Coronavirus Lockdown: Coming out of the shadow pandemic

Coronavirus Lockdown: Coming out of the shadow pandemic

Representative image/PTI Photo

The metaphor of Lakshman Rekha that the Prime Minister used to ask people to stay at home in his address to the nation announcing the lockdown and the need for physical distancing was unfortunate. For it is the age-old invisible patriarchal construct rooted in rigid caste and religious frameworks that, for too long, has defined the woman’s place within the family, the home and in society.

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Confined within this permanent state of internalised lockdown that is as much economic, emotional, psychological as much as it is physical, it is only now over the past couple of decades that women and trans communities across classes and cultures have begun “transgressing” the Lakshman Rekha by walking out of violent homes and taking control over their own lives. And social and legal support systems have also partially evolved to respond to and in fact, legitimise these 'transgressions'.

Despite this, however, the home continues to be the most unsafe space for women with one in three women in India continue to experience domestic violence at some point of time in their life (National Family and Health Survey 2015-2016). This indicates that this is perhaps one of the most normalised if shadow pandemic of our times. Experiences of crises globally including the COVID-19 epidemic show that all forms of violence against women and children, including sexual violence, increase at such times.

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In this context “Stay home. Stay safe” sounds ironical in the context of many women since the lockdown has meant that they along with their children are forced to live in close proximity with the perpetrators of violence who are husbands and other family members, increasing the impact of this violence that could be both internal i.e. emotional and psychological, and external i.e. physical. The respite of going to work or school or being able to access secure and safe spaces like parental homes, homes of friends etc is no longer available with movement being banned.  

A state of internalised lockdown has once again been legitimised at a great cost to their own mental and physical health.   

Helplines are getting calls but the numbers are much less compared to “normal” times. And the few who do, are unable to get the support they actually need. This indicates an ominous silencing that could be regressive and implosive in the long run.

The story of what happened to a woman in Anekal two weeks ago is a classic example. She had been living with an extremely conservative man with a history of violence. In the lockdown unable to bear that she woke up at 7 am instead of earlier to attend to her assigned wifely duties he began beating her. Unable to bear the torture, she left the house and wandered, lost. Until she connected with a woman’s rights activist, who had earlier dealt with her case. The activist helped her lodge a non-cognisable case (NCR) since she did not want to lodge a formal complaint.

Fearful of going back home, she wanted to go to her mother’s house in Magadi but could not with a curtailment on movement. The police, more concerned with their coronavirus duties, could not provide her with a vehicle. Finally, with the support of the activist, she reached her mother's house. But for this support, she might have been trapped in a situation that would have put her at greater risk.

Given the challenges involved in addressing the complex issue of domestic violence within a lockdown situation, the main issues to be addressed within a humane and human rights framework would include that of mobility, accessibility to protection including police and shelters, credible information and decentralised outreach services. Some of the steps to be taken could include:  

Well-publicized helplines set up in coordination with the police and NGOs offering a range of services from counselling to shelter and medical support if necessary.

Transportation to get out of the house to seek security and safety either in shelters or homes of family and friends. 

In cases where women and children cannot or do not want to leave their homes, provisions for the institutional quarantining of perpetrators of domestic violence with a known history of abuse.

Easy accessibility to police assistance in order to be able to lodge Non Cognisable Reports (NCR) or FIRS as the need might be.

Access to courts and lawyers if necessary, for urgent interim orders of protection and residence under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA)

Availability of Protection Officers appointed under the PWDVA and restoration of One Stop Crisis Centres (OSCC) as part of essential services. If no Protection Officers are appointed, temporary officers are appointed for the duration of the lockdown and passes be issued for their movement.

A widespread media outreach that proscribes domestic violence, empowers the victims with survival strategies, pushes attitudinal change in perpetrators and disseminates information about help available along with phone numbers, email addresses and contact person.  

Local neighbourhood campaigns on the lines of the successful “Bell Bajao” campaign that raise awareness about domestic violence in creative ways at every ward level conducted by panchayat and self-help group members and Anganwadi workers.

 

At another level, as global economic systems and mega institutions crumble, people are being forced to retreat into smaller spaces to survive, rebuild livelihoods and forge new human solidarities. The global lockdown is perhaps also a moment for us to confront and exorcise the internal virus of patriarchy which combined with that of caste, class and communal divisions is in fact, corroding our collective immunity systems.

If we have to emerge from this pandemic as a more "healthy" society in a holistic sense we need to consciously cultivate local more sustainable interdependent networks of care and responsibility with a larger, more rational and humane perspective that respects and transcends differences and diversity. Be it that of gender, caste, ethnicity, language or religion. The challenge lies in preparing for this transformation.

(The writer is an activist and researcher)

With inputs from Geeta Menon (Stree Jagruthi Samithi) and Mamatha Yejaman (Gamana Mahila Samuha)