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Coronavirus may trap women in the ‘safe haven’ of the home

In conversations about safety, we assume that all the dangers that women face lie beyond the threshold of the home. It may be a legacy of the Ramayana - Sita was safe till she crossed the Lakshman Rekha, after all.

But, at the best of times, this is an illusion: The 2018 edition of Crimes in India reported that in 93.9% of cases, the rapist was someone known to the victim—family, friends, neighbours, employer, online friend or live-in partner. These are not the best of times.

The chairperson of the National Commission for Women in India reported that in the first week after the lockdown started they received twice the complaints they received in the first week of March. Soon after, UN Secretary-General António Guterres flagged an alarming spike worldwide in complaints of domestic violence, equating homes and war zones as equal sites of violence.

This reported spike is only those women who managed to evade abusers and make an SOS call. Countless others are trapped without the privacy or the wherewithal to even do that. On the other hand, because of our general neglect of shelter homes and other support services, government helplines can be inaccessible and there is a limit to the capacity of NGO-run services. In short, we really do not know how many women are in trouble and unable to seek help, even though we know from the NFHS-4 report that one-third of ever-married women report experiencing some kind of abuse at the hands of their spouse.

Discussions about domestic violence presume that most incidents fall into the husband-beats-wife category. However, definitions in the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 are more inclusive. The law covers ‘domestic relationships’ and this could mean any two persons “who live or have, at any point of time, lived together in a shared household, when they are related by consanguinity, marriage, or through a relationship in the nature of marriage, adoption or are family members living together as a joint family." That is, it covers the spectrum of relationships within the typical household. Therefore, as family members are forced to stay indoors in small, crowded homes, in a culture that does not believe in personal space or privacy, think also of abuse and violence against elders; between cousins; uncles and aunts and children; and in-laws. In the context of the Indian household, silence and underpins everything.

The law recognizes four categories of abuse—physical, sexual, verbal and emotional, and economic abuse. So in that flat, we are now imagining all these relationships that are potentially abusive—uncles molesting nieces or nephews; old people and people with disabilities, relegated to a corner with no one venturing out to get their medicines; women being gaslit, battered or assaulted—all without a safe space from which to complain.

Let us not forget that NFHS-4 found more women thought violence was justified for some reason or the other than those who thought it was not. It is also possible that a very high percentage of abused women in those locked down households think this is their life.

From other complex emergency situations, such as disasters or wars, and related displacement situations, we know that all forms of sexual and gender-based violence become more common. Think of the unaccompanied children alone in the crowds walking home; they are unusually vulnerable to being trafficked or sexually exploited. The desperate parent who has lost his or her spouse to COVID-19 and their daily wage job, but has three children to raise must find that marriage proposal for their daughter a ready solution.

Emergency situations exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. The lockdown has created multiple opportunities for abusers to perpetrate violence with impunity. The vulnerable have fewer escape routes or ways to see help.

Hardly anyone disputes the necessity of the lockdown in the face of a rapidly advancing pandemic. However, it is up to the government to prepare to provide citizens with the support they will need, and this includes preventive and protection services for sexual and gender-based violence.

Considering the prevalence of gender-based violence is a huge improvement on denial but our gender sensitivity cannot stop with protecting the woman’s body.

The informal, unorganised sector is where most women work. When the lockdown was suddenly announced, some could not go to work; others could not collect salaries, and some found their street-side stalls no longer viable. For office-going and other professional women, work from home has tripled their double burden. Without the infrastructure of domestic helpers, and with everybody sitting at home, their household work has doubled at least. The lockdown disruption makes freelance careers even more precarious. True of men, too, of course, but when the road to taking women’s professional aspirations has already been difficult, it is hard to not be concerned about the consequences of an economic downturn that could result in downsizing, layoffs and loans called in. Will we deem women’s careers a lower priority than men’s?

There are few women who seem actively involved in decision-making around the lockdown and pandemic response, and the exceptions like Shailaja Teacher underscore this. The planning for life after the pandemic must begin during this time. It does not seem likely that that will involve more women or for that matter be a gender transformative process. In fact, what seems very likely is that logistical reasons and protectionist logic will be used to exclude women from the debates and discussions around what must follow.

Before the world began shutting down, women’s rights and gender equality organisations around the world were working on Beijing Plus 25 reviews. Covid-19 has been a good friend to states and the patriarchal societies they mirror. Women have returned to their homes, stripped of mobility and agency and lost their livelihoods. We must resist vigilantly to ensure that at the end of this, we are not at the status quo ante Beijing Minus 25.

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