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11 min read - By Namrata Kilpady

Safe spaces for women

COVID-19 escalated important conversations around domestic violence in India

When I answered my phone, at first, there was silence. And then a desperate whisper: “Didi (sister), please help me.” The person calling felt trapped in her home because of the COVID-19 lockdown, just like many of us are. Except in her case, she was trapped, stuck with her abuser–a family member who gets drunk and thrashes her every single day. She could neither afford to escape because of the lockdown nor call the police because she was afraid his abuser would overhear the call. She risked her life to give me a call secretly. What could I do to help?

This random phone call was Mumbai-based quality researcher Meru Vashisht’s introduction to what the United Nations had warned us of: the shadow pandemic, domestic violence. Coronavirus lockdowns have resulted in domestic violence victims being locked in with their abusers and unable to seek help. 

When Prime Minister Modi had urged this 1.3-billion-strong nation to stay indoors on the eve of the nationwide lockdown that lasted nearly 80 days, he said: “stay safe at home.” He was seemingly unaware of the danger that lurked at home for many women who were living in abusive relationships. For them, the mandatory stay-at-home order felt less like a “safe” lockdown and more like a hostage crisis.

The silent pandemic 

Activists and researchers had been voicing their fears from the start. Perhaps what triggered the alarm was acknowledging a noticeable dip in calls to helplines. This shift in helpline activity was a red flag–a sign of women’s inability to get assistance. In the first three weeks of the nationwide lockdown, data released by the New Delhi-based National Commission for Women (NCW) indicated a two-fold rise in gender-based violence cases. “We have received a total of 1,476 complaints between 25th March and 31st May 2020. The numbers could be higher. It saddens us that the number of reported domestic violence cases in India has been increasing week by week,” said Rekha Sharma, NCW Chairperson.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) mapped the complaints of domestic violence received by the National Commission for Women (NCW) in April to May against the government-designated red, green and orange zones (an area grading system based on the volume of COVID-19 positive cases). This study revealed that domestic violence complaints rose by 131 percent in red zones, where there were stricter curbs on mobility relative to green zones. 

As reported in The Indian Express, the UCLA study also found that “cases of harassment, sexual assault, and rape decreased during the period, perhaps correlating to less exposure to public spaces, public transport, and workplaces. It also highlighted a spike in Google searches for ‘domestic violence helplines'”.

The helplines themselves needed help as people who staffed these numbers were also stuck at home. This situation prompted women’s rights activists, Angellica Aribam and Kirthi Jayakumar, to start a change.org campaign called “Behind Closed Doors.” The petition asked for helplines and other violence prevention services to be activated using the government’s funds for women’s safety programs (funds named after a medical student who was gang-raped and murdered by five brutes in the national capital in December 2012. As laws prevented the use of the victim’s name in public, the Indian media named her “Nirbhaya,” which meant ‘fearless’ in Hindi). In their petition, Angellica and Kirthi say,

There isn’t any planning towards providing safe spaces for victims of domestic violence to stay during the lockdown. Travelling requires going through bureaucratic police permission procedures, which makes it difficult to leave for a safer location, such as natal homes, on short notice. Public transportation facilities have been stopped completely. The added mobility constraints to an already precarious situation close the exit options that were previously available. These constraints in terms of redress coupled with the compulsion to remain in the home with abusers for an extended period of time makes the lockdown a terrifying and nearly fatal situation for victims across the country. Making a national helpline operational and functional, and staffing it with empathetic and trained personnel (who can observe social distancing and other COVID-19 contagion prevention measures) can go a long way in saving lives under the lockdown.” (sic)

Approximately 146,338 people supported their campaign.

The NCW recognized the need to give survivors access to all possible avenues, primarily through innovative digital tools to report abuse and seek help. As an immediate step, the National Commission for Women launched a WhatsApp number for women to report cases online. All it took was a minute to text or to call.

But what is the cost of a minute?” asked a domestic violence survivor who cannot hazard the risk of typing an SOS message or making one phone call for help in case the abuser catches her.

Mumbai-based researcher, Meru Vashisht, found another way out.

With her friend, Arushi Chaudhary, they brainstormed ways of how to help the woman who called her when Meru’s smartphone buzzed a few minutes later. It was a text message promoting an app called Aarogya Setu (Bridge to Health), the Indian government’s app for two-way information communication about COVID-19 (the app crossed 100 million downloads 40 days after its launch). Recalling that eureka moment, Meru says,

It was like a light bulb clicked inside our heads. Why not use the Aarogya Setu app to fight domestic violence? We immediately turned on our laptops and started an online petition asking the government to include a panic button on the Aarogya Setu app, which would send an SMS alert to the nearest police station. For people facing violence at home, pressing one button on the app will be a safer, quicker option than calling the police or helplines.”

