Being in a patriarchal setup, women have been the subject of various laws in our country and on the sidelined watch of the society. Law and society are inseparable in more ways than one, they work together to create harmony and ensure a co existence between various elements. However, the dichotomy is evident when it comes to Women. One of the primary reasons for the same is that the position of women has been unstable in the patriarchal setup. Beginning from the role of being the “supporter” and moving towards the “provider” in today’s time presents a remarkable shift, both in ideation and structuring of the society.
But, has this shift created a change in outlook, both in terms of law and society? It’s debatable. I say this because, despite being 48.04% of the current population, having so many laws to “protect” us, seems like we still have a long road which is rather less travelled. The pandemic has been a testing time for the entire nation, but more so for the women of this country.
INCREASE IN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND THE LACK OF ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY AND MOBILE PHONES:
Law aims at providing a workable solution to the perils of the society. Domestic violence is one such by product of peril created by the setup we live in. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 is a legislation that aims at providing effective protection to women who are victims of violence. However, the lockdown saw an increase in domestic violence cases by a significant number. The National Commission of Women reported an increase by twofold in the lockdown period of 2020. The Commission received almost 23,722 cases from March to September, 2020. These numbers are those which have been reported, most of the go rather unreported due to fear, not wanting to destroy the family structure, the social and economic status, financial dependency and a lot more social stigmas. However, with rise in awareness through social media, women have actively started to report these cases. The NCW also launched a WhatsApp helpline for women. Apart from this, various NGOs, Organizations helped women to get the necessary help.
The lockdown also created a loophole in the system with most police officers being busy as frontline workers in maintaining law and order, women were left further helpless. Since, most women in our country especially from the unorganized sector remain unaware about the law that exists to protect them, a last resort is reporting to a nearby police officer or their employer but both of these havens were non-existent or barely existent during the lockdown period.
However, the various High Courts took suo motu cognizance of the rising crisis and asked the State as well as Central Government to make effective guidelines and help the victims at the earliest.
The United Nations Chief Antonio Guterres called for a global “ceasefire” against the increasing numbers of domestic violence cases across the world. UN Women termed it as the “shadow” pandemic. According to the report by UN Women, 1 in 3 women faced either sexual or physical violence mostly by their partner.
In India, the Delhi State Legal Services Authority announced specific measures such as collaboration with Mother Dairy booths (Milk Booths), pharmacists and chemists for information on survivors of violence and also launched an app to deliver legal aid to these individual
The Government also shared National Legal Aid Services Authority’s (NALSA) directory of Legal Service Institutions functional across the country along with NALSA Legal Aid Helpline and online portal with all the One Stop Centers and Women Helplines to facilitate legal aid and counselling to women facing violence.The State of Odisha came out with an initiative through which police officers will contact women who had earlier reported domestic violence to enquire about their condition over phone during the ongoing lockdown.
Coming to the aspect of access,The Mobile Gender Gap Report, 2020 of Groupe Speciale Mobile Association states that only 21% of women in India have access to the Internet. Moreover, a study conducted by John F Kennedy School highlighted that only 38% women in India own a mobile phone as compared to 71% men. Another recent study conducted by the University of Oxford concluded that women are 25% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. A study conducted by Mohan Diwakar also highlights that marginalized women have the least mobile phone access. These studies also liked the access of mobile phones to the health of women. With the second round of lockdown being imposed in cartons states across the country, the reality seems to be more grim for many women who have been in abusive Joel’s for too long, feeling trapped and unable to seek help.
With this being a reality, it is important to strengthen other measures apart from helplines, social media outreach. We need to act like an active community, develop a mechanism which allows women to seek help from their surroundings in case of lack of access to technology, internet and/or mobile phones.
We need a stronger nationwide policy especially addressing issues like domestic violence during a pandemic. For instance, Europe declared domestic violence assistance as an “essential service”. In Argentina, France and Spain, chemists are helping women report domestic violence cases with the codeword “Mask 19”. Canada and Australia also announced special funds for violence against women as a part of their action plan against the pandemic. These are measures that go beyond technology and assist women at ground zero.
