On 25 November 2020, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the India Programme of the International Growth Centre – in collaboration with the Asian Development Research Institute – organised a webinar on the ‘Growing concern around violence against women’, to deliberate on the various dimensions of this grave issue and the interventions to address it. The panel comprised Girija Borker (Economist, Impact Evaluation Unit of the Development Research Group, World Bank), Padma Deosthali (Senior Advisor, CEHAT), Anamika Priyadarshini (Lead, Research at Centre for Catalyzing Change), and the discussion was moderated by Priya Nanda (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).
Priya Nanda initiated the discussion by emphasising the significance of the issue of violence against women (VAW). Even pre-Covid, VAW has been a significant human rights issue and – in the last decade and half – appropriately positioned as a public health issue as well. Globally, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual intimate-partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime. This problem affects all socioeconomic classes and imposes a huge cost on the economy by hindering women’s economic participation.
Post-Covid, the issue has become part of a larger public discourse, and while the pandemic and lockdowns have disadvantaged everybody there are unique, disproportionate challenges for women. Early data from the National Commission for Women showed that women filed more complaints of domestic violence relative to a similar period in the last 10 years, and we know that what is reported is likely only a subset of what is being experienced.
Women’s economic participation: The barrier of sexual harassment
Women’s experience of sexual harassment restricts their participation in the workforce. India’s female labour force participation (FLFP) was 18.6% in 2019, with a significant proportion engaged in the unorganised sector. This is really low as compared to the rest of the world but also within South Asia. Girija Borker contended that while FLFP has wide-ranging benefits including greater autonomy for women and bargaining power in the household, a plethora of reasons contribute to the inability of reluctance of women to take up paid work.
She discussed her research that focusses on one such barrier for women, which is street harassment or the harassment that women face in public spaces. This issue affects women at various stages of their lives and has the potential to wipe out a lot of the investments that are made at early stages. In Borker’s study, she finds that college-going women in Delhi are willing to go from a top-20-percent college to a bottom-50-percent college to feel safer while travelling, and they are willing to spend almost Rs. 18,000 per year (twice the annual tuition in Delhi University) on commuting safely. One can only imagine how other women (and their families) might be changing their choices and aspirations due to the fear of harassment. Besides, perceived violence impacts not just the decision to work or not work, but also how much women work. Borker discussed research from the US that shows that while Uber pays the same wage rate to female and male drivers, the women earn less as they choose to drive only in safer areas.
The restrictions placed in public spaces and public transport on account of Covid-19 have affected women especially badly. Despite women constituting a smaller share of users of public transport, the ones that do use it are more dependent on it than men as they have limited access to private transport and to financial resources. This is combined with the fact that women usually travel only during off-peak hours and tend to combine multiple tasks/destinations. Hence, the reduced access has hit them hard and amplified the negative effects of the pandemic that they face at home.
According to Borker, sexual harassment is driven by deep-rooted patriarchal norms that have delineated roles for women and expect them to stick to those roles. The domestic violence literature shows that there is a strong backlash effect to women’s greater economic autonomy. Similar backlash is seen to women entering the public space to study or work. In terms of what is seen to work in reducing violence and improving attitudes towards it, ‘starting early’ seems to have the maximum effect.
Borker remarked that proper measurement of the problem is the first step to addressing it. Not much data exist; the biggest source that we rely on in India is National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which only records actual reported incidence, and under very broad categories at the district level. India is relatively advanced in the recording ‘perceived safety’, for instance, the Safetipin initiative.
In Borker’s view, in the short term, there should be awareness efforts in terms of access to opportunities and the importance of having women in the public space, for example, the Blank Noise initiative where women are asked to reclaim the streets. In the medium term, we can create women-only sections in public transport and while there is evidence from Mexico and Brazil to show that this works for reducing harassment and making women feel safer, it is not sustainable and can have unintended negative consequences. In the long term, the focus should be the gender-sensitive design of public transport infrastructure, particularly last-mile connectivity.
Health system interventions
Switching gears to the role of health systems, Nanda said that these tend to see women in crisis as victims of extreme forms of violence and are not able to respond to the issue in a pre-emptive manner. Padma Deosthali added that India’s National Health Policy has recognised gender-based violence (GBV) as a public health issue only in 2017; Ministry of Health has issued national guidelines for medico-legal care for sexual violence survivors only in 2014; and till date, we have no national guidelines or protocols for responding to domestic violence. Further, there are problems around inadequate training of healthcare providers and their own attitudes and misconceptions. Hence, the response is limited to ‘symptomatic treatment’.
Deosthali lauded the efforts of civil society organisations in this area, and outlined some of the key interventions in the past 20 years. An example is crisis intervention departments, which are of two types: the first emerged as state-level institutionalised response to VAW in 2014, integrated with district hospitals under the National Health Mission; and the other type – in place since 2000 – are those run jointly by government and NGOs.
