Edit/Op-Ed

Suppression of Women and ‘Security’ behind Closed Doors in the Time of COVID-19

“Stay home, stay safe”, “you’re safe at your home”, “self-quarantine so you can save yourself and others”. These are some common proverbs we have all been hearing these days, and what I see as a certain shortcoming of this 40 days long lockdown is that it has neglected a particularly susceptible group at grave risk.  After the PM’s address on 24th of March recently and an added extension till early May, the entire nation has been put under a strict and complete lockdown, a major effort to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and to spare and save lives from this fatal infection. But on what grounds can it be said that a nation as big as ours, has to fight a single pandemic? With the food supplies sorted and all the so called necessities provided, what guarantees our safety behind the closed doors of our houses? Particularly the safety of women? No doubt the lockdown was the need of the hour, is well intended, but is it well implemented as well?

Although we appear to have advanced, this 40 days long confinement indirectly targets women, giving them a false sense of security. Needless to say, many of these women are now caught with their perpetrators at home.

This being said, the sudden confinement of over 1.3 billion Indians, though necessary on all grounds is poorly executed. Recently we witnessed how the plight of hundreds and thousands of migrant workers became an easy target of the so called “pandemic control effort” of the Indian government, where they were forced to take over the streets of various states and cities under such dire circumstances outside. While this is all the outside reality, how can one possibly neglect the even harsher reality of the women trapped within the four walls of their homes?

The problem will most certainly worsen with the lockdown further extended, with no necessary precautions to tackle any such challenge.

In a blatant attempt to contain the infection, the lockdown was initially declared just 4 hours before its execution, where the women who feared any harm at their respective houses, could not move or reach to more secure space. On account of any such instance or strain between the couple, the alternative of moving to the maternal house is also ruled out.

In any case, this choice has been precluded because of the limitations on movement and the only possibility is to remain trapped with the abuser. Moreover, it is almost impossible to report any such incident if it is with your abuser you are trapped with round the clock.

While cases of domestic violence are also quite common under normal circumstances, this lockdown comes to additional advantage of those abusers who are now at home with little or no work to do and vent out their frustration on their wives/partners. The venting out of this anger and frustration from their jobs and workplaces is most likely to escalate in the lockdown, given that the abusers are also trapped within their homes now and for the most part bored and unoccupied.

In a man centric society, most men do not agree to help their wives in domestic chores. With this said, it is clear that women comparatively spend more time on household chores in comparison to men.

On average, women spend much of their time looking after their husbands, children and the elderly in the family. Truth be told, a large number of them are the first to get up in the morning and the last to hit the bed to sleep at night.

On the other hand, we are also familiar of the fact that many working women who are also well rooted in their profession, are likewise pushed with the obligation of looking after the house and cooking for their husbands and family. This is the way both, housewives and working women are solely responsible for the household errands.

Moreover, the everyday workload is also likely to increase given that all members of the family are to stay in. Given a dual responsibility, a working woman is still belittled by the ‘noble’ male member of the family, strengthening his male ego. With limited movement outside the home, many such women having worked as their only get away from male cruelty, find their only rescue route blocked. For example, going out for work may have allowed the woman to seek external help unnoticed by her perpetrator but chances of that happening are quite bleak now.

This 40 days long confinement is directly or indirectly encouraging complete isolation of women with their abusers at home, and further isolation away from those who could help and assist them. Such a setting is perfect to execute absolute control, vicious conduct away from any sense of security whatsoever.

The National Commission of Women which keeps track of all such incidents and complaints of domestic violence has reported a sudden upsurge of cases in the nationwide Coronavirus lockdown. The growing number of domestic abuse cases also suggest that it is acting as an additional emergency to be fought with, along with the pandemic.

Although the national helpline numbers are still at your service, where you can make a call to register your complaint or even drop an email to report such incidents, the sufficiency of such calls or emails to assess the actual circumstances and risk, is also debatable.

Then again, the number of reported cases could be a minuscule of the actual number of cases since a majority of such cases go unreported during ordinary times, not to mention a time where you are caught with your abuser in a confined space of a home. We are also aware that the opportunity to seek external help is often very bleak for women trapped with abusive partners and family members, given the societal attitude of absolute insensitivity, male superiority, reverse blaming and normalising violence in the name of care. With this said the route to escape is further narrowed.

While most women are afraid to seek help because they are constantly trapped with their abusers at home. They also fear, that even if the husband is taken away, the other family members or in laws might also torment her for such a move. Above all, there is a fear of an additional torment upon his return.  Under normal circumstances, she could go to her parents or friends but now even that door is closed.

In a male dominated society like ours, the sudden implementation of this nationwide lockdown, certainly had it coming. With the abrupt lockdown to curb the virus from spreading, such an effect should have been well expected by the government. The lockdown has further rendered women from low income groups completely dependent upon their husbands now.

Home isolation, however necessary to control and curb the spread of this virus, still gives the abuser an added advantage. It gives them more power over the victim than under normal circumstances, where they could now be tracing each and every move of the victim without any support or outside help.

Women are consequentially trapped where their perpetrator can show up anytime. While severe limitations are imposed on people around the world, including India, to contain the spread of this infection, keeping up social distancing and self-isolation, imagine a scenario in which a woman needs to isolate herself from the likes of her abusive partner in the first place. She could have looked for outside assistance, or even attempted to escape, however, all such doors are shut and to no avail.

Usually, it is not safe for the victim to stay within the same home as it may invite further torment at the hands of her husband or family members. But under an absolute lockdown, the risk is further aggravated, leaving no room for the woman to seek protection. This being said, the domestic violence cases are already rising at an alarming rate and shall continue to so do under an extended lockdown if prompt steps are not taken to safeguard and ensure the protection of the victims.

Under normal conditions, women reach out to counsellors to help them cope with their traumatic experiences, advising and encouraging them to look beyond the calamity. However, amid the nationwide lockdown, all such counselling centres and NGOs are also shut down. In-person counselling and talk sessions are crucially significant for domestic violence survivors, but all such resources are scarce as social distancing is implemented.

As the measures to contain the COVID-19 may require a further extension in the already extended lockdown, the government promptly need to tackle this sudden upsurge in the domestic abuse and violence cases. The government must implement a more humanitarian approach to battle this pandemic keeping in mind the need and requirement of all members of the society, including women. With all the other “essential services” at our disposal, the domestic violence helplines and resources shall also be acknowledged as “essential” for the safety of women, and remain functional. The NGOs and other helpful resources such as counselling centres shall also remain operational and at easy disposal of women.

If urgent and positive actions are not taken to protect the rights of women, offering them a dignified life and existence, their every right to a decent life would be violated as they would be further exposed to additional jeopardy. Women as a consequence will never be able to live as autonomous beings whose bodily integrity and honour is safe both within the internal setting of home and outside. The state and its people, therefore, need to re-evaluate that whether we can afford to permit an approach specifically intended to deal with the pandemic itself, which may result in even deadlier aftermath.

The government and its people need more humanitarian and gender sensitive policies to be implemented so that this huge upsurge in domestic abuse cases do not turn into the cruellest outcome of social distancing.

The author is a PhD research scholar in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University.

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