The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the lives of everyone in India, but some sections of the society face more risks than others. While the poor and underprivileged are more disproportionately afflicted by the crisis, there is hardly any mention of the pandemic’s negative impact on the lives of women. Following the implementation of a nation-wide lockdown on March 25th, women who are forced to remain inside their homes are at a higher risk of facing domestic violence.
In line with a rise in reported domestic violence internationally, The National Commission for Women (NCW) has recorded a twofold increase in the number of domestic violence reports across the country during the lockdown period: The total complaints from women rose from 116 in the first week of March (March 2-8), to 257 in the final week (March 23-April 1). As per the NCW chief, Rekha Sharma, ‘the main reason for the rise of domestic violence is that the men are at home and they are taking out their frustration on women and they refuse to participate in domestic work. Women are also confined within the four walls of the house and they cannot share their grief with anybody.’ In addition, victims are scared to report the abuse to the police fearing backlash from their abusers. It is important to note that most of the complaints received by the NCW are via e-mail and not every woman in India has access to the internet. Also, given that most instances of domestic violence are never reported, any data on the number of domestic violence cases that the authorities rely upon is debatable.
India, unfortunately, is not an exception to the global trend of increased pandemic induced domestic violence because the condition of women in India has always remained disturbing. On one hand they are worshipped as goddesses, while on the other, they are beaten, burnt and killed in their own homes.
As per the data provided by The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2015, as many as 7,634 women died in India due to dowry harassment. In 2016, around 3,800 cases were registered in the national capital alone, against in-laws for the offence of cruelty. In Indian society, having a male child is still seen as a blessing, while a girl child is considered a burden. It is believed that boys grow up to add fame and wealth to the family name, while girls are no more than a financial burden on the family for whom money needs to be given away in the form of dowry. Indian society is largely patriarchal in nature and is governed by beliefs, practices, customs and traditions that often find themselves in contradiction with modern laws. More importantly, the beliefs, practices, customs and traditions that have developed over centuries and still continue to flourish are made and controlled by men. Men exercise control over the economic, political and religious, social and cultural institutions in the Indian setup which result in the reinforcement and legitimisation of female subordination and discrimination. This control is exercised through the strict adherence to a combination of factors such as caste, religion, family and community norms which give rise to discriminatory practices against women. As observed by Segal,
‘In India’s clearly patriarchal society, males are valued more, and preference is for a male child. Men act as heads of households, primary wage earners, decision makers and disciplinarians. Male children, especially the eldest male, grows with the knowledge that, upon the death of his father, he will become the head of the household, and will also be responsible for his mother, female relatives, and younger siblings. He is expected to model his behaviour after that of his father. Women in the family are subordinate and serve as caretakers. As children, they are groomed to move into, and contribute to, the well-being of the husband’s family.’
In short, men as decision-makers in the family not only exercise control over the use and distribution of wealth, but also dictate women in terms of their life choices. This not only diminishes them from reaching their full potential, but also increases the likelihood of experiencing violence.
In light of the above, the first step that the administration and law enforcement agencies need to take is to prioritise the safety of women who are either at risk of facing domestic violence or have reported such abuses in the past. At the local level, the administration should ensure safe spaces for women where they can be shifted to if required. The safety and security of women should be a priority, given that victims are stuck with their abusers 24/7 and may be unable to seek help from their family and friends. The role of self-help groups and NGOs, especially in rural areas, is also crucial as they now become the first point of contact for abused women, and they need to reach out to women on their own and ensure their safety and security.