Nanda highlighted the concern around fortifying fragmented and weak public health systems that are unable to deliver even some essential services, to respond effectively to VAW. Deosthali added that inadequate capacity is given as a reason for resisting work on VAW and relegating it to the Women and Child Development Department. It is already the case that women – largely from lower socioeconomic classes who need these services the most – are visiting public health hospitals so training of healthcare providers can ensure that a standard of care is maintained with the understanding that this is not additional work but something that can be integrated into their existing responsibilities. The latest National Family Health Survey shows a 10 percentage point drop in domestic violence victims accessing support services, indicating the culture of silence and the need to strengthen support services alongside working towards prevention. Training of public health personnel to identify the less obvious signs of domestic abuse (for example, not coming back for medical follow-ups) can serve as a preventive measure.
Commenting on the issue of financial resources for interventions, Deosthali pointed out that the ‘Nirbhaya fund’ is huge but underutilised. A flagship intervention under the scheme is one-stop centres, over half of which are located in hospitals. However, there is a coordination problem and the referral system with the hospital does not function effectively. Further, the entire infrastructure – centres with designated staff, shelter facilities, lawyers, police facilitator, and doctor-on-call – was not available during lockdown.
The exacerbation of the issue during Covid-19 has further brought to notice the need to build more accessible infrastructure for victims to report and seek recourse in cases of domestic violence. As the private healthcare sector continues to be unregulated and commercialised, we ought to rebuild the public health infrastructure and integrate the response to VAW within the system, so that we can reach out to more women at early stages of violence.
Role of electoral representatives and communities
Anamika Priyadarshini outlined the challenge of GBV being internalised as a socially accepted norm for both the society and survivor. Electoral representatives can play an important role in reinforcing it as a crime, and this would be easier if they had access to disaggregated data (for example, Bihar Gender Report Card).
Priyadarshini also emphasised the importance of promoting health-seeking behaviour among survivors, which is often hindered by guilt, stigma, and insecurities associated with GBV. Helpline services face dearth of staff, inadequate staff training, and financial resources and this is something that elected leaders can look into, along with facilitating the effective functioning of existing networks and institutions.
On-the-ground work reveals that loss of livelihoods during the pandemic has been a pertinent cause for the rise in domestic violence. A key intervention in this context could be revival of shelter homes as a space that women can go to without fear, and where they can also pick up skills that may be used in income-generating activities in the future.
While legal and policy frameworks are in place for electoral representatives to respond to GBV as a serious issue, Priyadarshini remarked that these are often not implemented or do not function efficiently. For example, there is provision for a committee at the panchayat level for tracking the issue of trafficking in the community but there is no awareness about this.
Priyadarshini highlighted the crucial role of community-level collectives (involving panchayat members, frontline workers, grassroots organisations, etc.) as they are embedded within the community and well-placed to track incidents of VAW and reach out to victims in a sustainable, regular manner. She discussed an initiative of C3 called Do Kadam Barabari Ki Ore (two steps towards equality) that seeks to engage, sensitise, and capacitate local leaders – a lot of whom are men – in these efforts. A specific way in which elected representatives can help is by promoting the integration of gender sensitisation programmes in school curricula.
Sharing insights from her prior research, Nanda contended that the way the remediation of VAW takes place at the panchayat level actually supresses avenues of empowerment. It reinforces the need for women to remain within the construct of family as the home is considered to be the most protected environment for them. However, this is often untrue and although public spaces are not protected either, women’s low financial and economic inclusion perpetuates the notion that they cannot be on their own. Deosthali added that agencies seem to mainly focus on reconciliation and comprise, and we need a stronger approach against sanctioning or tolerating violence. Violence against marginalised groups – not just women but also say, certain minorities – is something that the society at large condones and this is a grave concern.
Towards attitudinal shifts and gender-resilient society
In conclusion, Nanda stated that larger attitudinal shifts can come about not with any singular intervention but aggregation of several interventions that all signal in the same direction. It is important for young boys and girls to have good role models. While addressing VAW is an overwhelming agenda, it is crucial that we take it on with the sort of insights and ideas that have come up in the discussion. Although this discussion was on women in general, it is important to consider aspects such as disabilities, caste, and so on, in planning a response.
In Nanda’s view, one takeaway from Covid-19 is that it has helped society understand its potential for resilience and solidarity – learnings that should be channelled into work on gender transformation and building gender-resilient societies. Finally, she remarked that she believes the new generation can play a role in achieving this, by standing up against inequities that we see day-to-day and internalising these beliefs in our work. The more we consider this agenda an opportunity, we more we will be taking steps towards deep change.