Life has been oddly, yet systematically, suspended by the pandemic. It is systematic because the pandemic has frozen us not only in our homes, but in the larger typecasts of our caste, class and gender. The virus has dismissed any illusions or pretensions that these identities might not determine our lives. Our very survival is an undeniable gamble of our class, while the days we spend at our homes are an encasement of our worst gender tropes.
Governments across the world have implored people to stay home while failing to even acknowledge the increased domestic responsibilities created by the lockdown. The home now includes children who are compelled to be home all day, aged people who are especially vulnerable to the virus, and babies that cannot be baby-sat by willing neighbours anymore. This is possible because this burden has traditionally been borne and continues to disproportionately be borne by the women of the household.
The difference is even more skewed for Indian women, who do more unpaid care and domestic work than women in any other country except Kazakhstan. Indian women spend up to 353 minutes a day on household work, which is 577% more than the 52 minutes spent by men on it. Factors such as double shifts for working women, the absence of assistance of house-help, and the increased need for cooking, cleaning, caring and hygiene is further increasing and tipping our skewed balance of domestic work today.
The Malaysian government led a campaign for “House-hold happiness” (#WomenpreventCOVID19) asking women to wear make-up at home, adopt a Doraemon-like childish tone and giggle coyly when asking husbands to help with household chores. The posters have been subsequently taken down after protests. However, the perverse sentiment behind such posters is widely present in India too, and is thriving unchecked in the present pandemic. Daily WhatsApp forwards, for example, demonstrate the woes of men that are locked home with wives who cannot go to the parlour or wear make-up and nag them to share in the house-work.
The Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which has maintained stoic patriarchal silent on the issue, is complicit in the woes of Indian women, who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic on their calloused feet and hardened hands. The Government of Odisha exhorted men to not treat the lockdown like a holiday and ask women to prepare food multiple times during the day. It is tragic that the only recognition by the government requests men to not burden women further, but does not contemplate men sharing this labour. Every public enjoinment on staying home could easily include advice on sharing the domestic load at home.
The gendered impact of the pandemic is not restricted to the boundaries of domestic chores. Domestic violence is the shadow pandemic that has thrived in the conditions that were created to cure the pandemic. The National Commission for Women has recorded a two-fold increase in gender-based violence across the country, with the body receiving 257 calls in the final week of March as opposed to 116 calls in the first week. The realities of these numbers loom several times greater than their value with 99% of sexual assault cases in India going unreported, and a woman being 17 times more likely to be assaulted by her husband.
These numbers are eschewed beyond calculation by the lockdown, which multiplies the factors contributing to domestic violence while reducing the outlets from this abuse. Every woman who faces domestic abuse has been locked home with her abuser, for months together, with the abuser himself reeling from the impact of the lockdown. This woman could ordinarily have sought shelter elsewhere on nights she feared abuse, sought medical help after the abuse or sought help from the police. However, each of these outlets has systematically been shut by the lockdown. Travel is disallowed, a visit to the hospital is perhaps not “essential” and a call to the police unwelcome.
If domestic violence was a virus in itself, the lockdown has not only increased its breeding rate but has also morphed its DNA to make it a more tenacious variant. Other contributing factors include the ability of the abuser to exercise constant surveillance by monitoring phones, the reduced working of courts, inability and fear to travel to counselling centres, the risk of contracting the virus at these centres and increasing financial dependence of women who are more likely to experience pay cuts and job loss during the pandemic. Additionally, increased home drinking or forced abstinence from alcohol due to the closure of local wine shops can aggravate the complicated relationship between alcohol and domestic violence.
The increased apprehension of child abuse with Childline India Helpline receiving 92,000 SOS calls in a mere 11 days of the lockdown and the inaccessibility of contraceptives and abortion services further complicates domestic abuse. This is especially so in light of the fact that top hospitals of the country have suspended elective surgeries and are only performing essential or life-saving operations. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued guidelines to states in which abortion was categorised as an essential service, but there is a need for the government to mandate the same.
Gender disparity and violence are an entrenched part of our daily life and cannot be rooted out during the pandemic. But this cannot be the reason for us to set it aside while we “fix” the pandemic. The lockdown is essential and necessary. But it need not be gender-neutral. It need not worsen our lopsided balance of household work, and domestic violence further.
Spain and Portugal declared protection and assistance for victims of gender-based violence as essential services that operate during the lockdown. France financed 20,000 hotel bookings for women seeking refuge from domestic abuse, and set up toll booths at groceries and pharmacies so women can contact people away from their abuser. Argentina, France, Italy, Norway and Spain adopted Mask-19 wherein a woman asking a pharmacist for this type of mask is a pseudonym for him to call for help. The police force could be sensitised to domestic abuse complaints. These are some measures that the government can adopt, apart from increasing investment in organisations that provide aid to women. It only needs to remember that India’s women are not waiting by the wayside to pick up at the end of the lockdown, they are shouldering the brunt of it and are being exploited while at it.
Harshitha Kasarla is a law graduate from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad and is presently litigating in Delhi.