Beneath the surface of the pandemic lurks a human rights crisis for women. From domestic abuse to lack of access to healthcare, they have been dealt a severe blow by the virus
By Shriya Roy
The pandemic has unleashed a volley of troubles on the world. But while its impact on people, businesses and industries has been dwelt upon in detail, one issue that seems to have slipped through the cracks is its impact on women. From domestic abuse and mental stress to financial instability and lack of access to healthcare, the virus has dealt a severe blow to women of all ages and across countries.
The 2020 World Population report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in fact, warns that the pandemic could reverse all the gains achieved so far in the fight against harmful practices against women worldwide. Interestingly, data suggests that epidemics and pandemics have always affected women in far greater ways than men. The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for instance, destroyed the livelihoods of many traders in Sierra Leone and Liberia, 85% of whom were women, as per reports.
What makes the scenario more worrisome is that only a minority of governments collect and share aggregated sex and gender data during an infectious disease. Analysis is often conducted much later and with incomplete information. The truth, however, remains that beneath the surface of the current pandemic lurks a global human rights crisis for women.
Violence & abuse
Domestic violence cases increased by 20% worldwide during the lockdown, as per the UN, which termed this rise a “shadow pandemic”. While many countries reported a spike in calls to domestic abuse hotlines, in many others, especially developing ones, reporting of cases was lower due to limitations on access to phones and helplines, and disrupted public services like police, justice and social services.
In India, the National Commission for Women received more than 300 such complaints from the start of the lockdown in March till April. As per their data, compared to the pre-lockdown period, the number of complaints doubled starting the first week of lockdown itself in late March.
Delhi alone saw around 1,600 women calling emergency helpline numbers between March and April to report domestic violence, as per various reports. The Delhi Commission for Women, however, maintains that there was a decrease in the number of such calls during the lockdown. “It was seen that reporting of cases decreased manifold in the initial days of the lockdown,” says Swati Maliwal, chief, Delhi Commission for Women. This decrease, however, could be attributed to women not being able to access help due to close proximity with their abusers. “It becomes harder for women to get away from the house and so long as they are in the same space as the abuser, the violence continues,” says Bengaluru-based activist Tara Krishnaswamy, a member of the civic group Citizens for Bengaluru.
Agrees journalist Namita Bhandare, who writes on gender issues: “Empirical data on a wide scale is lacking. However, there is most definitely a domestic violence pandemic that is raging. Calls to helplines, in fact, may be down because, during the lockdown, women might have experienced lack of privacy to place a call. Moreover, due to economic hardships, many women might not have been able to recharge phones or even access phones,” she says.
Shakti Shalini, a New Delhi-based NGO which operates shelter homes for women, said in a recent report that their helpline responded to 77 calls in April. That number, however, rose to 115 in May. Interestingly, through the lockdown, victims contacted majorly between 9 pm and 10 am when most of their family members would be asleep, the NGO said.
Noting the seriousness of the situation and in response to a petition filed by the All India Council of Human Rights, Liberties and Social Justice, the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi government and the Centre on April 24 to ensure effective implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Other countries, too, are stepping up efforts to check the menace. While Italy has increased the number of helplines, Australia has boosted funding for anti-violence organisations, including those that offer safe accommodation. Kenya, too, has bolstered telephone counselling services for those facing domestic violence.
During the lockdown in the country, there were several reports of women giving birth on Shramik trains that were arranged to transport migrant workers back to their home states. The access to maternal healthcare was close to nil, increasing the risk of infection to both mother and baby. Other pregnant women in the country, too, had to face a hard time as it became tough to get to the hospital due to lack of transportation. The lockdown also made it harder for women, especially those in rural areas, to access sexual or reproductive health services. “When it came to availability of essentials like sanitary napkins, it was twice as hard for poor women as shops were shut. Those that were open ran out of stock. Plus, they had no access to delivery services,” says Krishnaswamy.
Not just that, around 1.85 million women were denied access to abortion services in India due to the restrictions, as per a recent study conducted by Ipas Development Foundation (IDF), a Delhi-based non-profit organisation. In Italy, abortions were cancelled during the lockdown and still remain restricted in some parts.
It’s a fact that global health emergencies limit and create a disruption in normal healthcare services. But one of the worst affected are women who suffer from a severe lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. Researchers at UNFPA predict that 47 million women in 114 low- and middle-income countries could lose access to contraception in 2020, leading to unplanned pregnancies. “Past pandemics such as Ebola have shown that there is a definite rise in unplanned and teen pregnancies caused by lack of access to birth control,” says Bhandare.
Besides limiting access to healthcare, the pandemic is also disrupting supply chains. Many types of contraceptives are expected to be in short supply in the coming months in more than a dozen developing nations, warns the UNFPA, which says healthcare professionals may be too busy tackling Covid-19 to be able to provide other services.
Government response in countries around the world differs widely. While England changed its legislation in March to permit medical abortion at home through the use of pills, US states like Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma and Alabama further restricted access to abortion, deeming it a non-essential service. Some states in the US, in fact, claimed that abortions need to be stopped altogether during the pandemic to preserve hospital beds. Closer home, ministry of health and family welfare guidelines declaring maternal health services as ‘essential’ came only on April 13, the third week of the lockdown.
