People across Asia are staying indoors during national lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Though the measures are yielding positive results, it is a dangerous scenario for women who face domestic violence.
In April, Malaysia's Women, Family and Community Development Ministry stirred a controversy after it asked women to dress nicely at home and not bother male members of their families during the national lockdown to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. After an outcry on social media, the authorities apologized and withdrew their "recommendations."
Many countries around the world have imposed lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19. Lockdowns have proved effective measures for battling the pandemic, but they have also exposed gendered inequalities and the threats to women across the world.
"Over the past weeks, as the economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying surge in domestic violence," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said. In some countries, he added, "the number of women calling support services has doubled."
Lack of support
India has reported close to 6,000 COVID-19 cases and about 170 deaths. The nationwide lockdown is expected to end on April 15, but some states are planning to prolong it.
In more typical circumstances, support provided by governmental and nongovernmental organizations is available to women who face domestic violence; however, there is considerably less access to such resources during lockdowns. With restrictions on mobility, women are often unable to leave their homes to find safety with friends or extended family.
According to India's National Commission for Women, there has been a sharp rise in the number of distress calls during the coronavirus lockdown. From March 24 to April 1, the NCW received 69 calls on its helpline.
"Indian women usually don't report domestic violence to authorities, and they are unlikely to do so during the pandemic, as the usual platforms for help are unavailable," said Urvashi Gandhi, director of global advocacy at the NGO Breakthrough India. "For authorities, enforcing the lockdown is more important than other issues."
Impoverished women can often be made more vulnerable to domestic violence, as they have no place to escape to, Gandhi said. "Unemployment is on the rise due to the lockdown, causing a lot of uncertainty, stress and frustration among many people," she added. "This may lead to an increase in violence."
Making violence visible
Iti Rawat, the founder of Women Entrepreneurs for Transformation (WEFT), sent out a message on her network, offering financial help to women during the coronavirus lockdown. She was expecting business queries in response to her message but instead started receiving emails and phone calls about domestic violence. She received 43 complaints within a week.
Rawat's organization has now established the Red Dot Initiative. Women who face domestic violence can put a red bindi, or decorative dot, on their foreheads if they're unable to verbally express their distress. They can show it to their neighbors or shopkeepers, or even send it as an image to the WEFT helpline as a distress call.
The initiative recently helped a woman in Kolkata whose husband had beaten her. "We have formed a task force and are working to get the red dot sign recognized as a code for women in need of help," Rawat said.
Division of labor
Another issue that women are facing in many countries in Asia during the lockdown is the unequal distribution of domestic labor. Indonesia's National Commission on Violence Against Women has warned that many women face an increased threat of physical violence during the country's partial lockdown and also urged the Women Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry to ensure equal distribution of labor in families.
Schools in Indonesia have been closed since the government imposed mandatory social distancing on March 16. Digital learning works well in big cities like Jakarta, but it in rural areas the situation is completely different. Mothers have to do professional work from home, as well as perform household chores.
Gender disparity for household labor is high in countries in Asia, according to a study published by the International Labour Organization in 2019 The ILO found that women in urban areas in India, for example, spend an average of 312 minutes per day in urban areas on unpaid care work; the number was 291 minutes per day in rural areas. In comparison, men spend only 29 and 32 minutes per day, respectively, on the same tasks. In neighboring Pakistan, women in urban areas do an average of 272 minutes of unpaid care work per day versus 27 minutes for men, and 295 minutes to men's 28 in rural areas.
"Even in the best of times, the burden of domestic work falls mostly on women," said Elsa Marie D'Silva, the founder and CEO of the Red Dot Foundation (Safecity). "For some women, the lockdown has almost tripled the amount of their work. Domestic chores and child care are mostly done by women." The Red Dot Foundation, which works to ensure safe public spaces, especially for women, is not related to the Red Dot Initiative.
Bhawna, a 34-year-old woman who lives with her husband and a 6-year-old son in New Delhi, told DW that her work has heavily increased under the lockdown.
"To prevent mental and physical exhaustion, it is necessary to optimize the work processes," she said. "Every family member has to work. We need to realize that women are not superheroes: Their capacities are limited."