impact of the pandemic is at home where women are expected to perform most of the care work and this multiplies during these times of crisis. Caring for children, family, old and sick people all disproportionately adds up to women’s work. Further, in India, the majority of women workers are in the informal sector and for them the lockdown as a measure to control the spread of Covid – 19 throws up grave challenges for their survival due to lack of financial and social security.
Domestic and Sexual Violence
According to WHO, 1 in every 3 women in the world faces domestic violence and most of this violence is intimate partner violence and globally, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.3
Recently, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director General , WHO) announced that “sadly there are reports from some countries of increase in domestic violence since the COVID-19 outbreak began”.4
Stress, alcohol consumption, and financial difficulties are all considered triggers for violence in the home, and the quarantine measures being imposed around the world will increase all three (ibid).
In Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, domestic violence reports to police more than tripled in one county alone during the lockdown in February, from 47 last year to 162 this year, activists told local media. In Rio de Janeiro, reported cases of domestic violence rose 40-50% during the Corona virus lockdown. In Cyprus, calls to the government domestic violence helpline rose by 20% in the initial days of confinement and further rose to 30% in a week after the first confirmed case of coronavirus. In Spain, within the first five days of the lockdown the country saw its first domestic violence fatality, when a woman was murdered by her husband in front of their children in the coastal province of Valencia.5
The British charity Women’s Aid said in a statement that it was “concerned that social distancing and self-isolation will be used as a tool of coercive and controlling behaviour by perpetrators, and will shut down routes to safety and support”.6
Domestic Violence in India
In India, there are reports of a drop in the calls received for domestic violence. Calls from survivors of domestic violence received by Chennai-based International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) dwindled from 10 to 15 new calls every week to only 4-5 calls every week. Telangana’s ‘She’ Team, for instance, says that they earlier used to receive 3-4 domestic violence complaints in the day.7 However, since the lockdown began, there are days when there isn’t a single complaint. One reason for this could be because women may be unable to call and express their problems because of the husband being around.
In an interview with NDTV, Rekha Sharma (Director, National Commission for Women) informed that there is an increase in the number of domestic violence complaints received by NCW. She informed about 69 cases of domestic violence being received officially by 4th April, 2020 and that the number is increasing every day. She mentioned receiving one or two complaints directly everyday on her email id and many more on the official NCW email id. One interesting thing that came out of her interview is that more women are reaching out to her through email ids rather than telephone numbers. This is similar to Italy where activists said calls to helplines had dropped sharply, but instead they were receiving desperate text messages and emails (ibid).
This could be an important point to consider for other organisations like International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) which has seen a slow-down of the number of calls.
Women are also reaching out to other staff members of NCW. Rekha Sharma in her interview mentioned one example of a complaint received from Nainital where a woman is being constantly beaten by the husband and the woman is not being able to travel out. She mentioned another example where a woman is called ‘COVID-19’ by the husband and is being pushed out of home by the husband. In NCW’s twitter account they have also reported women being molested and attempts of gang-rape despite the lock-down.
In the attempt to flatten the curve and call for a quick shut down, the government probably forgot to address the fall-out of this huge issue of domestic violence and therefore we require immediate strict advisories in place to address the issue of domestic violence. Several NGOs that are working on the issue of domestic violence have proposed several levels of action that can be taken. We require the Prime Minister in one of his addresses to the Nation to mention the fall-outs of domestic violence and put out a call for people to not be a perpetrator of domestic violence or a silent witness. This could go a long way in convincing people across the country.
Many people also follow celebrities and their messages across platforms. It is important for celebrities to talk about domestic violence and share the helpline numbers so that it reaches to every individual.
It will be helpful if the government of India can announce that the lockdown is not applicable for women stepping out to seek help/report domestic violence. Similar approach has been adopted in Spain where the lockdown rules are extremely strict, and many people are being fined for breaking them but the government has told women they will not be fined if they leave home to report abuse. Another important thing to consider could be to convert hotels into shelter homes for survivors of domestic violence. Many countries like France and Belgium are adopting this strategy and this could be very helpful for India as well.
In case you are a survivor/witness of domestic violence here are some resources which will be helpful for you:
The @NCWIndia reported a sharp increase in #domesticviolence and rape cases from the final week of March. While our centres are temporarily closed, our team of counsellors have put together these suggestions for surviving mental and physical #abuse during the #COVID19 #lockdown: pic.twitter.com/4rBCOeJPKm
— My Choices Foundation (@MyChoicesFDN) April 4, 2020
Victims of #DomesticViolence are cooped up with their abusers within the four walls of their homes. The continuous presence of the abuser may prevent them from reaching out for help. Here is how you can help them stay safe. #LockdownExtension #LockdownExtended #EndViolence pic.twitter.com/20s3wuv6L3
— Aangan Trust (@Aangan_Trust) April 14, 2020
Across countries cases of domestic violence/intimate partner violence have increased during the #pandemic. Please circulate these helpline numbers for #India widely. #CoronaLockdown pic.twitter.com/0G3zbdwLS1
— Breakthrough India (@INBreakthrough) April 8, 2020
Due to the current lockdown, instances of domestic violence have spiked all over the world. It is frustrating for many of us who cannot actively intervene. But don’t give up hope yet. You can help survivors despite the lockdown-here’s how: #CoronaLockdown #DomesticViolence #VAW pic.twitter.com/Y0bVBfCf0z
— Breakthrough India (@INBreakthrough) March 31, 2020