EFFECT ON MENSTRUAL HEALTH AND THE LINK TO EDUCATION:
The CARE report on menstrual hygiene states that the availability of menstrual care products ha seven severely affected by lockdowns across the globe. 1.8 billion of the global population are menstruators but this could not garner the attention of lawmakers globally. Menstrual hygiene products were deemed nonessential and were absent from most hospitals. A report by FSG released in 2020 reveals that 500 million women worldwide lacked the essential resources to go through menstruation. More importantly, 70% of the global healthcare workforce are women and the pandemic has been an especially tough time for them while fighting Covid as well as catering to their own menstrual needs.
In India, 366 million women excluding gender non binary persons menstruate. The pandemic put the menstrual health and hygiene on a stand by. Firstly, because the Government of India didn’t include the production of menstrual products in the essential category leading to stall age in production, which was later rectified after public outcry. India has a Menstrual Hygiene Scheme, which allows rural adolescent girls to access sanitary napkins at a subsidized rate.
However, a scheme that has taken a big hit is the Kishori Shakti Yojna, as the scheme allows for distribution of sanitary napkins to adolescent girls via government schools. Due to the consistent spread of virus pan India, these schools have remained shut hence cutting off one crucial source of accessing these products. Various newspapers like The Hindu, Wire also reported on these aspects and how the young girls have been left with no recourse in sight. More importantly, this has further widened the gap between social stratas of the society, with women from the less privileged backgrounds suffering more than ever.
In a study conducted by SWACH organization, it was revealed that 23 million women drop out of schools annually once they start menstruating. Legally speaking, the Constitution of India has guaranteed the right to health, the right to equal treatment for everyone irrespective of their gender,the right to education, the Government has been encouraging education of the girl child by introducing various incentivizing schemes. But, the problem lies in implementation, in harmonizing these schemes and laws with the society and most importantly the lack of awareness amongst people of the society. Most people still consider “Menstruation” as a taboo topic and it goes undiscussed in most households and institutions like schools.
The pandemic has made it further difficult to bridge the gender gap especially in the semi urban and rural settings of India. There were various NGOs and organizations that distributed sanitary napkins in the lesser privileged areas, but these measures are only temporary and most importantly they are not run nationwide.
The Right to Education Forum in its 2020 policy report stated that around 10 million girls in India are on the verge of dropping out of schools due to the pandemic. While the report has a detailed portrayal of how schools are not inclusive enough, it also sheds light on the fact that patriarchal setup encourages gender discrimination, leading to discrimination right inside the schools. One of the core reasons for girls dropping out is poverty, which evidently has increased during the pandemic. Girls are being trafficked or they are being married off at a young age creating a further vicious loop of problems associated with female health altogether, which cannot be addressed by law alone.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS:
Although, the Government has taken various measures, we still have a long way to go. These issues cannot be looked at in isolation, they are a part of the larger patriarchal setup and hence the society. This is one area where we require harmonization of law as well as ideologies which is very difficult to achieve but never impossible. There are some measures that can be taken:
● Although schools cannot be opened for providing sanitary napkins, the Government can allocate certain funds for setting up distribution of sanitary napkins under the schemes, for effective realization of the same. Recently, the Karnataka High Court also asked the State Government to allocate proper funds to the Shuchi scheme for providing sanitary napkins.
● Actively educating and spreading awareness to chemists, grocers who can act as a source point for these women to report domestic violence.
● The UNICEF report on Gender Based Violence Service provision during pandemic specifically outlines the various measures that can be taken when the women do not have access to mobile phones. The report suggests that there should be installation of phone booths at various places to facilitate connection in times of need, creation of “safe spots” for women and an alert system with the help of local community.
● Citizens can help by being a part of the alert system and reporting cases.
Spreading awareness and working towards the goal of increasing education for girls more so after the pandemic. The Government and variousNGOs are working in this direction, but the gap will increase significantly once the country recovers from the virus.