Coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact in the Indian society on the vulnerable and marginalised sections, more so women. From an increase in domestic violence, child marriages to online harassment, the reports by NGOs ring alarm bells. GAYATRI SHARMA examines the issue in the backdrop of the Beijing Platform for Action.
N early 2020, women’s groups across the country looked forward to attending the Sixty-Fourth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held in New York. The year 2020 was special for CSW as it marked 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action (BPA) was adopted.
The Commission was to undertake a review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, the outcomes of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, and decide on its next multi-year programme of work.
In India, women’s groups met together at the office of UN Women and prepared a joint report assessing the implementation of critical areas of the BPA.
However, due to the spread of COVID-19, the CSW was cancelled through an announcement issued by UN Women on March 6. At the moment, the joint report has not yet been submitted.
Official data paints positive picture
The official gender-disaggregated data available in late 2019-early 2020 indicated that India’s gender gap was closing to some extent. For example, there has been considerable improvement in reducing child marriages in India as per the official National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data from the years 2006 to 2016.
Rates of spousal violence amongst married women have declined as per NFHS 4 data. According to NFHS 4 (2015 – 2016), 26.8% of women aged 20-24 were married by the age of 18. As compared to the NFHS 3 (2005-2006) where nearly almost half of all women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18 (47.4%), the data indicates considerable progress from 2006 to 2016.
With the lockdown and “work from home”, it was expected that cases of violence against women and sexual harassment would decrease. Instead, reported cases of digital harassment have increased.
As per NFHS 4 data, rates of domestic violence have also shown a decline for ever-married women. NFHS 3 reported that 37.2% of ever-married women in India had experienced spousal violence. This figure reduced to 28.8% in NFHS-4. The data from NHSF 4 also shows a greater percentage of currently married women taking part in household decisions at 84%, from 76.5% in NFHS 3.
The data is questionable as it is based on self-reporting, and qualitative studies showed the reality is not so rosy; however, marginal improvement could be seen in terms of levels of awareness, greater use of the law, and better implementation of laws and policies.
In India a lockdown was suddenly announced on March 24 for 21 days; one of the strictest lockdowns imposed in the world. The lockdown had disastrous repercussions on poor people, in particular those who lacked the savings to survive without work. Within a few days, thousands of migrant workers gathered at the bus station in Delhi in the hope of reaching home. Unable to find transport, casual workers working in cities walked home to their native villages and towns. At the recent monsoon session, the Government initially informed Parliament it had no information on numbers of deaths of migrant workers, but admitted more than 1 crore migrants made their way back to their home states. Later on, official data recorded 97 deaths of migrant workers on the Shramik special trains.
Women worst sufferers
As existing inequalities become more exposed due to the coronavirus, women are facing an unprecedented crisis. There is no gender-disaggregated data available on migrant women workers who went back or those who stayed behind.
Domestic workers, sex workers, and other informal sector workers have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. In the formal sector, it is estimated by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy that four out of ten women have lost their jobs as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic. With the lockdown and “work from home”, it was expected that cases of violence against women and sexual harassment would decrease. Instead, reported cases of digital harassment have increased.
Increase in domestic violence
Consumption of child pornography spiked by 95% in India during the lockdown, giving India the dubious distinction of being the global leader in loading child abuse material online (India Child Protection Fund, 2020).
However, the Ministry of Women and Child Development denied any increase in domestic violence against women during the lockdown, blaming NGOs for “scaremongering”.
The lockdown globally led to an increase in domestic violence cases, and in India as well. The National Commission for Women received 2043 complaints of crimes against women in June 2020, the highest in the past eight months. However, the Ministry of Women and Child Development denied any increase in domestic violence against women during the lockdown, blaming NGOs for “scaremongering”.
The long term consequences of the lockdown and pandemic are disastrous for women and girls across the country. Loss of jobs and livelihood has translated into children being pulled out of schools, early marriages, and an increase in child labour.
According to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation, as COVID-19 brought the industry to a halt and schools were shut, activists and officials in parts of India from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to western Maharashtra observed that child marriages were on the rise. Weddings of girls are taking place discreetly and quietly as schools remain closed. According to the same report, Childline officials have reported stopping 5,200 child marriages between March 2020 and May 2020.
With growing poverty and economic frustration, the impact will be greater on women and girls. The Indian economy contracted a historic 23.9% as a result of the coronavirus and the lockdown.
As girls are seen as a financial burden, sex selection is also very likely to increase.
According to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India is expected to add 12 million more poor to its population in 2020. Trafficking in women and children is also bound to increase with growing economic desperation. For example, in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, minor girls have been reported to be sold for sex for as little as Rs 150 to Rs 200 per day.
As girls are seen as a financial burden, sex selection is also very likely to increase. In late September, a father of six daughters in Uttar Pradesh tore open his wife’s stomach to ensure only a son is born.
Failure of law and policies
In this new context, lacunae in existing laws and policies have become more obvious. India still does not have an equal opportunities law and very few workplaces have drafted equality policies. The Sexual Harassment (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2013 is hierarchical and gives powers to the employer to veto recommendations of the external member and the Internal Committee. Indian law provides for a criminal justice framework to deal with cases of human trafficking, which is not victim-centric.
In an order dated 5.9.2018, in Nipun Saxena vs Union of India, the Supreme Court directed NALSA to form model rules on victim compensation. However, India has reportedly compensated less than 1% of trafficked victims.
Indian law provides for a criminal justice framework to deal with cases of human trafficking, which is not victim-centric.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 is based on a criminal justice framework and discriminates between men and women by making the age of marriage 18 for women and 21 for men.
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 does not envisage women as independent workers, and contains no gender-friendly provision, with the exception of Section 16 (b) that requires equal pay for equal work. The mandatory reporting clause in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 followed by amendments to POCSO in 2019 which include the death penalty in certain cases of aggravated penetrative sexual assault has done little to curb the growing appetite for viewing child pornography online.
No Internal Regulation
Abusive hate speech against women (and minorities) has gone up, with little to no internal regulation by online platforms. There is no national law on witch-hunting, which has also reportedly increased, as conflicts over land becomes more acute with loss of jobs and livelihood. The passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill has been pending for years.
Work by Indian NGOs on women will have to factor in this rapid deterioration in the position of women and girls.
In the absence of official data, fact-finding is an important task right now. Twenty-five years of work following the adoption of the BPA risks are being undone in the absence of a quick and accurate response to the “shadow” pandemic.
(The author is a lawyer and woman’s rights activist. Views are personal.)