This blog is inscribed by Vismay G.R.N.
At the time of this piece being written, there are over 3,500,000 confirmed cases of COVID – 19 that have been reported across 213 countries and territories worldwide.Governments around the world have taken several drastic steps in order to curb the spread of the virus but little has been done to address the gendered impact that this pandemic has had world over. This has resulted in making gendered distresses more pronounced during these times.
The World Health Organisation (hereinafter ‘WHO’) in a recently published report found that one in every three women have been victims of domestic abuse and that this trend increases during global pandemics. When we go by the experiences of women during past pandemics, it is clear that they are susceptible to increased vulnerabilities when compared to men. This is increasingly conspicuous in societies wherein social structures leave women without access to health facilities, with lack of financial independence and no autonomy over their sexual and reproductive health. An attempt is made by the author, through this piece to highlight the gendered impact and unique complications that women have had to face world over during this pandemic, with special reference to the Indian scenario.
Gendered Impact Of The Pandemic
Perhaps the biggest reason as to why there is such an extensive disparity between the effect that a pandemic like this has on women when compared to men is due to the fact that there is a lack of female representation in decision making bodies that are calling the shots on disease management. This results in a lopsided approach towards tackling the spread of the virus and several critical considerations involving women are ignored. This lack of representation persists despite an explicit recognition by the WHO of the pressing need to accommodate women in policy making roles and policies conceived to battle the virus.
In spite of the virus having similar biological effects on all people, irrespective of gender, there are however, certain consequences that the spread of the virus has had which have been gender specific. These gendered repercussions include an increase in the incidence of domestic violence, elevated exposure to the virus to women as medical staff are predominantly comprised of female nurses and losing employment due to economic slowdown.
Increase In Reported Domestic Violence
Prior to the nationwide lockdown, India already held the unenviable distinction of being home to one – third of all reported crimes against women. This was only amplified with the onset of the lockdown with the National Commission for Women reporting that the number of cases of domestic violence that are reported has doubled as it compelled women to stay indoors with their potentially abusive partners.
The authorities in Karnataka have reported that approximately five hundred calls, alleging domestic violence were received on helpline numbers, during the nationwide lockdown. States like Punjab have also reported similar increases. These recent developments have only cemented India’s position as the most dangerous country for women to live in.
Disparity In The Supply Of Essential Commodities
Prior experiences during epidemics such as the Ebola outbreak in the West African countries have shown that impositions of lockdowns and restrictions on the movement of women result in the rise in the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) in a nation. This is due to the fact that there are apprehensions that arise in the minds of pregnant women to seek medical care in hospitals as they are abound with patients that are infected with the virus.
The life expectancy of the new born children also saw a drastic fall as women would neglect/ refuse to venture out of their homes to administer post-natal vaccinations and medication to their new born children. With this being the state of affairs that a pandemic can bring about, it is imperative that essential lifesaving drugs and commodities are brought to women, rather than them having to go out and procure them.
India however has embarrassingly not been savvy to the possible implications that a nationwide lockdown could entail on pregnant women. There were no policies that were implemented which were focussed on the plight of pregnant women. In fact, it would be surprising if such steps were taken, keeping in mind the fact that even basic commodities like sanitary napkins and menstrual hygiene products were only included into the list of essential commodities after there were concerns raised by several pressure groups. This is evidence of the apathy of the authorities when it comes to the predicament that the lockdown puts women in.
Elevated Exposure To Women In The Health Sector
The number of women that are employed in the health sector are considerably higher than the number of men in similar roles. This has the effect of increasing the exposure that women have to the virus and puts them in danger of contracting the virus. The United Nations has observed that around seventy percent of the workforce in the health sector are female and that they are employed in varied roles that range from nurses, members of staff in hospitals, mid – wives to community health workers.
Notwithstanding the role that women play in the Heath Sector, it is to be noted that women are also traditionally considered to be the primary caregivers according to traditional Indian culture. A study that was carried out by the International Labour Organisation found that women are three times as likely to take up the role of caregiver when compared to men. By this logic it is safe to conclude that due to the role that women take up within households they are at a greater danger of contracting the virus while taking care of sick family members.
The problem of employment encountered by women during periods of lockdown are twofold. Firstly, women who are employed prior to the imposition of a nationwide lockdown are at a greater risk of losing their jobs.The reasons for this are innumerable and at seeded in the patriarchal perception of the role women play in Indian society.
Secondly, women who have been laid off or whose employment has been terminated have a harder time in finding work and getting employment. This is evidenced by the study that was conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which found that employers look to hire more men as compared to women after a period of lockdown.Additionally, with around 118 million women working in the unorganised sector in India around ninety seven percent of the total women workers in India do not have a government sponsored employment safety net to fall back upon in case of loss of employment.
The gendered impact that this pandemic has had on women is not due to any specific characteristic of the virus or any unique situation that this pandemic has brought about. Rather it is due to the systemic subjugation of women over millennia. Decision making bodies need to have women in the focal point of their policy making lenses. This would only be achieved by increasing the representation of women in decision making roles. Only then will policy makers be aware of and empathise with the unique experiences of women. This will ensure that issues related to women are tackled as a priority.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, has to be implemented earnestly and the judiciary should endeavour to hear cases pertaining to domestic violence without much delay. Temporary shelters which provide shelters for victims of domestic violence can be set up. The Government has to ensure that it brings about policies which protect women from being laid off during this period. The metric of laying off should not be gender but should be job performance.
There has to be services set up to ensure that pregnant women are attended to in the safety of their homes by maternity professionals. This would ensure the rate of maternal deaths due to the lack of specialised attention are reduced and that the collateral death toll of the pandemic is reduced. The population has to also be sensitised on the role that women play in the smooth and efficient functioning of the economy; this will certainly help in creating the image that women are deserving equals to men. Government initiatives should also be taken to bring the women who work in the unorganised sector into the organised sector. This will ensure that various statutory and policy protections are accorded to these workers as well. In spite of the bleak state of affairs, this pandemic should be seen as an opportunity to bring about gender parity by turning the tide on the intrinsically oppressive policies and mindsets that exist in contemporary society.
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Supra note 2.
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 Seema Sharma, “COVID-19 lockdown: Surge in domestic violence cases in Punjab”, April 26, 2020, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/health/covid-19-lockdown-surge-in-domestic-violence-cases-in-punjab-70698.
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Supra Note 4.
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 Ashwini Deshpande, How India’s lockdown has put women at a greater disadvantage, THE SCROLL, (May 4, 2020, 05:31 PM), https://scroll.in/article/957787/how-indias-lockdown-has-put-women-in-middle-class-homes-at-a-greater-disadvantage.
Supra note 18.