The world today is grappling with an unprecedented health crisis, forcing people to stay in their private spaces. India has also finished the fourth phase of its Covid-19 induced lockdown. As the World Bank has warned that India might see the lowest growth rate this fiscal since the liberalization of 1991, the devastating economic impacts of the lockdown have received much attention.
However, the lockdown has had some unexpected social impacts as well. This article analyses these social impacts with a specific focus on the physical autonomy of women in India. While domestic violence is an outcome of deep-rooted gender issues, the lack of ‘physical autonomy’ has also increased it manifold. The United Nations agency for sexual and reproductive health (UNFPA) has estimated that there would be 31 million more cases of domestic violence worldwide if lockdowns continue for another six months. Closer home, the data provided by the National Commission of Women (NCW ) in mid April, suggested an almost 100 per cent increase in domestic violence cases during the lockdown. There are a number of reasons why reduced physical autonomy results in increased domestic violence cases.
The victims, unlike in the prelockdown period, are unable to move out of their homes in cases of an attack. They are unable to go to their friends or return to their maternal homes when in need of help or protection. As they are forced to constantly share a common space with their abuser, they are unable to make distress calls to NGOs or government help lines. In a number of cases, women are unable to alert the authorities even when they can because most women do not have access to internet. Lockdown has cancelled out the possibility of physically meeting an NGO or the police. This can be attributed as a major reason for reduced number of cases being reported in certain states and from specific strata of the society.
Lack of movement has resulted in reduced access to the public space. Women are now unable to be part of their Self Help Groups, Mahila Mandals or Chaupals. Those working as daily wage labourers or domestic workers have been left unemployed. This has resulted in a loss of economic independence for these women. With nothing to contribute to the family income, women are facing issues of reduced self esteem and loss of voice in family decisions. With no participation in these women groups, they have also lost an emotional support group. They have been left alone to handle issues of physical, mental and sexual abuses, further resulting in reduced self confidence. Collective women organisations had a positive impact on the level of women empowerment; sudden loss of access to these organisations can have a reverse impact of subordination. Under the present circumstances, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has expressed the possibility of 7 million unwanted pregnancies, if the lockdown lasts for 6 months.
Sexual abuse by intimate partners is on a rise. However, with reduced physical autonomy due to the lockdown, women’s authority to take a reproductive decision has gone down. This is because there is an inverse relation between autonomy and fertility rates. According to Davis and Moore (1983), wherever women were offered greater autonomy to earn or participate in decision making the fertility rate was comparatively lower. In addition to this, a study published in the International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health states that collective gatherings of women, either as SHG or Mahila Mandals, provide a platform to enhance their health through increased knowledge and access to contraceptive tools under various government and NGO initiatives. The access to these contraceptives has reduced manifold due to the lockdown.
With financial pressures in the family, it is highly unlikely the family will spend on contraceptives or abortions. This can further result in unsafe abortions and an increased maternal mortality rate. The restricted physical autonomy is thus robbing women of their fundamental human right, the right to reproductive control. Also, since regulation and control over women’s sexuality and reproductive capabilities is the basis of patriarchal ideology, women are, thus, left exploited, helpless and increasingly subjugated. It is this subjugation that develops a sense of insecurity among women. As a result women are left bound to home, felling economically exploited and socially suppressed. This leaves them dependent on men, thus giving the ideology of patriarchy a base to grow upon.
(The writers are, respectively, a postgraduate student at Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics and a Junior Research Fellow at International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai)