July 05, 2020

Pandemic Lockdown and Impact on Women – II

Brinda Karat

WHAT has come to be known as the shadow pandemic has affected women across the capitalist world in varying degrees. This refers to the specific impact of the corona virus, the lockdown and policies or lack of them which impact on women being women. Along with the problems that women face in the world of work which we had discussed in the first part, this includes increase in domestic violence, in the increased burden of domestic and care work and the resulting impact on women’s health. In India, where prevailing patriarchal ideologies have been strengthened by the politics of those in power, the shadow pandemic has specific characteristics.


Perhaps nowhere else in the world is there a government which during the period of lockdown has targetted a particular community because of their religious belief as is being done in India. In the months prior to the lockdown, India had witnessed an unprecedented protest mobilisation against the changes in the definition of citizenship legislated by the Modi government through the Citizenship Amendment Act. In various forms, the struggle swept across India, and like the historic Shaheen Bagh protest, almost always led by Muslim women and especially young Muslim women. The government is using the lockdown to push its agenda of revenge and victimisation. It is communalising the pandemic through the demonisation of the Muslim community, continuing long after the Tablighi Jamaat effect is over. Through the most vile and hate filled messaging on social media and backed with physical attacks in many places on minorities, the BJP and RSS is working overtime to divide people in the name of religion. The impact this is having on Muslim women is an increase in insecurity, in demoralisation and further isolation. Given the courage Muslim women had displayed in meeting the offensive of the Modi government on the CAA/NRC issue, their victimisation has a wider impact on democratic mobilisations against the Modi government. It must surely be a priority to reach out to Muslim women not only in solidarity but to give the confidence to join the wider resistance. Equally, the naked attacks on the right to dissent and the arrests of leading human rights activists include many women is a predominant feature of the lockdown in India. Some of the detenues are in frail health but are denied bail. The draconian UAPA is being used. Many investigations are handed over to the NIA which is functioning as an instrument of the home ministry under Amit Shah. Thus women who dissent and particularly Muslim women are targets of this government.

Another special characteristic of the shadow pandemic in India is how the caste system has impacted on the disproportionate burden on adivasi and dalit women during the lockdown  in the lack of any specific measures by the government to address disparities which have sharpened.

During periods of crisis such as at present, existing inequalities get intensified. Intra-family distribution of food in India has been shown to be unequal, in a cultural framework where women are expected to eat last, after feeding everyone else. Women and girl children’s malnutrition statistics testify to this cruel reality. But the issue goes beyond the male-female framework of analysis to a situation where government policies are resulting in mass deprivation, denial, hunger and malnutrition for all sections of the working poor. It would therefore be wrong to pose this as a feminisation of hunger, as some do, as though men who are poor escape from hunger. The criminality lies in a policy as is the Modi government’s which refuses to ensure adequate free distribution of food grain and measures to control prices. Men and women are both affected, but women pay a heavier price. The continuous hikes in petrol and diesel prices are pushing up prices of essential commodities. Steps to control price rise are an important issue for women’s mobilisations. Thus the right to food security is an issue which affects women in a specific way.

Malnutrition driven poor immunity would certainly make women vulnerable to the corona virus. Apart from the general impact of policies of privatisation of health services, because of the expenses of private medical care, women often ignore their own health concerns. During the lockdown the complete absence of reproductive health services have affected women badly. Pregnant women in particular have suffered due to lack of medical attention. Even though lockdown is being eased in several areas, as far as these health services are concerned there are still so many restrictions. Women are being turned back from hospitals and primary health care centres. A policy change is urgently required and these services made available for women. It was also in this period of lockdown that the health ministry illegally diluted regulations for reporting sex determination tests. The basic demand for the universal right to health to be based on strengthening of public health services, not insurance based schemes is very relevant for women.

