Attention: A Shadow Pandemic is on the Rise

Domestic and sexual violence is on the rise due to the global lockdown and the governments need to take urgent measures to curb it. In this original for Indian Policy Collective, Ashwini Deshpande and Sohaila Abdulali give you the lowdown.

- There is a shadow pandemic on the rise and it is following the trail of the spread of COVID19 from China to Europe and the USA - rising cases of domestic abuse against women. 

- In India the National Commission of Women has seen a spike in reported cases of domestic abuse during the lockdown. This is worrying particularly because there is massive underreporting of domestic abuse in India. 

- Underreporting occurs because women are scared, lack resources and/or self-confidence, don't know about hotlines, are culturally conditioned to believe abuse is acceptable. Data from the National Family Health Survey revealed that 52% of women think it is okay for their husbands to beat them up. In contrast, 42% of the men think beating their wives is par for the course. 

- In addition to the spike in reported cases from across the globe, there are other reasons to believe domestic abuse is on the rise. 

- Studies have shown that domestic abuse goes up when families get together, even for happy or festive occasions. Studies also show that rise in unemployment coincides with a rise in domestic abuse. 

- Habitual abusers under extreme stress and frustration tend to up the abuse. 

- Alcohol consumption leads to increased abuse. In India, where availability of alcohol has been restricted due the lockdown, abuse may be mitigated for this reason. However given the presence of other stressors and their interaction with withdrawal symptoms, the net result might not be all that different. 

- There is reason to believe that joint families might prevent abuse to some extent. But again, given that there is cultural acceptability of abuse, it is difficult to say to what extent joint families might help women. In fact, in certain cases, it might lead to a woman being faced with multiple abusers within the same family.

- Rape and sexual abuse are facets of the abuse women and children face within homes. 90% of perpetrators of rape in India are known to victims and a significant number of them are from within the same family. This increases the risk faced by women and children under lockdown. It is important to bear in mind that marital rape has legal sanction in India. 

- Add to that, women lose their acquired support structures due to the lockdown. They are not able to step out for work or to see friends or relatives where they might seek refuge. 

- In addition to the increased risk of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, women who are survivors of trauma - sexual abuse in particular, and suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), could be triggered by the loss of control and uncertainty that characterise this lockdown. 

- India has a paucity of shelters, hotlines, and legal assistance for women facing abuse even at the best of times. This is exacerbated by a corrupt and desensitised criminal justice system. The lockdown has made the situation a lot worse. 

- The attention of the state as well as media is completely taken up by the fight against COVID-19 but the shadow pandemic cannot be ignored. Particularly, because we might be in this for the long haul.

- To address the problem, governments need to set up additional hotlines and ensure that existing ones are allowed to function. 

- Temporary shelters must be created in hotels and hostels that are lying vacant at the moment. 

- Reaching women in distress must be recognised as an essential service. 

- In rural areas frontline health workers, panchayats, and women's self-help groups must be mobilised to help women in distress. 

- Raising awareness through SMS and local leaders is very critical. 

- The government also needs to work towards easing the stress of hunger, economic uncertainty, and under-employment amongst abusers. 

- Women need to be brought back into workplaces as soon as possible and need protection against being fired and pay cuts. 

- These are quick fixes but once the Corona Crisis is over we need to look for long-term solutions so women and children are not particularly vulnerable in times of emergencies. 

- It’s important to take a good hard look at the way legislation promotes rather than prohibits domestic violence. Examples: non-recognition of marital rape, unequal inheritance laws.

- Education of men and boys is essential and school curricula need to include gender sensitisation.

- All policy should be based on contextual research and evidence. It must be fed by studies of the different ways in which domestic violence manifests in urban, rural and migrant communities in order to work out how to tackle it. And it must acknowledge that there is no universal fix. 

Read more from the authors on the subject:

Ashwini Deshpande is professor of economics at Ashoka University; Sohaila Abdulali is the author of 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape'.

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