COVID-19: Women's Physical Autonomy and Domestic Violence across India
More layoffs are expected to imply more domestic violence cases
A United Nations study categorizes home as the ‘most dangerous’ place for women. Even as India emerges from a nationwide lockdown initiated by the center and states as a precautionary measure against the deadly coronavirus, the result was a complete lock-in for women. In cases of domestic violence, this implies that women are trapped with their perpetrators and have no escape. The National Commission for Women, which is responsible for receiving complaints about domestic violence in India, registered more than twofold rise in cases registered during the lockdown period. The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that there would be around 31 million more cases of domestic violence worldwide if lockdowns continue for another six months.
The statistics from the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) suggests that a large share of women in our society are not allowed to move freely. Less than 50 percent of the women aged 15-45 have the freedom to visit market places, health facilities, and places outside the village or community of their domicile. The freedom of movement is likely to increase with the increase in age, yet only 1 out of every 4 youth women can visit these places freely. Rural and unmarried women are another most hit sections experiencing restrictions on mobility. The pandemic crisis noteworthy of a series of lockdown seems to have inflamed these restrictions. Going out for usual day-to-day chores and buying essential goods has now been taken over by men. This transfer of roles has held off the interstice women used to spare to get in touch with the neighborhood confidants. While this might seem small, one cannot neglect the customary worthiness of it, especially when such meetings are otherwise forbidden. The escalating conservatism and domination as byproducts of patriarchy are resulting in physical, sexual, and emotional domestic violence.
Also, according to NFHS-4, women who were employed before 12 months and are currently unemployed were recorded to be more vulnerable and prone to spousal violence as compared to employed or never employed females. Owing to the economic situation due to the lockdown, more layoffs are expected to imply more domestic violence cases. Domestic workers and workers in the unorganized sector are in a tight spot in terms of unemployment and financial stability; women belonging to these social groups are more vulnerable to facing abuse. More rural women succumb to all kinds of spousal violence as compared to urban women, while it is equally distributed throughout different age groups. Consequently, restrictions on physical autonomy due to the eternal presence of males at home are likely to increase. Unemployment or government-enforced lockdown are equally formidable factors compelling men to stay at home.
Scatter plot, with the percentage of women aged 15-49 who are not allowed at all to go outside their home on the horizontal axis and the percentage of ever-married women aged 15-49 who experienced any kind of spousal violence in past 12 months on the vertical axis, depicts that states with high restrictions on movement have high spousal violence as well. Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Puducherry, Haryana, Jharkhand, Tripura, and Andhra Pradesh are evidence of the same. The above-mentioned states can be the hubs of increased domestic violence and should be closely monitored for cases of abuse. Few of these states are reporting an increase in the active COVID-19 cases elongating the lockdown restrictions and ultimately encouraging domestic violence.
In Indian society socializing for women beyond their immediate family is limited to very few interactions. No matter what the marital status of the female, their networking is very much restrictive and controlled by the elders in the family, mostly men. The small exchanges of talks with the neighborhood peers take care of the mental and emotional well-being of the females. Despite being few, these networks are capable of providing help during an unfortunate hour of harassment or abuse. And if not that the victim could go to her maternal or relative’s house or to the concerned authorities to seek help. Given the lockdown, all these options are now obsolete.
If the perpetrators belong to the immediate family of the woman, she earlier had an option to seek help from external sources like support groups and mediators. Presently, in the absence of autonomy, a woman is more likely to be violated mentally, physically, and emotionally and that would go without being reported. In an Urban setup where women are employed, harassment, along with their work duties, has reached their homes. Apart from work-place induced harassment, the female also has to cater to the needs of the family, which involves cooking and cleaning of the house, taking care of the children and elderly who require utmost attention and delicate care. While men are celebrated for helping in the house, women are simply expected to do it.
The impact of the severe economic burden on employment, physical constraints on movement, unavailability of substances (alcohol, tobacco, etc.) has contributed to the increase in abuse. According to the NFHS-4, 52 percent of women and 42 percent of men think that a husband beating his wife is a justified act. A female with children, if abused by her partner or immediate family member, cannot leave the house or even register the complaint out of fear that the violence might increase or involve the children too.
As one curve is getting flattened, another is surging high. The National Council for Women (NCW) registers complaints majorly via post and designated helpline numbers; both options are currently unviable. The NCW has tried to keep up with other measures of making available the email addresses of its employees and WhatsApp services. We need to consider that a total of 54 percent of women do not own a phone for themselves. It is perhaps evident that the domestic violence case numbers are highly under-reported and represent just the tip of the iceberg.
While most policies are being implemented in a gender-neutral perspective, our society isn’t built that way. One solution could be to address domestic violence cases as ‘essential services.’ This not only would help in flattening the domestic violence curve but also make the perpetrators aware that the female can seek help. For this, we need to trust women when they say that they’re being violated. Another possible correction would be to send the abuser to shelter homes instead of sending the female and her children. By submitting the victim to the shelter homes, we are not only putting her in a vulnerable position but also her children.
Authors are Research Graduates from International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.