India has one of the worst records in the world of wide gaps between men and women in household work, which means, cooking, cleaning, child care, care for the senior members in the family, fetching water for household use and other tasks of household maintenance. It is estimated that in India women spend 352 minutes a day, around five and a half hours on such work as compared to 52 minutes by men.  This does not include unpaid work which is economic activity contributing to household income. During the lockdown, with all members of the family at home, with schools closed, this heavy work burden of domestic work increased hugely. A survey by the CMIE which compares the domestic work division between men and women in December 2019 to April 2020, shows that the gap decreased as more men reported that they were putting in more hours in domestic work during the lockdown; however it also showed that the number of men who did zero hours of work also increased. As far as women are concerned, it was shown that even where men had contributed to domestic work, the overall number of hours that women put in had increased across the board.

In India, cultural norms of women’s primary responsibilities being that of managing domestic work are rigid and powerful even among the working classes, what Lenin referred to as the double burden. In recent years with the advent of the Hindutva forces, this domestic role for women has been promoted as the ideal while working women are projected as irresponsible ignoring their duties as wives and mothers. In the entire government programme for the pandemic, there was never even once a reference in any government publicity about the role women were playing in family survival and the importance of sharing domestic responsibility. The one exception was in the press conferences of the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who specifically referred to this unfair burden on women, urging men to share the domestic work responsibility.

In India, during the lockdown, there is not much statistical evidence as there is in many countries in Europe, of the increase in cases of domestic violence. The NCW helplines registered double the number of complaints of domestic violence in April as they had the month before. But in any case registration of cases is just the tip of the iceberg. The NFHS-4 had shown that almost one third (31 per cent) of ever-married women had suffered physical, sexual or emotional violence at the hands of their spouse, with physical abuse being the most common. However, the fact that such cases are usually unreported is also true. It can be assumed that in such a scenario and because of the lockdown, due to the absence of support mechanisms either through other family members, sympathetic neighbours or friends, women who are victims of such abuse were further isolated. The lack of any alternative infrastructures available to women in such situations leaves them with no alternative but to compromise with their abusers. The experience of the pandemic highlights the need for many more short stop and shelter homes for women in situations of domestic violence. These are actually essential services but such shelters are very few in India. This is a demand which requires to be addressed. Moreover in India, the excessive consumption of alcohol and domestic violence has been seen to have a correlation. This is why the anti- liquor movements have had a huge popular response from women. In many states, with the relaxation of the lockdown, governments eager to make up for revenue losses, have encouraged liquor sales even through door to door delivery. While we support the demand for more finances for state governments, liberalisation and direct encouragement for liquor sales has a terrible impact on women. Their voices rarely get heard.

The “boyzroom” episode in Delhi during the lockdown when students of an elite school were found to be involved in the worst kind of sexist and sexually abusive online behavior, including rape threats against girls in their own school and others, highlighted the aspect of cyber crimes against women which has increased during this period. The easy availability of pornographic material online certainly shapes male behavior towards women. So while we have the manuvadi proponents glorifying women’s subservient role as the natural order of things, we also have the aggreesive sexualisation of women’s bodies leading to highly objectionable actions and behavior. This has also got accentuated during the lockdown, with no recognition by either the central or most state governments of this growing crime. Women’s and students’ organisations need to work together on campaigns to fight against this growing menace of cyber crime against women and particularly young women and girls.

An important issue impacting on women is the promotion of obscurantist ideas on the Covid epidemic by the outfits affiliated to sangh parivar ideologies and the need to resist. The virus is described by them as an evil female deity which has to be placated, the “Corona mai ” strengthening cultural and manuvadi stereotypes of the “wicked woman”. They are mobilising women to perform rituals collectively so as to banish the corona mai. Thus a Hindu religious identity gets strengthened on the one hand and on the other, attention is diverted from the utter failure of the government to deal with the pandemic. The promotion of unscientific theories by those in power does have a specific impact on women who are the target of superstitious rituals and practices.

The issues connected with the impact of the lockdown on women do not concern only women’s organisations but the resistance movement as a whole. In all our campaigns against the Modi government, keeping the specific gender discriminations in mind we can and must build a unity to assure women that the CPI(M) stands with them and for them in this time of crisis.