Relief Work For Gender Violence Must Be Recognized As Emergency Services, Say Activists
To enable relief workers to respond to the sharp spike in domestic violence, this is a must
As our homes become captive sanctuaries, there has been a worldwide surge in what the United Nations Organisation calls a ‘shadow pandemic’: violence against women perpetuated by an intimate partner in domestic spaces. With the entire state machinery struggling to deal with the pandemic, authorities are ill-equipped to deal with the spike in gender violence. What is more, activists and relief workers, who could be lending support to those in distress, find their efforts stymied as they have not been classified as essential services. This could be costing extremely vulnerable groups their lives.
Anurita P. Hazarika, state director, North East Network (NEN), a leading women’s rights organization, says, “Violence against women must be recognized in all COVID measures and COVID advisories issued by the states. Any measures to deal with the pandemic need to be gender inclusive and gender responsive. Organizations like ours should be recognized as essential services, which would allow mobility to offer support.”
Anuradha Kapoor, director, Swayam a Kolkata-based feminist organization working to advance women’s rights, concurs: “We should have not only been classified as essential services, but been provided with adequate institutional support. Currently, the Kolkata police has issued statements saying that those doing relief work will be issued passes, but how do we move out with all transport facilities shut?” She also suggests that the government should have advertised helplines extensively, so that women (and others) in distress would know know who to call. COVID advisories should have carried this information as well, with strict guidelines to the police and other agencies that are working on this.”
In India, the National Commission for Women (NCW) has recorded a more than two-fold rise in gender-based violence since the lockdown. The number of complaints registered by the NCW in the first week of March increased from 116 to 257 by April 1. But these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, say activists. According to them, intimate partner violence is largely unreported and unregistered—even more so at the time of the lockdown. a A large number of cases—possibly a majority of them—go unreported due to a number of reasons.
Trapped at home with their abusers, the opportunities for abused women to seek help are few. Says Hazarika: “With the abuser hovering over the woman like a helicopter, it is impossible for her to be able to make an SOS call. And stepping out is harder now, defying lockdown restrictions.” Once the lockdown is lifted, there will be a surge in the number of cases, both Hazarika and Kapoor predict.
As Kapoor points there are lot of loopholes in the system, multiple issues that have affected women, especially single survivors with children. “Four hours of notice and a lockdown was implemented. For women and children who are caught in abusive situations, no one really thought of what the lockdown would mean for them,” she says.
Dolly Pandey, counsellor for Shakti Shalini, a Delhi based NGO that works to stop everyday violence against women, agrees that the lockdown has been a major impediment in rescue work and heightened the risk for the vulnerable. “Before, we had 20 to 25 cases reported weekly, since the lockdown, it has dropped to 5 to 6 cases weekly. Clearly, the women cannot find the space or time to call us. Almost all the calls we receive now are made after 9 pm or before 8 am.”
Forced to take shelter at home, they are trapped with violent partners, and completely isolated. The restrictions to contain the pandemic have shattered support networks, making it hard for them to seek help or escape. Add to this associated stressors brought on by the pandemic—financial worries, possible livelihood loss, physical confinement—and this is a deadly cocktail.
Says Hazarika, “During the lockdown, we had a case where the battered woman somehow reached the police station. The thana was cooperative, they called in the husband and brokered an uneasy settlement and sent them back. But everyone is compromising their safety and security and going back to these abusive homes.”
Pandey describes how the lockdown has made it highly challenging to get women the basic protection they need. “A Ghaziabad woman reported her case in March. The physical violence had gotten so extreme that she had called, asking us to rescue her from her house. When we connected her with the police, it took 3 to 4 days before they intervened and then they refused to get her out of there. Currently, she is with her husband, in her martial home, but since the day the police intervened, she tells us that the physical violence has stopped, but the verbal and emotional abuse continues.” “We are waiting for the lockdown to end, so we can move her to our shelter. There should have been provisions for organizations to be able to move in cases of such emergencies,” she adds.
Ruchi Rastogi, programme coordinator for Humsafar, a support centre for women in a crisis, echoes this sentiment, “Our ground workers have been carrying out food relief work in the communities in the face of great challenges. Having passes even for a select number of workers would have made a huge difference. Every government effort or programme profits from civil society support and this is no different.”
According to Hazarika, “All COVID measures must include information and sensitivity to reach out to women. It does not mean just women in cities, help should reach the last woman in the remotest district. COVID or no COVID, our lines have to function. Violence doesn’t know whether there is virus or no virus.”
The lockdown has meant that a lot of other services that are essential for women survivors, such as legal aid, have all been affected. As the pandemic brings along with it several devastating consequences—the crippling economy, dismantling healthcare systems and constraining how we live, move or seek company—the underlying fault lines widen. But, it is critical that emergency services factor in vulnerable groups and dispense relief with an eye of empathy on them.