The COVID 19 public health crisis and the subsequent lockdown has generated discussions about the ‘shadow pandemic’ of the rise of gender based domestic violence. This post, while engaging with some of the reasons around the rise of domestic violence, will primarily look into the multiple meanings and metaphors associated with home that the pandemic has made us confront. As a part of the 16-day activism against GBV, and the UN Women theme ‘Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect’ with a special focus on pandemic induced heightened domestic violence, I will briefly assess what are the multiple ways in which home has been confronted the pandemic. I see contestations around five meanings of home emerging in this crisis all of which have gender based implications and consequences.
All of us by now have been made conscious about the need to stay at home to reduce the spread of the virus. In India, which this post focuses on, the first advisory came on March 16, directing closure of schools, regulations on mass gathering, ensuring physical distancing of minimum 1 metre between tables in restaurants, postponement of examinations, avoidance of non-essential travel. It was only a matter of time before we understood that the implications of stay at home in conjunction with work from home was going to be serious for gender based household work over and above the impact of professional work space moving inside the home.
The public discourse of Stay at home meant the homeless and the urban pavement dweller were excluded from the discussion
It has also had hierarchical implications depending upon the space inside an individual home—how many rooms, how many people in each room, how many members having their own electronic gadget to connect to the world outside the home? Space, privacy, personal phones all have gendered implications and there have been specific studies about women’s inadequate access to smartphones in India, before the pandemic.
Work from home for most of urban upper middle class women in India has meant a disproportionate increase in domestic labour. Finding work life balance becomes difficult if not impossible because the increase in care work, in addition to the professional work all from the confines of the home. Middle class professional households were without assistance from paid domestic helps for at least the first two months of the lockdown and this impacted on women’s lives in manifold ways.
Traveling to the workplace is an important liberating journey for most women, including college going women students.
These sites, however gendered in themselves, still create the possibilities of travel, self time, friendships, conversations—away from caste-kinship determined existence within the home. While this situation is experienced by professional service sector women, the pandemic has increased the gender gap in employment. According to Ashwini Deshpande women employed in the pre-lockdown phase were 23.5 percentage points less likely than men to be employed post-lockdown.
A third type of discussion around the home has happened in regard to violence within the home or domestic violence. It is necessary to remember that the stay at home, work from home advisories and experiences were clearly creating a condition for increase in domestic violence. According to National Commission for Women, domestic violence could have increased by 2.5 times during the lockdown. Some of the reasons for physical as well as verbal abuse as reported are ‘not managing resources properly’, ‘not serving food on time’, and also ‘not being able to procure rations/relief material’.
Specifically, in Tamil Nadu the reasons for increase in violence within the home were arguments arising out of sharing household work, suspicion over time spent on social media, unemployment resulting in a cash crunch at home etc. One of the main strategies for tackling COVID 19 -related rises in domestic violence has been to increase helpline services by various women’s rights, child rights and sexuality rights organisations in different Indian cities and a WhatsApp helpline number set up by the National Commission for Women. However, finding the opportunity to report cases with most members of the household also indoors has become even more difficult.
Images of migrant workers—a bulk of whom were women with children walking back home, travelling unimaginable distances by foot due to the sudden announcement of nation wide lockdown, are now global. What this clearly demonstrated is that big cities do not become homes for migrant labourers, they come there to work, mostly as construction workers and short term migrant workers face a complete sense of precarity if there is no daily work in the city. It is impossible to survive in the metropolis, to pay rent, buy food without wages. Seasonal migration for construction, migration in the city for sex work or bar dancer, migration due to agricultural purposes are to be understood as conditions where the worker comes back home when the work ends or goes to another place in search of work. Thousands of migrant workers walking back several days to reach home—where they could at least find food and the security of other members of the community —signify which is really shelter.
Finally, the anxiety and hope of home coming for many students who stay in halls of residence away from their parents, or in rented apartments in cities where they work, within or outside the country, away from their original natal or marital homes. Travelling back home for a certain class of people, takes a flight or an AC train to ‘come’ home/country of original residence has been disrupted and shaken up in ways that has never happened in the recent past. People of all genders are affected by this, but for women students or professional single women, the isolation during these months and its deep psychological impact are sure to have far reaching consequences.
The pandemic crisis opened up a sociological insight to the gendered site of the home as contested between the metaphors of caged, sheltered, violent and secure.
Rukmini Sen is Professor of Sociology, School of Liberal Studies, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org