Silent victims of the pandemic

Dr Shenaz Ganai

Who is a victim in a pandemic? The obvious answer is, of course, those who have fallen ill or died due to the pandemic. And, like most obvious answers it is grossly unsatisfactory. The millions rendered jobless, the millions rendered homeless, and millions who were confined in their homes suffered the brute tyranny of physical and mental violence are all equal, if not direct, victims of the pandemic.
Subjugation of man by man and the subjugation of woman by man is a sickening reality of modern capitalist-democratic social complexes. Astoundingly people often find justification for these in scriptures and the Lord knows that the devil has never faltered in quoting his words.
But, what is the scale and scope of this passive victimhood? As a woman, I am pained by the sufferings of fellow women, globally and especially in my country, in the wake of SARS-COVID-19 induced pandemic and lockdowns.
Not only women who stay at home, but those who go out and work have suffered. A recent report published by the Indian Express quotes the recent Periodic Labour Force Survey to state: “The rise in the female labour force participation is also problematic. Under normal circumstances, considering the low rates of female labour force participation in India – for women aged 15 and above it stood at 24.5 per cent in 2018-19 – a rise in participation would be a positive development. However, much of the increase observed in 2019-20 was in the form of unpaid family work. In fact, according to the survey, the employment rate for unpaid workers in household enterprises in rural and urban areas increased to 15.9 per cent in 2019-20, from 13.3 per cent in 2018-19. In the case of female workers, it increased from 30.9 per cent to 35 per cent over the period. This, as some economists have said, is indicative of rising underemployment.”
This apart the pandemic has also seen an increase in domestic violence against women. This is a global phenomenon, and a phenomenon that is hardly evidence-driven unlike employment data. Maria Noel Vaeza wrote for the United Nations that Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) has surged in the Latin American countries as well as in the Caribbeans.
In India the situation has been no better. In fact, we do not even have functional VAWG helplines. In an article published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (Krishnakumar and Verma) states, “National Commission for Women’s (NCW) data showed that domestic violence complaints doubled after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in India (Vora et al. 2020). Tamil Nadu Police reported an increase in domestic violence complaints. They received approximately 25 calls every day during the lockdown period and registered at least 40 such cases (Kannan 2020). Similarly, Bangalore Police reported a spike in complaints from 10 calls to 25 calls every day from the victims of domestic violence (Peter 2020). These data from different sources indicate that domestic violence incidents increased across the country during the lockdown. On the contrary, organizations such as Jagori, Shakti Shalini, and AKS Foundation reported a decrease in complaint calls related to domestic violence (Ghoshal 2020). The decrease could be attributed to confinement at home, constant monitoring (Piquero et al. 2020) and controlling decision-making by the abuser, social isolation of victims from friends and family members (Kaukinen 2020), and reduced options for support (Usher et al. 2020).”
In fact, the condition in certain territories like Jammu and Kashmir is even worse. On 5 August 2019, once the Government of India, stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, converting the territories into Union Territories, it also disbanded the state’s Women’s Commission. While preserving local laws like the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) that allows arrest and detention without court warrants, it did not blink before doing away with the Commission. This meant, women who were at the receiving end of increased violence since March 2020, were left without a straw to clutch on to.
Now with the third wave looming in the horizon, are we to expect that women will bear the entire brunt of it physically, emotionally, and economically? Where does healing begin? Is there a national level framework that can create anticipatory policies to safeguard women? I think the point to begin with should be within communities themselves. Islamic thought leaders and Hindu thought leaders should acknowledge the crisis faced by women and offer social advisories in public. At a national level, the National Commission for Women should start district level helplines coordinating with the local police in every state. Police stations should be sensitized and staffed with sensitive tele-constables who can lodge complaints over telephones. Several governments have started telemedicine facilities; they can start tele-counselling for marital discords which eventually lead to instances of violence. There should also be political platforms to address these issues. While it is heartening to see political parties stepping on the bandwagon to feed the hungry, hospitalise the sick, or reach medicines to those who need them, very few of these parties come forward to help those women who suffer in crises like the ones induced by COVID 19. Yet, women voters often decide the fate of several elections and their voting patterns are judiciously analysed by psephologist who probably wouldn’t blink when the same woman faces abuse, stuck inside her home, jobless and hungry.
Patriarchy is an economic condition. It comes from male ownership of property and the treating of women as economic assets or liabilities. Islam acknowledges that even women have a right to their earnings and the Surah-an-Nisa is unequivocal about it. Capitalist societies treat individuals as mere workers; it has no social mechanism to sustain the lives of those workers beyond their wages which it lets the market forces determine. Yet, no other economic mechanism has worked for human beings for a longer term (feudalism or unmitigated socialism have both failed). So, modern capitalist societies create fragile human communities. The families, the communities, and even the individual is so vulnerable to any change in the economic or physical environment. Domestic violence, unjust wages, and gender discrimination all point towards such vulnerability. There is, therefore, an urgent need to recall the prophetic words of our wise leaders of the past-words which took men and women to shores where the wealth of nations was meagre and sublime happiness was manifest.
(The author is former MLC)