She’s got the virus

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on April 03, 2020

Extra-vulnerable: Studies from older pandemics show that women are more likely to be infected because of their primary role as caregiver   -  NAGARA GOPAL / THE HINDU

From domestic violence to the vulnerability of health workers, the pandemic is proving doubly difficult for women

My neighbour’s young domestic worker is deeply unhappy with the lockdown. The few hours that she spent away from home was the only time she had to herself in an otherwise full day. She’d get to work early, finish the chores quickly and efficiently, and once her employer left for office, relax with a cup of tea and something to eat, and watch television.

Now all that has changed. She’s home, in a joint family, and the entire burden of housework has been placed on her shoulders. There’s a child to look after, a husband, parents-in-law and relatives to feed, not to mention the regular cleaning and swabbing and the incessant chastisement. The husband — they married for love — is not violent but, like many men, indifferent and mostly uncaring.

For women who live in violent homes — and there are hundreds of thousands cooped up in cramped spaces — things have become much more difficult since the lockdown. As TheNew York Times asks in a recent article on the impact of the pandemic on women: What do you do when you are confined to the most terrifying place — your home?

It’s common knowledge that levels of domestic violence increase during times of political conflict. Our histories in Kashmir and the Northeast provide ample proof of this. Caught between the jaws of the State and local militia, men turn more and more to the violent abuse of their wives and children.

Knowledge of how pandemics impact women is less common. The studies that exist, however, are consistent in their findings. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-15, reports showed that women were more likely to be infected because of their primary role as caregivers inside families and frontline health workers. The resources for reproductive and sexual health were diverted to emergency response. This led to an increase in the maternal mortality rate.

While it is still too early to say how Covid-19 is impacting women, the signs are clear. Reports from China, Malaysia and Indonesia show a sharp rise in domestic violence in recent months.

One police station in China’s Jingzhou district says that there was a threefold rise in domestic abuse reporting in February 2020 as compared to last year. There’s even a hashtag, #antiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic, on Chinese social media.

What must be the situation in India? It’s difficult enough for women to report domestic violence in ‘normal’ times; if they wanted to do so now, how would they? With the lockdown, will helplines, such as they are, continue to function? Will anyone take a complaint seriously? With social interaction down to nothing, there’s no recourse to sympathetic neighbours, NGOs or the community.

Domestic violence isn’t the only issue. Across the world, at least 75 per cent — and the figure is higher in some countries — of caregivers are women. In India, we already know that nurses are at risk; they’re being thrown out of their rented accommodation, targeted in the areas they live in. Who will care for the carers?

A recent piece in The Lancet asks a question that is seldom addressed — that of women’s sanitary needs at times like this. Among the concerns for protective equipment, gloves, masks and so on, should there not be concern for menstrual supplies such as sanitary pads?

A Chinese activist, Jiang Jing, who runs the Coronavirus Sister Support campaign, recently said that not many people thought that the frontline female health workers engaged in the battle against Covid-19 could need sanitary products for their health.

Closer home, there is another tragedy unfolding as hundreds of thousands of workers leave cities. The woefully inadequate compensation packages announced by the government are limited only to registered workers, a minuscule number in a largely unregulated situation.

The chances are that there are few women among the registered — many may be working as part of families, and many may simply be uncounted.

The urgency of dealing with pandemics takes away attention from what are seen as ‘smaller’ issues at the time.

Attention to women’s needs, in short supply at the best of times, is one of the major casualties. And yet, it’s worth remembering that this, too, can have long-term impact.

For example, when domestic violence goes up, so does sexual activity. In India, one sector that has been badly affected by the lockdown is the production of contraceptives. Factories have shut down as workers are unable to commute. While the contraceptive pill is manufactured in one state, for example, some of the ingredients are sourced from another.

With borders closed, this too has stopped; and with the global supply chain under stress, the implications will be felt across the world.

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;


Published on April 03, 2020

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