We’ve often heard the adage, “Precaution is better than cure”. Now more than ever, as COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, we need to stay indoors. Reducing contact is the only way to control the virus. But social distancing means we’re going against our primal instinct that makes us human – being social. And while social media does help in being connected, it lacks physical affection, comfort and intimacy. In these times of extremes, all of us are feeling some kind of distress, a sign that we need to take care of our mental health.
Some of us are lucky to have loving homes, where we can stand by each other. Even as India is now put under lockdown for 21 days, can we assume that each person has a safe space to go back to? Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women said, “The very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely impact victims of domestic violence. While we absolutely support the need to follow these measures of social distancing and isolation, we also recognize that it provides an opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence.”
As per World Health Organisation, 1 in 3 women face some form of domestic abuse. This adversely affects their mental and physical health. Moreover, throughout history, women’s bodies have been sites of violence. Societal norms expect women to take care of household duties; since ‘honour’ is linked to their virginity, women’s bodies become more vulnerable. Violence within intimate relationships of LGBTQ+ communities has also witnessed an increase. How then does quarantine and self-isolation affect those who’re caught in abusive situations?
Redefining The Concept Of Home
Home is often attached with the idea of safe space. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a safe space is “a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.” For many, home is where their family lives. It may be a comforting space, but not necessarily a safe space. Comfort can arise out of living with people you’ve always known and loved, or living in a house that you are familiar with. Comfort may also arise out of economic interdependence.
However, having comforts does not mean that home is a safe space. Home can also be a regressive place for those who have to hide key parts of their identity. Many a times, people may realise they have irreconcilable differences with their family, and may thus no longer be able to identify it as home. While for some, home may not have a physical manifestation, for others, being home could mean being in a specific house. For women, especially in India, home has always had a different connotation. Women are told from the beginning that they belong to a paraya ghar. This is a way of distancing them from their own homes, since they are supposed to go and live with their husbands’ family after marriage.
However, even in their husbands’ homes, women may be treated as outsiders. Where then is the home of a woman – with their parents or their husbands?
Home, as in popular imagination, could very well be an abusive space for some people. Since women are supposed to hold a passive role in society, they are often the ones who find themselves stuck in situations of abuse. And since women are usually dependent on their husbands or their family for financial support, it is difficult for them to escape these situations. Added to this is the judgement of society that deters them from leaving abusive situations. Not matter through what lens you look at domestic abuse, women often tend to suffer more because of societal censure, lack of financial independence, and no place to escape to.
This is not to say that men are not victims of domestic abuse. This is only to point out that patriarchy allows cis-gendered straight men to have more power than women and other non-binary genders when it comes to the domestic sphere. Whatever the sex, gender, or sexual orientation of a person be, it is quite difficult for those suffering from domestic abuse to escape violence. Governments are enforcing their citizens to stay back at home. So in a scenario where people are forced inside with their abusers in order to contain the spread of COVID 19, what would ‘home’ mean to them?
COVID 19 And Domestic Abuse
All social relations are a nexus of power. This means that all our relationships revolve around who has power/ who is supposed to have power. Since COVID-19, people are experiencing a lack of control. Due to quarantine and lockdown, all need for control is bound to get translated into domestic lives. Because of how patriarchy works, it is most likely that household chores will not be equally performed by family members. And since we are all strongly advised to stay home, this could mean that women’s household burdens would only increase, further being monitored by family members.
Quarantine measures could also mean an increase in physical and verbal violence for those who’ve somehow found themselves in abusive situations. Survivors could end up being forced inside with their abusers, with no hope of immediate escape. Hotline numbers that address domestic violence are suggesting that women are unwilling or unable to seek medical assistance after suffering physical violence. They are also worried about contracting COVID-19 if they visit hospitals. Since hospitals are also already overburdened, it is also possible that they do not have the capacity to extend medical help.
Some survivors are also unwilling to go back to their parents’ house because they fear unknowingly infecting them with the virus. Some are being abused by their partners for simply coughing. The survivors are warned that they would suffer dire consequences if they spread COVID-19 to their partners. They also fear being locked out of their houses. It is possible that at this point, places of refuge like women’s shelters would perhaps be overburdened as well.
While quarantine may not necessarily create new situations of harm, it can lead to an increase in violence in abusive households. Keeping in mind all such scenarios, Deputy Executive Director of UN has called for governments to announce provisions for paid sick leave for women, and care packages for unpaid care work. It is financial independence from abusers that can give some form of security to survivors.
The Situation In India
As per the UN Women, lifetime physical and/or Sexual Intimate Violence in India stand at a staggering 288%. India ranks 125 on Gender Inequality Index and 87 on the Global Gender Gap. This indicates that women have much less access to resources than their male counterparts, especially in economic, political, education and health sectors. Due to this lack, most women would be forced to stay with their abusive partners throughout their lives, without reporting it.
As already pointed out, girls and women in India over and over that they belong to someone else’s home. Since upbringing is gendered, girls are often pushed into learning skills like cooking, cleaning, stitching and other household chores, while boys are sent out to school to study. This is clear from the fact that India’s average in young women’s literacy is still 20 percentage points behind the world average. All of this means that girls and women tend to be more vulnerable and susceptible to domestic violence in India.
What Can You Do?
While we go under lockdown, it is important to extend our support to people who find themselves in abusive homes. The first and foremost thing you can do is listen and believe what victims are going through when they tell you. It is important for them to have someone they can trust. By listening, you can provide them a mental safe space, where they can express their own feelings, both in relation to being shut inside, and what they are suffering as a consequence.
If possible, you can help them out with resources – by sharing simple things like groceries, or sending across some food, you can help ease out their mental stress a little. In case you hear sounds of violence, you can possibly ring the bell or knock on the door. This would be an indication to the abuser that the neighbours are aware of what is going on inside the house and won’t simply stand by in silence. Since both abusers and victims wish to keep such forms of violence under wraps, it is a good idea to indicate your presence. This can serve as a deterrent to the abuser and as support for the victim.
Finally, it is of utmost importance to seek professional help. If the situation seems extremely dire, do no intervene. It can further put the victim in danger. Instead call 1091 for help. Other Domestic violence helpline numbers can be found at India Helpline, Naree, and standupagainstviolence.org.
While we self-isolate in order to stop COVID-19 from spreading, let us keep all those not as privileged as us in mind. It could really save a life.
Feature Image Source: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India