Around 35,000 people signed Meru and Arushi’s petition on Change.org.

The NCW endorsed both petitions addressing domestic violence. Meanwhile, as of writing, both duos are still waiting to see action on the ground. Unfortunately, despite all evidence and studies that served as urgent SOS messages to Indian policymakers, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development dismissed the fears of a spike in domestic violence during the lockdown, calling it “scaremongering.”

Gender inequality at home

The rise in domestic violence has not been the only thing the Indian government and groups of people in the country have been denying. In addition to that was the silent issue of unpaid labor of women in Indian homes. Ask Subarna Ghosh, a Mumbai-based reproductive health activist, and new start-up founder. The lockdown, she says, made her realize that despite all the advances made by the women’s rights movement, her life is no different than that of her mother’s generation.

Does the handle of a jhadu (broom) come printed with the words: to be operated by women only? What about the manual of the washing machine or gas stove? Then why is it that most men are not doing their share of housework! For the past three months, my husband and I have been working from home, while our kids study and play. He does his job, but I have been on non-stop double duty. I am expected to do all the housework (cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, running the washing machine, tidying up and ensuring we are well stocked with food supplies for four people), leaving me hardly any time for my healthcare start-up; this is the story in almost every Indian home. Yet nobody talks about it, except for reducing wives to WhatsApp jokes for popular amusement and consumption,” Subarna asks.

As per an OECD Development Centre paper (2014), Indian men devote only 36 minutes to unpaid care responsibilities while women spend six hours doing it every day. According to Oxfam, as reported by the BBC, Indian women and girls put in more than three billion hours of unpaid work daily: “If it were assigned a monetary value, it would add trillions of rupees to India’s gross domestic product.”

Subarna’s goal was simple: get men to pitch in more to do an equal share of domestic chores. So she addressed an online petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The petition title reads, “PM Modi: Tell Indian Men to Do an Equal Share of Household Chores in Your Next Speech.” 

“If Mr. Modi can inspire us to light lamps and clap in solidarity (for health workers fighting COVID-19), he can inspire us to correct an unfair norm that discriminates against women in every home.” Subarna told a columnist at LiveMint why her decision to address her petition to Modi is part of a more significant project, “It’s not just about him asking men. For years we have struggled to make the state acknowledge that women’s work at home is productive work.”

Unpaid labor at home and other existing inequities have long been an issue in India. The pandemic has merely aggravated them. If these gender-based inequities were text, they would be bold, italicized, highlighted fluorescent green, and would be leaping off the pages of history books recounting this crisis.

Changing social narratives online

It is no surprise that traditional forms of resistance, movement-building, and protesting have taken a back seat because of the Coronavirus outbreak. In India, the rules of social distancing and the tightly enforced lockdowns made it impossible to gather in public spaces, march in silent, peaceful rallies, or organize vibrant panel discussions geared towards challenging the status quo. Concerned citizens could no longer go door-to-door, canvassing for support, or show up with a delegation of supporters at a government office. In the new normal, the only way is to log-in.

Online activism has become all the more crucial to voicing opinions and rallying around urgent issues. Virtual spaces have become the new public squares where people who believe in similar causes can gather to share, communicate, and demand change. As COVID escalated, so have social media posts and online petitions. And the range of issues that these posts cover seems to convey an accurate scale of just how disruptive the pandemic has been to people’s lives.

Today, citizens like Angellica and Kirthi can put pressure on decision-makers by organizing a “Tweetbomb,” a coordinated activity where every one of their 146,000-odd supporters sends the same Tweet at the same time on Twitter, tagging the Minister. If even one-tenth of these supporters participate, it will be difficult for the government to ignore 7,000 tweets on a given day.

Hunger strikes have also moved online. As reported by The Hindu in March, when the All-India Students Association called for a nationwide hunger strike to protest the hunger crisis triggered by the sudden call for lockdown, they got a call from a flabbergasted Delhi Police. The force wanted to reconfirm if the hunger strike was actually taking place at home. Over the next 12 hours, thousands of citizens observed a hunger strike at home and posted photographs on social media, replete with hashtags.

Imagine if Subarna were to give a rallying call to all her petition supporters and the women in the She Creates Change online community of changemakers she is part of, to strike against gender inequality in domestic work, and post images on social media. I can imagine seeing more photos of overloaded kitchen sinks and laundry baskets on my Twitter and Facebook feed. Who knows, that much-needed conversation about equally sharing responsibilities at home might finally begin. 

Written by – Namrata Kilpady
Campaigns Manager, Change.org India
Edited by – Mary Imbong
Learning Associate, Change.org Foundation