COVID-19: How community platforms can help stem violence against women

Reduced availability of frontline healthcare workers  is likely, since the entire health system is focused on the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic

By Madhu Joshi, Devaki Singh
Published: Tuesday 05 May 2020
Identifying, reaching out and supporting women and girls who survive violence through local mechanisms is key Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is well established how health emergencies and humanitarian situations increase the vulnerabilities of women, children and those living on the margins. Despite the potential ‘window of opportunity’ created by disasters to reform societal structures, women remain at great risk as crisis situations often reinforce gender stereotypes and control over women’s choices, limiting their access to support services.

Literature, moreover, suggests gender inequalities can also worsen after emergencies due to the combination of the disaster and the failure of protective systems. At the policy level, the increased focus on addressing the immediate life and livelihood issues tends to relegate violence and protection concerns in the initial stages of crisis response.

Understanding why emergency situations like pandemics trigger and aggravate diverse forms of interpersonal violence, including violence against women and girls (VAWG) is essential to inform effective policy responses.

Economic insecurity caused by the disruption of livelihoods correlates with poor coping strategies (like substance misuse), which can increase intimate partner violence and child mistreatment. Women may be at greater risk of economic abuse too, as resources become scarce. 

Quarantines and social isolation can also intensify violence. Evidence focused on other crisis settings — including refugee camps and humanitarian assistance zones — finds when family members are in close proximity under conditions of duress for extended periods of time, rates of violence against women and children are high. Quarantines also increase daily exposure to perpetrators.

The impact of school and university closures is also widespread. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that 107 countries have closed their educational institutions, impacting over 861.7 million children and youth.

Past experiences show that school closures and such crisis increase girls’ likelihood of dropping out of school, escalating chances of early and enforced marriage and sexual violence.

Reduced availability of health services and frontline healthcare workers — who are often the first point of contact for survivors of violence — is likely, since the entire health system is focused on awareness and responding to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Survivors of violence, thus, have fewer coping and redressal mechanisms available to them and may even avoid seeking health services for physical abuse and injuries for fear of possible infection.

Telephone helplines

Maintaining and strengthening non-contact-based redressal mechanisms like helplines is vital, given the demand for physical distancing warranted by COVID-19. In India, the National Commission for Women recorded a more than twofold rise in gender-based violence during the nationwide lockdown.

The total complaints from women rose to 257 between March 23 and April 1, 2020 from 116 between March 2 and 8, with the majority of cases reported from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab.

Distress calls from children also increased by half during the lockdown period. It is important, however, to understand that due to social isolation — which can reduce women’s privacy and increase their daily contact with perpetrators — underreporting of VAWG is very likely.

Women’s limited usage of mobile phones in India — a recent study estimated just 38 per cent women use phones in the country compared to 71 per cent men — puts into question the ability of phone-based mechanisms to provide survivors of violence the support and care they need in this difficult time, emphasising the need to strengthen local and community platforms.

Robust community response

Community vigilance and support is of essence under the given circumstances: Identifying, reaching out and supporting women and girls who survive violence through local mechanisms is key.

There is evidence telling us how our local governments, Panchayats, self-help groups (SHGs) and frontline health workers — if equipped with the right perspectives — can identify vulnerable women and provide immediate support.

Over the long term, increasing resources available to first responders like frontline healthcare workers, members of SHGs, Gram Panchayat members and integrating preventive and recourse programming on violence against women and girls into disaster preparedness is required.

With devolution of power to the Gram Panchayat and wards, Panchayat members are increasingly being seen as key catalysts for accelerating transformation in rural India. This includes addressing harmful social practices and achieving gender equality. Gram Panchayats in Bihar were at the forefront of spearheading campaigns to end child marriage and dowry.

There is evidence from the Do Kadam intervention implemented by non-profit Centre for Catalyzing Change in partnership with non-profit Population Council and others in Patna district.

The programme aimed to orient and engage locally elected leaders — members of Gram Panchayats and gram kachehris — in changing community norms relating to the acceptability of violence against women and preventing violence against women.

Almost all Panchayati Raj Institute members reported gender-egalitarian attitudes and attitudes about the acceptability of violence against women: Most discussed the need to reduce alcohol abuse in their village and maintain closer, more harmonious and violence-free marital relations.

The other very acceptable sources of support are Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and Anganwadi Workers, who have regular access to women and their homes.

In the process of providing health and nutrition information, care and services to mothers and children, they have the opportunity to screen women for their experience of violence, provide initial, basic advice and link them to official support services like helplines or women police stations.

There is interesting evidence on this from the Do Kadam model as well, which shows that though the quality of interaction and support may not be the best, it did serve to inform women about their rights and encouraged them to share their experiences and seek informal support.

While help seeking was far from universal, there was a huge increase from baseline to endline in the number of women who shared their experiences with friends and family (34 per cent from 18 per cent) or sought services from formal sources (12 per cent from 7 per cent).

Just three per cent women reported interactions on matters pertaining to violence with ASHA or Anganwadi Workers, at baseline. Close to half of all women (48 per cent), however, reported that ASHA or Anganwadi Workers had screened them, provided them the Do Kadam brochure on services for women experiencing violence or informed them about women’s rights, available services and safety issues related to violence at the endline.

In several cases, the womens’ husbands or family members were counselled as well.

Collectivising women through SHGs is a proven strategy not just to improve their access to decent livelihoods, income and savings, but is also an effective way to build women’s agency and address issues around nutrition, health and social norms.

There are several good practices where women’s collectives have come together to address domestic violence. Once again, findings from the Do Kadam intervention with SHG members showed that exposure to the project had succeeded in increasing SHG members’ agency, financial literacy, access to peer networks, and social support in case of violence.

Thirty-three per cent of married women, between ages 15 and 49, have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence from their partners, according to the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey.

Very few, however, seek help: Only 14 per cent of women experiencing physical or sexual violence did in 2015-16, a steep decline from 24 per cent in 2005-06.

The reasons for this could be many: From financial dependence, poor quality services and social stigma against women survivors, women suffer in silence. In the post-COVID-19 economy, with job losses and falling incomes, violence is bound to increase and existing support systems remain inadequate.

Solutions, thus, lie in acknowledgement of the problem and policy prioritisation for a coordinated response. It is in the best interest of the survivor if the community reaches out to her.

Local governments, beginning at the Panchayat, can lead a coordinated initiative of zero tolerance for violence and provide much-needed outreach to women.

Frontline healthcare workers and SHG members can be able allies, along with community-based women’s organisations. All of these can happen sooner, even while more formal mechanisms like helplines and police stations enhance their resources and capacities.

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