The growing concern around violence against women in India – Where do we stand?

Blog COVID-19, Female labour-force participation and Gender-based violence

Violence against women is rampant in India, hinders educational attainment and earnings potential, and has significant economic and social costs. COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines of gender equality, with increases in the incidence of domestic violence during lockdown. Social programmes to sensitise men and boys on gender-related issues, and community-level platforms like SHGs should be strengthened to provide awareness on safety mechanisms for women, sexual and reproductive health, and family planning choices.

Global statistics on Violence Against Women (VAW) show that one-in-three women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime (WHO, 2017). As per the UN, 18% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 years who have ever been in a relationship, have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months (UNDOCS, 2019). Furthermore, 38% of all murders of women are committed by male intimate partners (WHO, 2017). This figure does not even account for all the other forms of VAW i.e. sexual harassment, kidnapping, and abduction.

VAW is deep-rooted in unjust and unequal power and gender relations (CARE International, 2018), transcends social and economic boundaries, and effects women and girls of all socio-economic backgrounds. This is a human rights violation with significant impacts on victims, their families, and communities, and is a growing concern both for India and the world. In addition to the deep psychological and physical harm inflicted on its victims, VAW entails significant social and economic costs: in some countries for instance, VAW is estimated to cost up to 3.7% of their GDP , which is more than double of what some countries spend on education (World Bank, 2019). This impedes gender parity and equal participation in the economy and broader society.

Despite international and national efforts, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) and National Plan of Actions, which create opportunities for elimination of VAW, investments remain insufficient. Moreover, the slowdown of the global economy has also forced governments and donors to make substantial reductions in funding to address VAW-related issues in many settings (Towers and Walby, 2015). With COVID-19 nation-wide lockdown, an increased reporting of domestic violence exposes the fault lines of gender equality which needs urgent attention, and failures to address the issue will entail a significant cost for the future (UN Women, 2020). Governments need to implement national plans and make budget commitments to invest in actions to prevent VAW (Dixon and Mishra, 2020).

Prevalence of VAW

In India, as per the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16, 29.5% of women have experienced physical violence since age 15, and 21.2% have experienced physical violence in the 12 months preceding the survey

Moreover, as per the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, released on 29th September 2020 (The WIRE), an average of 87 rape cases were registered daily in India in 2019 (NCRB, 2020). Cases registered under crime against women rose by 7% relative to 2018.

Socio-economic aspects of VAW

The costs of VAW can be both direct and indirect and are incurred by women and their families, by the offenders and their families and by the state and non-state institutions. Women who survive the violence bear the brunt of the costs – as much as six times the cost to the state (Walby, 2004). Some studies (Kishor and Johnson, 2004) show that women from the poorest quintile are more likely to suffer violence than those in wealthier quintiles. In India, parental wealth is positively correlated with VAW, as men may use violence as a tool for extracting resources, in addition to the initial dowry (Bloch & Rao, 2002). Studies also show that financial autonomy also increases women’s risk of violence from their partner (Babcock et. al. 1993), whereas in some developed countries on the other hand, it enables women to leave an abusive relationship. Similarly, Bina Agarwal’s study shows that women’s ownership of property helped them to escape domestic violence. However, existing studies also show that there is no credible evidence on the link between paid employment and decrease in spousal violence in cases of poor women, despite higher decision-making. Existing evidence also throws light on how sexual harassment hinders higher education and earning potential (Borker, 2018)

India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) rate was 18.6% in 2019, with a signification proportion currently engaged in the unorganised sector. Further to this, women spent more hours at home and burdened with unpaid care work. This gendered impact is also one of the reasons behind the high prevalence of VAW. A recent Oxfam India (2020) study has revealed that “households where men and women express greater acceptability of beating women, women there spend 42 minutes longer on paid and unpaid care work and 48 minutes less on leisure activities”. The same report also emphasised that “Unpaid care work is the primary responsibility of the woman and if she commits a ‘mistake’ by not performing her duties, she must be punished”.

The direct and indirect effects of VAW have tangible economic impacts. With all these, existing policy notes stated that the overall costs of VAW are comparable to state budgets for essential services. As per McKinsey (2015), VAW is holding back India's economy; for example, creating a safe environment for women may increase GDP by US$ 770 billion. This amount is nearly 10 times India’s overall Health Sector outlay currently for FY 2020. At the global level, the cost of violence against women (public, private and social) has been estimated at approximately US$ 1.5 trillion; this is about the size of the Canadian economy (UN Women, 2016).

COVID-19 and VAW

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, people throughout the world have been affected across a number of dimensions – in terms of access to health, education, financial resources, etc. In this pandemic, protecting people’s lives as well as the frontline facilities are now the current priority for the Government of India (GOI). The GOI took immediate action days after the pandemic was announced and imposed a nation-wide lockdown between March 24th and May 31st, 2020, which ended up creating massive disruption in service delivery and access. These effects were more distinct for women and girls due to pre-existing gendered cultural biases and social norms that make them particularly vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated pre-existing conditions of VAW and worsened gender inequalities.

COVID-19 has already posed challenges to women and children. Since the mandatory lockdown was imposed, early data showed that VAW had risen exponentially throughout India. Data from National Commission of Women (NCW) shows that in India, women filed more domestic violence complaints during the lockdown than what was recorded in a similar period in the last 10 years. This evidence was corroborated by The Hindu, a leading Indian daily. The early evidence suggested that domestic violence complaints had increased by 131% in May 2020, in districts with the strictest lockdown rules (Ravindran and Shah, 2020).

Source: QUARTZ India

Initiatives and way forward

To address the needs of the shadow pandemic during COVID-19, the State and Central Governments, along with civil societies, implemented some of the most innovative support systems in the country. For example, the NCW launched a WhatsApp number to report domestic violence during the lockdown, and the Government of Kerala started Tele-counselling and Tele-medicine facilities in the state. Civil society launched initiatives such as the Red Dot Initiative which allowed women to express distress through a decorative dot on their forehead if they were unable to disclose verbally. Apart from these, Akshara with the Government of Maharashtra launched a web app called ‘Stand Up Against Violence’, to make contact details of resource persons and activists accessible for people to reach out to in times of distress (World Bank, 2020). The GOI also established women police stations and women helpline numbers across states to create a safe space for women to have easier access to law and enforcement for reporting cases linked to VAW. Existing evidence points out that opening of women police stations increased reporting of crime against women by 22 % (Amaral et al. 2019).

Furthermore, despite the legal frameworks and institutions including PWDVA and NCW being put in place by the GOI to prevent VAW, India still ranks as one of the world's most dangerous countries for women, and even after a decade and a half, has only been able to make little progress on that front. To tackle the issue, the GOI and its law enforcement agencies need to recognise the gravity of the problem and create safe spaces for women. The social programmes should incorporate the front-line workers (FLWs) to sensitise men and boys on gender-related issues, and community-level platforms (like SHGs) should be strengthened to provide awareness on safety mechanisms for women. To conclude, progress on reducing VAW has been slow, and much more will need to be done to achieve the SDGs on gender, particularly goal 5.2 on eliminating VAW.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC.