Shut in/shut out

The lockdown that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic is especially hard on women with disability.

Nidhi Goyal. Pic courtesy: Rising Flame

As a girl of 15, Nidhi Goyal wanted to be a portrait artist. Then she became visually-challenged, and turned to activism. “I was 16,” she says about losing sight to a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. “It was a struggle and I was slipping into depression until I looked at my own privilege.” She then decided to “do something about it”.

Now 34, the Mumbai-based founder and director of Rising Flame, a non-profit committed to changing the lives of people, especially women and girls with disabilities, finds herself on the UN Women executive director’s civil society advisory group and president of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development.

Before the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) upended the world, women with disabilities were undergoing their own lockdown, invisible and shut out from the rest of the world. Now, the walls are closing in.

“Women with disability have been fighting to get out of their houses as their families worry about letting them navigate alone,” says Goyal. “Now, we are under lockdown again.”

Women show the way

It cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women are doing comparatively better at battling the Covid-19 pandemic

Angela Merkel’s Germany witnessed a high infection but comparatively low death rate. Creative Commons/eugenbittner

Six days before Kerala recorded its first coronavirus case on January 30, health minister KK Shailaja made plans. She was following the news from Wuhan, China, where many students from the state were studying, and the minister knew there was no room for complacency.

The state’s international airports began screening, a control room was set up, and contact tracing and testing started. By early February, Kerala had shut down public events, movie halls, and schools. Children would get midday meals at home and community kitchens were set up in villages and municipal areas.

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Kerala had 104 confirmed cases, roughly a fifth of the 564 in India. By April 15, only 3.38% or 387 cases of 11,439 cases in India were from Kerala. There have been three deaths so far.

To give sole credit to Shailaja for the state’s containment of the virus would be an exaggeration. Kerala’s health care system and its high ranking on human development indices such as literacy and nutritional status give it an edge.

Post lockdown spike in domestic violence

The lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking & voyeurism, according to online data from the National Commission for Women. With husbands at home, many women unlikely to complain.

Pic courtesy: Breakthrough India

The woman calling on the phone from Ghaziabad was distraught. Her husband, she told counsellor of the Delhi-based NGO Shakti Shalini, used to beat her occasionally. Now since the lockdown came into effect on March 24, she said, he has been home and beats her, brutally, every single day.

The woman’s parents live only 10 km away and the woman wanted them to come and take her away. But under the lockdown the parents could not make the journey. Finally, Shakti Shalini was able to convince the local police station to at least pay the woman’s husband a visit and provide her with security.

The spike in domestic violence following the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24 has left many NGOs in a bind. They simply do not have the manpower or resources to deal with the surge in cases.

“Not only have the number of cases gone up, the severity and brutality of the violence has increased too,” said Tiwari. There are other cases, she said, where women are being subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse. “How do we reach out and rescue them?” she asked. “Our hands are tied.”

Bringing men into the conversation

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I argue that if men and women are to work as equal partners, then we need new rules of engagement that understand the centrality of mutual respect and consent.

Twenty years ago, Abhijit Das, the founder of Men Engage Alliance, attended a meeting on domestic violence. From the sidelines of the kitchen where he was working, Das noticed about 100 men had accompanied the 3,500-odd women and were listening keenly, but had no opportunity to participate. Apart from encouraging women, or accompanying them to meetings, what could these men do?

And so began a conversation with the men. They could help with the housework, take care of the children, fetch water. These were small but significant tasks that upended the idea of what is women’s work and what is her place in society.

That was the beginning of a campaign, Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko (break the silence, stop the violence) where men resolved to: One, not commit violence; two, speak up when they see violence, and three, support women who have faced violence.

A Time To Rage

One in three women worldwide faces violence. We should be angry.

Pic courtesy: Breakthrough India

Women have been told to be many things – patient, accommodating, docile even. Now, for the first time on an international platform, they are being told to be angry.

Not that they needed prompting. Anger was in evidence at the regional Beijing +25 conference held this week in Bangkok where UN Women deputy executive director Anita Bhatia told an audience of 500 ministers, policy-makers and civil rights organisers from 35 countries, “Be angry. Ask your government for change.” She was speaking at the launch of 16 days of activism that focus on violence against women after hearing two moving testimonies, the first from actress and model Cindy Bishop and the second from Mumbai-based rape survivor Natasha Noel.

“You cannot remain silent,” Noel said. She spoke of the need to teach children about sexual abuse. Bishop’s anger was sparked by a March 2018 Thai government campaign advising women to dress modestly during the Songkran (new year) festival. She had been assaulted at the festival 23 years ago and said 60% of women who attend are sexually assaulted, regardless of what they wear, but only 25.8% report it. Her post “Don’t tell me how to dress” kicked off Thailand’s MeToo movement.

“Violence against women and girls is ingrained all over the world,” said UN special rapporteur on violence Dubravka Simonovic. “Why aren’t we talking about it as an emergency?”