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How are Women fighting the “Shadow Pandemic”?

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Covid-19 has hogged headlines across the world. It came with its own challenges for the ‘fairer sex’. Ambreen Yousuf says that the repeated lockdown has exposed women to cyber-bullying, sextortion, sexting, trolling, stalking, body shaming, nudity, unwanted pregnancies, and much more.

By: Ambreen Yousuf

Coronavirus didn’t spare anyone/anything. From crumbling economies to mounting anxiety, it crippled the world in more ways than one could have anticipated. It threatened one and all. The economic and political crisis, followed by refugee problems, sectarian violence, trade wars, climatic disasters, and widespread political violence has only paved the way for worldwide insecurities.

These issues are often accompanied by unemployment, poverty, hunger, deaths, and gender injustice laced issues. The prevalence of Covid-19 has added yet another layer of the global complexities and concerns.  The most predominant problem faced during Covid is the rise in violence against women.

One of the unfortunate developments in the wake of the global crisis is the rise in domestic violence. This trend is alarming to say the least. The two disturbing realities which came to the fore recently were the rise in marital rape during lockdown and an increase in unwanted pregnancies. This has led to impending long-term disadvantageous consequences on women folk in terms of financial uncertainty additionally, because many women have also lost their jobs. Women are facing unmanageable challenges on various fronts amid pandemic.

The war against the novel virus is fought through isolation until scientists come up with a vaccine or effective medical treatment. Confinement measures have led to dramatic upsurge in gender-based violence globally from the beginning of the outbreak, particularly putting women under the dark zones. The isolation of women with their abusive partners has risked the lives of many of them.

Sexual, reproductive, and mental health conditions of these women are deteriorating. Usually in Asian societies, women living with joint families tend to be more vulnerable to domestic abuse than women in nuclear families. In joint families, their workload has doubled during the lockdown with familial pressure to comply with the demands of patriarchal norms at home. They are often subjected to mental and physical abuse despite their efforts to comply with keeping the peace and catering to the expectations. This makes them more susceptible to domestic abuse perpetrated by their violent inmates.

The Horrifying Trends during COVID 19

Due to the extended lockdown, closure of health care units and private clinics has led to a significant increase in the number of unplanned pregnancies causing the baby boom. The rise in deaths of pregnant ladies under lockdown is another side effect. The main tool of violence used against women is domestic violence which has led to extreme consequences on the mental and physical health of women across the world. Many of the unreported cases have led to increased suicidal cases.

As we all know, targeting women at home and workplaces is a common and old practice but the lockdown has exposed women to new forms of violence on digital platforms. Cybercriminal activities like sextortion, trolling, stalking, body shaming, nonconsensual image sharing, and abusing feministic workers and human rights defenders on social media has seen a sharp spike. Thus, encountering violence has become a usual and daily phenomenon for women in both developing as well as developed countries. Moreover, gender-based violence has reduced the range of choices for women curtailing the right of freedom in all the spheres of life.

The trend in gender-based violence has been pervasive over the years but it has only come to light in a renewed form highlighting pre-existing gaps by showcasing alarming trends under the current situation. These mounting challenges are not restricted to developing countries only. According to the director of the European Institute for Gender equality, Carlien Scheele, “chronic underreporting of violence at the hands of a partner means we only know a partial truth” governments need to make clear that the violence is not a private matter and ensure the police, justice, and health sectors are able to work together to help victims”.

UN data has revealed that developed countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain, Canada, United States, and Argentina are witnessing a rise in number of cases of violence against women.

The ‘shadow pandemic’ as termed by the UN, has put the lives of womenfolk at risk due to confinement with their abusers. UN data has revealed the devastating impact of lockdown on women. The health of females and migrant workers, working under terrible conditions, are facing mounting pressure. Other sections that are exposed to vulnerabilities are third gender, children, and the homeless. The marginalization of these sections has magnified the disparity of class in our society.

India has also witnessed a dramatic increase in gender-based violence. The National Commission of Women (New Delhi) has revealed around 239 complaints of domestic violence registered between March 23, 2020 and April 16, 2020. During this brief period, rape cases, molestation, and sexual assault have been reported in several states. In Madhya Pradesh a 6-year-old girl was raped and disfigured with grave injuries by the abuser. The reports of violence against women in Kashmir during the lockdown period has also increased substantially.

Few suicide cases were also reported in last three weeks. According to the former chairperson of Jammu and Kashmir Women’s Commission Vasundhra Masoodi, most of the cases received amid lockdown are only complaining about domestic violence. This is one of the core concerns in conflict zones like Kashmir where connectivity and access to communication services are limited.

Women’s Leadership and its implications during Crisis

The last few years have witnessed high rates of participation in political processes and decision making by women across the world. Female political leadership has attained the highest-ranking around the world. Some of the key figures like Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May, Jacinda Ardern, Ivanka Trump, and Nancy Pelosi have played crucial roles in taking some of the most impactful decisions. In the 2008 financial crisis, women have also played significant roles.

In 2020, when the world is grappling with the myriad challenges owing to Covid19, many powerful female politicians across the world have already taken up the front row to fight against the health pandemic. European female politicians Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern have set the best examples by taking strong steps in response to the novel coronavirus. By balancing both gender parity as well as crisis management during a pandemic. Female leadership has once again proven successful curbing the outbreak of the virus in comparison to male politicians in the European context.

What can we do?

The unprecedented challenges posed by the deadly contagion have led to increased global concerns. Governments must ensure realistic and holistic approaches in the response. Moreover, a collective approach across the globe can help reduce its impact. States must include gender perspective strategies and ensure the active participation of women in all sectors.

Governments must also draw an urgent roadmap for the most pressing issues. Adequate funding and revival of health policies and recovery missions will bolster their roles. Therefore, gender-neutral policies can help reduce gaps and address the most looming challenges. The structural inequalities and discriminatory practices embedded in our societies must be prioritized.

However, due to the rapid outbreak of the virus, it is difficult to tackle these challenges easily. We must find effective means of combating violence, and other social, political, and economic constraints, at national, subnational, and international levels.  Unless we achieve viable scientific treatment, it is our collective responsibility to take preventive measures curbing the spread of the disease.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to predict post-pandemic stability. But many countries have laid massive economic support for sustainability, protection, and prevention. And this is an imperative that we should consider in India in order to safeguard us from similar future situations, including human rights violations and gender discrimination in times of crisis.

– Ambreen Yousuf, Senior Fellow at Policy Institute of Jammu and Kashmir, is a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University. www.jkpi.com

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