Raghavi R. and Sahana Priya Satish, both fourth year students of Tamil Nadu National Law University, discusses the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on women and LGBTQ+ community.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to extreme social disruption, heightening the existing social and economic vulnerabilities. It has caused a shift in the focus of those in authority towards taking remedial and preventive measures to stop further spread of the virus. Though warranted, this lockdown in the light of COVID-19 has resulted in the eclipse of one of the most pervasive forms of human rights violation- domestic violence. It has also resulted in the disregard of the needs of various marginalised groups of the population.
This essay seeks to highlight the urgent need to address the growing menace of domestic violence during this time and to take affirmative actions to combat it. It also aims to put into focus the plight of some members of the LQBTQI+ community in the backdrop of the pandemic. The first step in this process is to identify and realise the existence of gender-based differences in experiencing the effects of a lockdown. These differences in the impact become all the more relevant in the backdrop of a country like India, owing to its patriarchal set-up. Further, the essay also looks at prospective special measures that could be taken in light of the framework of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, in the wake of the current situation as well as other sustainable measures that can help the mitigation of the crisis while catering to the needs of vulnerable groups.
Home, a place far from being safe- The brutal reality
Domestic violence continues to be one of the most horrendous yet hidden forms of violence against women and children. It includes both physical and emotional abuse that may be inflicted upon the victim. While both these forms of domestic violence are widely prevalent, physical abuse is certainly more discernible than the psychological scarring. The magnitude of this issue oftentimes goes unnoticed, mostly due to the underlying social and psychological factors in the institution.
Unlike other forms of abuse, the fact remains that this is executed by a person who is related to the victim, such as her husband, father, in-laws or others who may be understood to be in a fiduciary relationship with her. It occurs in circumstances where the victim may seem free to leave, but in reality, is held prisoner by fear of further violence against herself and her children, or due to lack of resources and familial, legal or community support.
Economic and psychological dependability plays a major role in comprehending the reasons as to why a particular gender is considered ‘weak’ or is subjected to mistreatment as opposed to others. A number of women in India have been manipulated and coerced into staying at home instead of seeking employment, leaving them with no choice but to accept low paid or unpaid household based exploitive labour. However, it is imperative to realise that this works in the inverse way too. The progressive increase in the economic independence of women is perceived as a menace or a threat, thereby contributing to violence against working women.
Differential impact among gender groups
In India and globally, women have always been regarded as the primary caretakers in a family. The coronavirus pandemic and consequently the lockdown have worsened the situation of working women as they are burdened with fulfilling the needs of the family as well as completing work obligations. The economic impact of the lockdown also finds stark differences in the way it affects women and marginalised groups as opposed to men. Apart from being the informal care takers within families, many women are often the primary breadwinners in their family. The workers who are employed as domestic help are predominantly women and with the lockdown they have become unemployed without any pay. In families where such women are the sole earning members, their source of income has been adversely affected.
The tackling of domestic violence during the period of a lockdown becomes more essential as the victim and the abuser are often residing together, which leaves the victim with very less opportunity to escape or to even report abusive incidents. With the disappearance of the few hours of respite that these women had prior to the lockdown, there has been a global rise in the number of domestic violence cases. Various NGOs which work with victims of domestic violence are unable to provide any help to such women due to the lockdown and the strong social distancing measures in place. Where previously the victims had the option to be moved to private shelter homes, now their only solace is in contacting the helplines that have been set up by a few NGOs. This also poses a challenge as not all women have the wherewithal to be able to access a phone for the purpose.
In case of queer and transwomen for whom home often turns out to be the site of abuse, the lockdown has proven to pose various difficulties as they are unable to interact in a safe space or seek help from help centers catering to their needs. Some members of the transgender community are also facing the brunt of the situation as they have been plagued with a loss of accommodation, livelihood, food security and health. The members of this community who are required to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy for gender transitioning and Anti-Retroviral Treatment for treating HIV/AIDS are unable to access hospitals due to the overburdened health care system.
The measures that have been taken for the management of this pandemic have completely ignored the disproportionate impact that it has on women and other marginalised groups. There seems to exist an inherent male bias in the policies and approach surrounding the outbreak of a disease. The treatment and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the government has not taken into consideration the differential effect that a lockdown has on women which has led to various problems. One of the most important steps that can be taken to rectify this is by ensuring and encouraging the participation of women and other affected groups in framing of policies and interventions so that they fulfill the needs of various groups.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (hereinafter, “the Act”) has been designed in such a manner so as to tackle emergency situations and grant immediate relief. There is a need to ensure efficient working of protection officers, appointed under S. 8 of the Act. Though they have been appointed to assist women and ensure appropriate working of the Act, studies indicate an absence of positive influence on their part due to a lack of sensitivity or competency. The first step is to believe victims and to offer them whatever instantaneous assistance possible. Certain exclusive measures can be taken up while handling domestic violence matters during these exceptional times.
One suggestion would be with regard to the processing of the complaints received via the official website of the National Commission of Women. If the complaint in itself seems indicative of the presence of abuse that warrants immediate protection to the victim under the PWDV Act, then the same can be done. Spreading awareness regarding helpline numbers through the aid of television, radio, print media and online platforms is crucial. Further, an additional number of Non-Governmental Organisations should be encouraged to register as essential service providers under S. 10 of the Act.
Other possible measures include providing regular telephone counseling services to both the victim and the abuser and institutional quarantine of the abuser wherever required. The government can also work with various organisations to establish private shelter homes for people facing abuse along with transport facilities for them so that they have the option to seek shelter elsewhere. The provision of measures such as these would go a long way in tackling domestic violence and abuse during a lockdown.
The transgender community has been faced with increasing hardships in relation to accommodation, livelihood and healthcare, as a consequence of which a few people from the community wrote to the Ministry of Finance, Home Affairs and Social Justice & Empowerment seeking assistance. It is the responsibility of the government to pay heed to the basic requirements of this community and to make certain that at least their minimum survival necessities are met with. Steps also need to be taken to ensure that the persons who require regular medical attention are provided with the requisite facilities so that no hindrance is caused in their treatments.
In a country like India, where the society still functions on a patriarchal setup, gender becomes a key demographic consideration during the handling of emergency situations like pandemics. During these times, the goal of gender equality is often put on hold. This should not be the case; protection of victims needs to be prioritized irrespective of a ‘larger crisis’. Employing a gendered dimension is usually not given importance while responding to problems like the current crisis, but the failure to do so has the potential to aggravate the existing inequalities. There is a need to apply a gendered lens while studying the effect of a pandemic and this can be achieved by incorporating the views and knowledge of women and other marginalised groups which could help in improving outbreak preparedness and response. Such strides in ensuring gender equality should not be limited to just tackling this pandemic but should also act as a stepping stone towards bringing down the systemic and structural barriers that have plagued these diverse groups for years.
Raghavi R. and Sahana Priya Satish are fourth year student of Tamil Nadu National Law University, Tamil Nadu.
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