Ugly side of lockdown during COVID-19 pandemic

Meijianthaipou Ruangmei (Francis)
“Globally, 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by any perpetrator in their lifetime. Most of this is intimate partner violence… Older women and women with disabilities are likely to have additional risks and needs. Women who are displaced, refugees, and living in conflict-affected areas are particularly vulnerable. The health impacts of violence, particularly intimate partner/domestic violence, on women and their children are significant. Violence against women can result in injuries and serious physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems, including sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and unplanned pregnancies”. WHO.
Disaster is not new things to Indian. People were able to cope during and post disaster but COVID-19 is a new thing to people and different from their past experience. This pandemic has link of changes, has new names, new vocabulary being used which were never used or heard before such Social distancing, social isolation, home isolation, quarantine, red zones, green zones and orange zones are new terms for us at present. The unprecedented global pandemic has taken the world by surprise. There had been steep rise of new vulnerable groups such as daily wagers, migrant workers surface and are fighting for survival. Each and every person are psychologically affected; survival and non-survival, affected and non-affected. In most of the studies, it was found that people are under depression, anxiety, stress and frustration are common feelings experienced during this phase of isolation and lockdown.
Amidst all these, there were wave of violence against women in India and the world. Physical, domestic, sexual violence are on the rise and it is surging in alarming rate. We question ourselves on how do we protect those women who are locked, trapped and face mental and physical abuse during lockdown? As a matter of fact women are unable to reach police or helpline centre due to movement restriction. Most of the women are made to suffer alone during this lockdown partly because most of the NGOs working for the women are shut while trying to practice social distancing and this has crippled their reach to register cases on gender-based violence, intimate partner sexual violence, domestic violence, crimes,  and rape. The prevalence of patriarchal system added to their vulnerability. According to National commission for Women, there had been steep rise in violence against women during lockdown. From February 27 to March 22, a total of 396 offences related to women and from March 23 to April 18, a total of 587 complaints registered, out of which 239 related to domestic violence which is the highest in numbers. NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma stated that the high number can be attributed to the lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak which has locked the abuser and the victim together. In essence women shoulder more responsibilities due to closures of school taking care of the need of the children. There was more desperation as women couldn’t go out due to social isolation rules and social isolation is potentially a dangerous situation for people experiencing domestic violence and there is increase in severity and it is not manifesting yet increase pressure in social isolation will bring out-worried about basic necessities. All of these stresses in fact increase the pressure on households.
As the COVID-19 pandemic deepens economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, gender-based violence is increasing exponentially. Many women are being forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers at the same time that services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible.  There had been several incidents of increase of crime against women in across cities and towns in India. Nagaland is not spared from these incidents. The recent heinous and inhuman rape incident that happened at Netaji Colony, Dimapur on 28 April was a serious indication that women are not safe in their own soil. There are numbers of domestic violence and physical abuse left unreported in Nagaland and other parts of India partly because women are made to remain silent and other reasons women are unaware about the existing helplines in the country and the state. Therefore it is our duty to help report and we shouldn’t be just a mere spectator of violence happening under our very nose. These sexual crimes against women are sure to escalate as the country ponders extending lockdown as per the experts the Pandemic peak might rise by June-July.
Our battle to stand with women who face violence would be how to mitigate and support intervention during this lockdown. Although it is imperative to make implementation to address violence against women during COVID-19 as laid down by World Health Organisation, we should also do our part to make them aware of the availability of national and state helplines.
·    Governments and policy makers must include essential services to address violence against women in preparedness and response plans for COVID-19, fund them, and identify ways to make them accessible in the context of physical distancing measures.
·    Health facilities should identify and provide information about services available locally (e.g. hotlines, shelters, rape crisis centres, counselling) for survivors, including opening hours, contact details, and whether services can be offered remotely, and establish referral linkages.
·    Health providers need to be aware of the risks and health consequences of violence against women. They can help women who disclose by offering first-line support and medical treatment. First-line support includes: listening empathetically and without judgment, inquiring about needs and concerns, validating survivors’ experiences and feelings, enhancing safety, and connecting survivors to support services. The use of mHealth and telemedicine in safely addressing violence against women must urgently be explored. In our case, ASHA worker plays a pivotal role in the rural areas.
·    Humanitarian response organizations need to include services for women subjected to violence and their children in their COVID-19 response plans and gather data on reported cases of violence against women. Non-governmental organisations must engage in providing services to women in need.
·    Community members should be made aware of the increased risk of violence against women during this pandemic and the need to keep in touch and support women subjected to violence, and to have information about where help for survivors is available. It is important to ensure that it is safe to connect with women when the abuser is present in the home. Panchayati raj members and community leaders should help women who face different kind of violence.
·    Women who are experiencing violence may find it helpful to reach out to supportive family and friends, seek support from a hotline, or seek out local services for survivors. They may also find it useful to have a safety plan in case the violence escalates. This includes having a neighbor, friend, relative, or shelter identified to go to should they need to leave the house immediately for safety. Women who are experiencing violence should approach Self-Help Groups members to register and file case.
To combat violence against women, it is essential that women should put potential importance to friends and families and balance social isolation with communication with people that they trust. Though social distance is absolutely necessary but it doesn’t mean they can’t check up on their neighbors. Reach out to national helpline numbers launched by NCW-72177135372. You are not alone; Reach out to National Domestic Violence Hotlines.

     The author is Assistant Prof., Department of Social Work, St Joseph University, Dimapur.He can be reached at  +917838541814