Even a non-entity like the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 is gender-biased. Its outbreak is not only a public health crisis, but it is also telling in the way women are accounted for when it comes to measures to counter emergencies. The lockdown has had completely different implications on women than men.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) has received more than 13,410 complaints of violence across the country since March to September 18 this year, out of which 4,350 are registered under ‘Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005’. Uttar Pradesh registered the maximum number of complaints with 968.
The NCW launched an exclusive WhatsApp number and an online portal to address the complaints. Because of the lockdown, there is hardly any reprieve for women in abusive households.
Statistically speaking, men are at a greater risk as they are twice as likely to die from COVID-19, based on studies. The virus affects women in different ways on the ground. The proportion of women who are a part of the frontline healthcare force are disproportionately high. Based on a report titled ‘Time Use in India Report for 2019’ released by the National Statistical Office, women shoulder most of the household responsibilities, even if they are employed elsewhere.
Women take care of the children and the elderly at home, and are likely to be victims of more domestic violence, especially when they are cooped up in cramped spaces 24*7 with their family. With almost zero access to public spaces — women, children, disabled and senior citizens are the most vulnerable. Women facing abuse could not use any government-run facilities as most of them were shut down. With less than 38 percent of women in the country having access to cellphones, privacy is a luxury too.
According to credible research, women have faced many injustices in healthcare, finances, education and domestic abuse during past economic crises. Based on a study titled ‘The impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality’ by researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany, and the University of California, San Diego, the short-term effects are definitely skewed against women. But the research also suggests that a change in culture in a post-COVID-19 world will herald immense flexibility in terms of work, and one can expect an increase in gender equality.
It has to be noted that if women traditionally enjoyed equality at home, the domestic situation would not have been as grim as we see right now. The above study finds that all major recessions impacted men more as jobs in the male-dominated sectors were heavily hit. But jobs in the restaurant and personal care sectors, which have a huge women workforce, have been the ones bearing the brunt during the pandemic.
The lockdown has had an impact on certain kinds of violence against women. Based on data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, domestic violence and cybercrime against women have increased by 131 percent and 184 percent respectively, while instances in rape and sexual assault decreased by 119 percent, during the month of May in India’s red zones. There are fewer instances of rape complaints because women are largely away from public spaces. Marital rape is reported largely as domestic violence, so we can never get a handle on the real numbers.
The government must create safe spaces for women, give them a facility to report domestic violence without alerting the abusers, spread awareness about helpline numbers, create a special COVID-19 fund for women welfare, and more. Having a helpline number alone won’t help if we cannot safely relocate women who are forced to live with their abusers.
(Edited by Kanishk Singh)