Mind & wellness
Historically, women have played the part of primary caregivers in families. During the current crisis, though, the social isolation measures have resulted in women reeling under an increased workload as family members remain home-bound for a continued period of time. For women with jobs, it has become even more difficult, as they have to juggle work, household chores, domestic responsibilities and parenting duties. If we just talk of India, data collected over time by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that Indian women do nearly six hours of unpaid care work each day. Men, on the other hand, spend less than an hour on an average doing the same. The task of taking care of kids and the elderly also falls upon the woman in the house. “In most households in India, if a woman is working, there is this unsaid assumption that she won’t drop household responsibilities unlike men,” says Krishnaswamy.
This increased work load, however, is leading many women to experience stress, anxiety and other mental health issues. A lot of women have also experienced ‘mom rage’, anger as a result of social isolation, lack of support and high levels of frustration.
A London School of Economics student, who is from India and works as a healthcare volunteer in London, says gender gap in mental health existed before the lockdown, but the isolation has only widened it. “Isolation is draining women disproportionately because our patriarchal society demands that they take on additional domestic chores, as well as child-care responsibilities. In many households, even though the male partners are contributing, the emotional burden still falls on women,” says the student, who didn’t wish to be named.
Agrees Japleen Pasricha, founder-director, Feminism in India, a feminist media organisation: “Women are the primary caretakers in a family and since everyone is at home now, they have to manage household chores, online classes, the children, as well as the elderly. With increased household work, aggravated domestic violence and no leisure time for themselves, women remain one of the worst-hit sections of society,” says Pasricha.
Home is also not a great support system for everyone. Many working women, for whom the workplace provided an escape, have been facing emotional abuse at home now. “Work from home has made things worse because not only do I have to stay at home, but also undergo emotional abuse. I try to be as normal as possible for my daughter, but staying at home all the time is getting harder,” says 38-year-old Amrita (name changed on request), a professional based in Delhi.
The virus outbreak has also brought women’s economic vulnerability to the forefront. According to a July 15 report by management consultant firm Mckinsey & Co, female job loss rates resulting from Covid-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates in India and the US. As per various unemployment surveys in India, women account for 23% of the overall job losses—at least four out of 10 women in India lost their jobs due to the pandemic, reveals a survey by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Globally, too, women’s jobs are 19% more at risk than men, as per the report by Mckinsey & Co. Across the US, the impact on female jobs is already visible. The latest unemployment figures show that women held 55% of the 20.5 million jobs lost between April-May in the US.
Sectors which traditionally have a larger female workforce, such as retail, hotels, tourism, parlours, etc, also shut overnight. The latest International Labour Organization (ILO) report revealed that the proportion of women working in the hard-hit sectors was particularly high in Central America (58.9%), south-east Asia (48.5%), southern Europe (45.8%) and South America (45.5%). “The bigger the loss in employment during the lockdown phase and the greater the scarcity of jobs in the aftermath of the crisis, the harder it will be for women’s employment to recover,” said the ILO in the report, adding that women were disproportionately affected post the lockdown around the world, with almost 40% of all employed women experiencing job loss compared to 36.6% of men.
This loss of financial independence may further threaten their safety and autonomy at home. Bhandare points out that frontline health workers like accredited social health activists (ASHA), who have been working without adequate protection gear or even compensation in the country, are all women. “In many states, not only have their regular honorariums been delayed, but they haven’t also received the additional `1,000 a month promised to them by the Centre for their additional Covid-related work,” she says. The ILO says women are also at greater risk of infection, as they make up the vast majority of health and social care workers globally.
Krishnaswamy warns that women’s economic situation is going to get worse not only in formal, but informal labour too. “People are paranoid about getting their house helps back, and the majority of them are women who come from abusive households. The two issues are, therefore, interconnected,” she says.
Women working from home are also struggling to balance work and life, in some instances with less pay. “Work from home is an attractive option for many, but it can work for women only if they get help with household work and it doesn’t become an excuse for companies to pay them less for equal work,” says Bhandare.
The depth and magnitude of the impact of the pandemic on women is yet to be fully discovered, but timely steps in the form of committed efforts by public and private institutions ranging across mental and physical healthcare, legal support, rehabilitation programmes, etc, may aid future response to such outbreaks.
20%: The increase in domestic violence cases worldwide during lockdown, as per UN
Around 1,600: Women in Delhi who called helplines between March and April to report domestic violence, as per reports
Around 1.85 million: Women who were denied abortions in India during lockdown, as per Ipas Development Foundation
Nearly 47 million: Women in 114 low- and middle-income countries who could lose access to contraception in 2020, as per researchers at United Nations Population Fund
Nearly 6 hours: Unpaid care work done by Indian women each day as opposed to men who spend less than an hour doing the same, as per data by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
* Female job loss rates were 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates in India and the US, as per a Mckinsey & Co report
* At least 4 out of 10 women in India lost their jobs due to the pandemic, as per a survey by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy