“Ah! there is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,” reads a line from Emma by Jane Austen. Governments around the world have been trying to drive home a message to that effect as well: stay home, stay safe. The safety here, make no mistake, is only from the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak that has been devastating, globally. For everything else, you’re on your own.
In an unprecedented move to curb the virus, the government locked down an entire country. Not just any country, but India—the largest democracy in the world. A country whose population is more than the entire American continent. The country that Winston Churchill said wouldn’t last five years when the British left for London. The lockdown has arguably brought down the pace of coronavirus. It has given the country the time to prepare its medical and emergency infrastructure. When the country re-opens, the people will let out a collective sigh of relief. Those who can will go back to their daily routines, attempting to bring the country back from the brink of economic disaster.
There will be a second sigh of relief. A sigh that will reflect battered noses and blackened eyes… relief that many women will feel of being freed from their men folks. It’s not just restricted to women; children and men too are subjected to this, statistics say. But women are disproportionately subjected to it. The corona has exposed just a tad too much of Indian social maladies.
For years, Sunita, a maid living in the dingy lanes of Madanpur Khadar in Delhi used to dread the moment she would return home. Her husband, Mohan, would be waiting for her, to snatch whatever he could from her and buy his daily dose of booze. When she protested, Mohan would hit her, with a belt, or the frying pan or simply with his bare fists. Many years back, when they were just married, the beatings were sporadic, provoked by protests. But now, it has become regular. A daily affair that seemed to give Mohan a lot of pleasure, drunk or not. The children had learnt not to protest. Especially after Arun, the boy, got his hand broken by his father when he tried to protect his mother. They learnt not to protest. They avoided their father and pretty much accepted this as a social norm. After all, they saw this happening to their friends and cousins and neighbors. No big deal. So home was some place that they would go only to sleep. Only after their father had retired and their mother had cried herself to sleep. Ever since the lockdown started, they have had no escape.
By no means, limited to the poor and underprivileged, domestic violence is one of the worst hidden secrets of modern drawing rooms, the condos and the sweeping bungalows that spot the upper echelons of the Indian society. Women are not safe, irrespective of their backgrounds or education. The National Commission for Women in India has reported a twofold increase in domestic violence cases in India since the start of quarantine, showing that fragile home dynamics were almost stretched to a breaking point.
Other countries have similar horror stories to tell if anyone is listening. A recent article in The Guardian reported highly alarming figures from the world over. Domestic violence saw a 40% to 50% rise in Brazil during the lockdown. In one region in Spain, the calls to its helpline have risen by 20%. A UK refuge reported a 25% increase in the seven days that followed the lockdown announcement. case filed in the Delhi High Court stated that in the first 11 days of the lockdown, helpline numbers from across the country received nearly 100,000 calls related to domestic violence. The petitioner of the case stated that the health impact of such violence, particularly intimate partner / domestic violence on women and children is significant. And there is no relief. There is nowhere really that battered women can go to. The police are busy enforcing the lockdown. So, in most cases, the women need to stay at home sometimes for weeks, under the same roof with their tormentor.
It is a pandemic that nobody wants to acknowledge. Corona has brought it to the fore. Sociologists all over the world are calling it ‘Intimate Terrorism’.
And then, there are cases that are reported. Most women in India fear social stigma and just accept such behaviour as a way of life. The saddest part of this terrible situation is that women really don’t have anyone to share their grief with. In most cases, even their own families turn their face away. From the moment they are born, girls are designated as a treasure that belongs to others. This shocking attitude towards women is a virus that runs deep within Indian psyche.
While I condemn ‘Intimate Terrorism’, I must also acknowledge the stellar work that is being done by the courts, NGOs, the National Commission of Women. Invisible Scars, Stree Mukti Sangathan, and countless other organizations that are working round the clock to make the situation better for women and children. And in many cases, they are succeeding. But it’s not the immediate redressal that is the problem. The problem is a deep-rooted social malaise that can span generations where misogyny and patriarchy are so deep-rooted that women become indifferent to the abuse. Lack of education, awareness, and fear of social stigma has made thousands of women suffer in silence.
This lockdown has been a watershed of sorts. It has brought domestic tensions hidden away for decades to the fore. Divorce lawyers are increasingly being reached out to. And it’s not the privileged, but the underprivileged urban poor and the rural milieu that have practically no recourse than tolerating this physical, psychological and in many cases—economic torture.
One day soon enough there’ll be a vaccine for the virus but the emotional, physical and social scars from the fallout will probably last a lifetime.
Parinda Joshi is the author of ‘Made in China’, ‘Live From London’ and ‘Powerplay’. The book ‘Made in China’ was made into a movie starring Rajkummar Rao. She’s on Instagram at @parindajoshi.