‘Pandemic’ was not a frequently used word in our daily vocabulary. But today, regardless of where you are, COVID-19 pandemic has become an integral part of our lives and our daily conversations. Seldom are disease outbreaks deemed as an “equaliser”– with the rich and the poor, the urban and rural susceptible to falling prey to this contagious virus. The absence of any vaccines and/or drugs make this outbreak an unprecedented challenge. With nearly the entire world under the grip of this virus, several countries (nearly 50 at present) – developing and developed alike – were compelled to implement strict and restrictive mass quarantines and lockdowns. ‘Stay home to keep yourselves safe’ – was the unanimous preventive healthcare advisory across the globe. In the days to come, an avalanche of digital media posters unfolded.
One of them stood out to me; it read, “You are not stuck at home, you are safe at home”. A simple and emotional appeal reminding citizens to practice gratitude and encouraging them to stay indoors. But, what do you do when home is not a refuge or a haven? What do you do when what is traditionally meant to keep you safe, is perilous?
COVID-19 is Not the Only Pandemic of its Time
COVID-19 is not the only pandemic of its time. There is another one that’s been brewing for decades now and has been exacerbated with COVID-19: gender-based violence. Reports from across the world including countries like China, Singapore, United States of America, France, United Kingdom and India reveal that while lockdowns are preventive measures to safeguard health of citizens, women find themselves having to fend off increased instances of domestic violence including intimate partner violence. In the UK, the largest domestic abuse charity (Refuge) reported a 120% increase in calls to its helpline. These numbers are merely the tip of the iceberg. The proximity with the perpetrator dissuades many women from reporting the offense to crisis helpline numbers – the only viable option in lockdowns.
In India, The National Commission for Women has recorded a two-fold increase in gender-based violence across the country, with the body receiving 257 calls in the final week of March as opposed to 116 calls in the first week.
The police force’s gender-based violence hotline which received 2,300 calls in the first five days of lockdown - nearly three times the rate prior to lockdown. These numbers are expected to rise exponentially, once the lockdown is lifted.
Woes for women do not cease there; if health services continue to be interrupted due to lockdowns, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights will also continually be compromised. As per a UNFPA report released recently, if lockdowns persist for the next six months, nearly 47 million women in low and middle-income countries could lose access to modern contraceptives resulting into as many as 7 million unplanned pregnancies. In the same vein, adolescent girls who perceived education as means of upward social mobility and greater opportunities, may never set afoot in classrooms again. What then, you ask? A spike in child marriages and early pregnancies – endangering health and lives of not only adolescent girls, but also their infants. Today, the pandemic has further shrunken space for women to exercise their rights over their bodies; plan their families; stop violence from perpetuating. In essence, women’s autonomous decision-making is locked down.
In response to the mounting evidence of women facing a harsher pandemic, heads of 59 countries came together to demonstrate their commitment by promoting women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and ensuring gender-responsiveness within COVID-19 strategies. Although a welcome move, it begs the question if a pandemic being patriarchal is a new discovery. Previous epidemics such as Ebola, Zika, cholera and natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey have shown that domestic violence became more frequent during these outbreaks – worsened with eroded access to healthcare services. Economic stress caused by such public health emergencies have known to increase women’s susceptibility to sexual exploitation. To accelerate outbreak control and elimination measures, funds are re-routed to relief programs; research and development; information generation among others. The outflowing resources result into gender-based violence response services being relegated in the pecking order and deemed less important for a health system that is overburdened with a pandemic.
Often times, this leaves women and girls to choose between the lesser of the two evils – the centre-stage pandemic (COVID-19, in today’s times) or what is being referred to as a ‘shadow’ pandemic (gender-based violence).
While many have regarded the commitment from 59 states of heads as the need of the hour, it is no panacea. “Gender-responsiveness” comes in as a reactionary step for when policies and measures are not gender-inclusive by design. Lessons and experiences from similar health emergencies and conflict settings have revealed that women and girls become the most vulnerable cohort in such times, deepening gender inequities and perpetuating disparity. Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization recently rightly pointed out that women and children are the most fragile population groups whose needs can be overlooked in health emergencies and therefore requires pronounced focus. Women’s sexual and reproductive health rights; a right to a dignified life are not meant for the confines of a shadow. These are to be mainstreamed and integrated within policy designs at the time of inception. It is time to address the elephant in the room and ensure that all policies, and not just health emergency strategies do not perceive men and women as homogenous groups.
Although whether the pandemic is an equalizer or not may remain contentious, the gender inequities it has exposed and widened are deplorable and undeniable.
(Nidhi Dubey is Senior Vice President, Global Health Strategies and Country Representative, Girl Rising.)