THOSE who knew Shikha Pandey still can’t believe she died by suicide early last month. The young and upcoming regulatory practices lawyer was going places until Covid-19 struck, changing everything. The triggers behind Shikha’s untimely death may never be fully known but her suicide has led Delhi High Court lawyers to launch the first virtual canteen where women advocates, coping with Covid-19-induced challenges of loneliness, job loss and salary cuts, can come and bond.
“A canteen plays a crucial part in a lawyer’s life. It is a place where we meet and talk about work and life situations. Covid-19 restrictions have erased physical spaces and women are finding it hard to cope with new realities. The pandemic is impacting young women disproportionately as they lose jobs and see no signs of recovery. The virtual canteen is a way of staying together in pandemic times,” says advocate Sunieta Ojha about the initiative that’s growing in membership.
Attempts to create digital communities of people with special focus on women are underway across the country and cut across spaces. When Covid-19 had just hit the world making work from home the new normal, gender experts had hoped the transformation would induce gender chore parity. But that has remained a dream.
Avtar Group, India’s only organisation providing solutions in diversity and inclusion to corporates, recently estimated that the average time Indian women spend doing house jobs daily was 18 times more than men.
“The number one challenge for working women is navigating the work-life integration maze as corporates shift to work from home. Women in most Indian households carry a greater share of domestic duties. This has been compounded by the absence of domestic help. We recently used the OECD gender chore report to estimate the gender chore gap in India and found that on an average, Indian women spend a staggering 352 minutes a day attending to cooking, cleaning and caring whereas Indian men spend only 19 minutes a day doing the same jobs,” says Saundarya Rajesh, founder president of Avtar. Rajesh sees the gender chore gap reducing but the pace of change is excruciatingly slow.
Victims of gender disparity
Evidence from the job sector is also looking grimmer for women than for men. The Indian Society of Labour Economics recently found that more than 54 per cent jobs in non-urban locations were at potential risk. Another estimate by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) says among urban jobs, self employment has taken the greatest hit with losses to the extent of 80 per cent and company employment has dipped through the Covid period by about 20 per cent, railing upwards in the week ending July.
“CMIE also found that the rate of job loss for Indian women is 17.6 per cent more than that for men in the Covid-19-induced situation. These are disturbing trends which, if not addressed, can lead to reversal of gender diversity gains from the pre-pandemic era. Also, although close to 49 pc of India’s university graduates are women, they tend to be concentrated on low-skills jobs. This puts them at greater risk of retrenchment when disruptors like Covid strike. One can say women are the shock absorbers of society, and at its disposable frontlines,” social entrepreneur Saundarya Rajesh notes.
Growing domestic abuse
Work-life integration woes apart, the greater challenge threatening women worldwide is the growing domestic abuse as victims remain trapped with perpetrators at home due to Covid-induced restrictions.
Executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka noted as early as April 6 that with billions sheltering at home due to Covid-19, a shadow pandemic of violence against women was raging.
“Confinement is fostering strain created by security, health, and money worries. And it is increasing isolation for women with violent partners separating them from people and resources that can best help them,” Phumzile said, even as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres acknowledged that women were losing paid employment globally and their unpaid care work was rising exponentially as an outcome of school closures and the increased needs of elder people.
The UN even warned nations saying if not dealt with, the shadow pandemic would add to the economic impact of Covid-19.
“The global cost of violence against women has been estimated at approximately $1.5 trillion, a figure that can only be rising as violence increases now and continues in the aftermath of the pandemic,” Phumzile says.
But timely warnings have not helped. India is yet to comply with the UN advisory to make women shelter homes part of essential services during Covid, this even when the burden of domestic violence against Indian women has doubled since January 2020.
In the week after the lockdown starting March 24, the National Commission for Women received 257 complaints of crimes against women. This was a marked rise from data recorded between March 2 and 8 when 116 complaints came. Cases of domestic violence more than doubled from 30 to 69 over the same period.
Further decline imminent
NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma says these trends have held and progressively the country is witnessing other negative impacts of the pandemic on women.
“Women are losing more jobs than men, the new normal of remote education and remote working is posing fresh challenges of integration and online safety,” she notes.
While urban Indian women still have access to some support, the poor migrants lurking on the margins of society have been the hardest hit by the pandemic.
The UN recently said nearly 60 per cent women globally working in the informal economy, earning less and saving less, were at greater risk of falling into poverty due to Covid-19.
The post-lockdown reverse migration in India showed this was true.
March witnessed tragic deaths of scores of labourers, including poor women who died of fatigue and starvation unable to cope with the pressures of walking back home which was miles away.
Rural India, though mostly spared of the virus, continues to reel under economic stress with experts saying that Indian women workforce participation is all set to hit the lowest levels ever.
Women workforce participation has already been declining over the past decade and is set to fall further post-Covid-19 since women are disproportionately represented in the informal and agricultural sectors, says Geeta Sen, Director, Ramalinga Centre on Equity and Social Determinants of Health.
Government’s immediate response to Covid addressed the upper and middle classes and the informal sector was left to fend for itself. The poor need cash to survive and you are giving them loans, rues Sen.
Absence of support services
Falling household incomes are also creating new vulnerabilities for Indian women, who lag at the bottom of policy priority lists.
Meera, a domestic help in the national capital, who lost her job during Covid, has suffered abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband for months. She says she flagged the violence to the local police but received no help.
“I ended up getting more beatings from my husband when he learnt I had raised an alarm,” says Meera, lamenting that systems do not work.
Closure of courts has compounded the woes of women who don’t know where to go to seek justice.
Alarmed by the absence of support services for victims of domestic abuse, a division bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajnesh Oswal of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court recently took suo motu cognisance of the issue. The judges directed the UTs of JK and Ladakh to designate informal safe spaces for women, such as grocery stores and pharmacies where women can report domestic violence without alerting the perpetrator and designate safe spaces like hotels and schools as shelters for women victims compelled to leave homes due to their domestic situation.
Justice Mittal even directed the creation of dedicated funding to address issues of violence against women and girls as part of Covid-19 response noting, “Judicial notice can be taken of the fact that the plight of victims of domestic violence in the UTs of JK and Ladakh must be no different as that of similarly placed victims in other jurisdictions.”
Little has been done on the ground and access to justice is still missing.
With court hearings going virtual, women in domestic violence situations are finding it hard to hire lawyers for help.
Seema Sharma, faculty, Law School, University of Jammu, says barring the JK High Court judgment on domestic violence, one has not seen many judicial pronouncements on Covid-induced challenges being faced by women. “Disruption of justice is a huge concern with courts taking up only urgent matters for virtual hearings,” Sharma says.
Women’s problems clearly do not yet make the cut as urgent matters.
India fights back
- NCW helpline 0721-7735372 enables victims to send a WhatsApp message.
- Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA) is working with Mother Dairy booths, pharmacists and chemists in the national capital for information on victims.
- The DSLSA runs helpline 1516 and 96679 92802, which can be reached through messages on WhatsApp and SMS.
How the world is responding
Argentina: Pharmacies declared safe spaces for victims of abuse to report.
France: Grocery stores are housing counselling services and victims are being asked to access pharmacies and inform pharmacists about the abuse directly or using a code word — mask 19, if they are accompanied by their abuser. France also reserved 20,000 hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence.
Spain: Not fining women violators of lockdown.
Canada: Set aside millions of dollars to support women NGOs and shelters.
UK: Women’s Equality Party has called for special police powers to evict perpetrators from homes for the duration of the lockdown, and for the authorities to waive court fees for the protection orders.
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