The effects of the pandemic on both unpaid care work and domestic violence have negatively impacted women, thereby debunking the idea of homes as a safe space.The home and the family as a contested space with unequal power dynamics was reinforced during the lockdown in two distinct ways—unpaid care work and the exponential rise of domestic violence.
The immediate cause was the restrictions on movement which had bound everyone to the four walls of the home. Consequently, the incidences of domestic violence rose drastically. Moreover, the closure of educational institutions, daycare centres and other care services shifted the responsibility of providing those services to the household, leading to a rise in unpaid care work.
Women were also the first among the vulnerable to lose their source of income. The financial conundrum triggered due to loss of livelihood and reduced income heightened the stress of the uncertain times. Loss of income, high burden of unpaid care work, and the rise in domestic violence led to the disempowerment of women on multiple levels.
Unpaid care work
In the pre-pandemic times, according to the latest NSSO Time-Use Survey, women in India disproportionately spent 276 minutes/day in urban areas and 317 minutes/day in rural areas on unpaid care work whereas men spent only 39 minutes and 80 minutes in urban and rural areas respectively on unpaid care work. A distinct gender gap exists in the time spent on domestic chores and allied activities, with women spending twice the time in domestic and care work.
Most of the cases of violence reported were from women suffering from physical and sexual violence. (Representational image: Reuters)
This number will likely rise with the rise in unpaid care work during the pandemic. A survey by the Institute of Social Studies Trust found that 66 per cent and 36 per cent of those surveyed during the pandemic indicated an increase in domestic chores at home and reported an increase in child and elderly care work respectively during this period.
Women in paid work across the economic spectrum bear a double burden of work, leading to time poverty. Before the pandemic, urban women spent 333 minutes and rural women spent 373 minutes per day in paid and unpaid activities on an average, combined. Women have been working longer hours and simultaneously managing the needs of the family. In urban middle-class households, the ‘work from home’ culture has blurred the lines between working hours and personal downtime.
However, there is also a possible silver lining. Ashwini Deshpande’s work on unpaid care work during the pandemic found that the gender gap in average hours spent on domestic work decreased in the first month of the lockdown. Women were still doing most of the work but male hours on domestic work increased resulting in the decreased gender gap. However, by August, male hours dropped but didn’t reach pre-pandemic levels. If the involvement of male members in care work continues, the pandemic would have triggered a positive shift in one of the defining characteristics of a patriarchal society, that of the gendered division of household work and care.
The need for families to live together round the clock has trapped women with abusive partners. Uncertainty, economic hardships and growing anxiety during emergencies often fuel violent and abusive behaviour directed towards women and the pandemic has been no exception. As per statistics, between March 25 and May 31, 2020, the National Commission for Women (NCW) received 1,477 complaints of domestic violence from women in India — a 10-year high than the complaints received between March and May in previous years. The highest number of cases were registered in July at 660 but have remained at least above 450 each month since June 2020.
The already erratic women helplines, shelter homes and support services were completely halted during the lockdown. 181, the women helpline number was not functional. On March 25, 2020, the Ministry of Women and Child Development issued a circular for all state-run ‘One Stop Centres’ and helplines to be made operational despite the lockdown and to take cognisance of the spike in cases of domestic violence. Oxfam India found this move necessary but inadequate. It recommended that all services to address domestic violence such as One Stop Centres, women helplines, shelter homes, Special Cells for women and children, Mahila desks in police stations, etc., are deemed as essential services and publicised and facilitated.
In a series of interviews that Oxfam India conducted with counsellers of domestic violence, it was evident that despite the government notification, services to support victims of violence were either erratic or non-existent. Among the services that were available, the police usually showed apathy and the shelter homes didn’t take in new cases.
The counsellers reported financial hardship as the major cause for the spike in violence in their communities. Most of the cases were from women suffering from physical and sexual violence with a few instances of child sexual and physical abuse.
The effects of the pandemic on both unpaid care work and domestic violence have negatively impacted women, thereby debunking the idea of homes as a safe space.
Unprecedented times have the potential to stimulate socially transformative initiatives. The key is to identify possible silver linings and find tangible ways of acting on it. As seen, male members of the household, though temporarily, took part in household chores. This has the potential to change longstanding social norms that have relegated the care work to women.
Kamla Bhasin had famously said, “Ghar ka kaam, sab ka kaam.” Political and social initiatives around gender equality should understand and address gendered social norms to lessen the burden of unpaid care work on women. On the other hand, the rise in domestic violence exposed the weaknesses of social and political systems in safeguarding women from violence. It is possible to take it as an epiphany and build strong support systems that allow women to report violence and survive an unsafe environment.