Impact of COVID -19 Lockdown on Women with Disabilities in India
By Dr. Asha Hans
Dr. Asha Hans is Executive Vice President of Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre. A leading campaigner of women’s rights, she has participated in the formulation of many conventions in the United Nations.
The world was not prepared for a crisis like COVID-19, and this is perceptible in diverse ways. The pandemic has challenged our hierarchical way of living, our ideologies and sense of security and recent reports across the world are highlighting the differentiations in people’s experiences of COVID-191. There is an emerging duality of the pandemic, now named by UN Women as a ‘shadow pandemic’ because of the web of violence connected to it. The lockdown strategy adopted to keep the contagion from spreading has resulted in people staying within the household, resulting in high stress, severe depression, frustration and anger. The most challenging outcome of this change within the household has been the increase in domestic violence. The protection system has collapsed and no response is available to end the violence. This is also a systemic change, for the new security developed is meant to be used against a virus and not another human. In this medico scientific approach, law and human rights find little space to maneuver. Thus, we need to shift our gaze in order to see things from a gendered rights perspective.
Catalina Devandas Aguialar the Special Rapporteur on Rights of Persons with Disabilities has highlighted the impact on women with disabilities worldwide and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged the international community to ensure that violence against women and girls are given high priority with no impunity for perpetrators. The 11.8 million women with disabilities population in India is more than that of the United States and Canada combined female disability population. In India, because of high poverty levels, poor health conditions, low education, limited incomes and patriarchal system, women with disabilities are considered to face grave danger from the virus. There is however no information in India on the impact of the coronavirus on women with disabilities, either in the State or community news. The issue of domestic violence against women with disabilities has not been recognized. It is not surprising as the National Family Health Survey and the National Crime Record Bureau do not include data on women with disabilities. Thus, the women have remained invisible in the system and continue to do so in an emergency such as COVID-19.
My own research initiated on COVID-19 and the lockdown in India is showing that the women face multiple problems. Despite the importance of awareness on prevention of the coronavirus, many persons with disabilities are not receiving information, as they require material in universally accessible designs. Despite an existing legal framework, the information is inadequately available. With no knowledge on protection strategies they should adopt, they are at very high risk. Many are exposed, as they cannot maintain social distance, because of their dependency on personal assistants for activities of daily living such as bathing, eating etc. Though men and women face these problems, data shows that more women are illiterate and so more open to threats posed by the virus. There is also very pitiful social protection as all communication links are broken.
For women the most problematic and specific concern is domestic violence being perpetuated against them especially within the family. This finding is based on our ongoing research on COVID-19 and earlier writings that women with disabilities on violence from family and society. The violence perpetuated on them has been from parents, siblings and even personal assistants. It has ranged from battering to sexual abuse, incest and withdrawal of economic rights. In this pandemic this has increased in magnitude. Due to the lockdown, the women are advised by the family to stay within the closed environment of the house, a well-known site of extreme violence. The violence has increased but solutions are limited as networks have broken down. Women with disabilities themselves choose to keep quiet fearing abandonment by family. They have limited access to legal justice because of lack of support services to reach protection officers or one-stop centres. Some of them are unaware of the existence of such services.
Women with disabilities are amongst the poorest of people in India and COVID-19 has increased the poverty level as work is not available. The house becomes a prison where violence includes withdrawal of food as they are seen as a burden on the families. They face discrimination on the ground that they do not contribute to the household income, marriage is only for a few, so to the family they seem like a lifelong liability and this is becoming a major reason for the increase in domestic violence. As poverty increases, simultaneously, so does food insecurity and access to health. This was the major complaint from the field 2. Most women with disabilities have limited autonomy. Many complained they were given less food than other family members, others said that though they contributed to the household by handing over their pension and other money given by the State 3, but the food given to them was also comparatively less. The State provides food to some of them but limited to those who have identity (Aadhaar and disability cards). Many in Gujarat said that the access to Government did not exist. In Odisha through civil society networks food was available, and in Telangana private agencies distributed food to them. Research has shown that fewer women across India are included in the certification process4 and access to subsidized food under the Food Security Act is difficult. This is the way to access food universally but without certification the pathway to food is closed. Together with this are the problems within the family due to patriarchal structures in place and discrimination against them.
COVID-19 has social, economic and psychological impact on every citizen in India, including women with disabilities, but the latter are affected disproportionately. Stress impacts women with psychosocial disabilities and most family members are known to provide them medication without their informed consent. There are instances of family members abandoning them, as shelters are not taking in women after COVID-19 struck. There is also a fear among the women with psycho social or intellectual disabilities that short-term institutionalization during quarantine may result in lifetime institutionalization. In India, the history of institutionalizing has been a story of abuse of women, of lifelong abandonment and a continued site of violence.5 The State has to take notice and ensure that survivors of violence are not institutionalized for life.
Keeping the above mentioned context in perspective, it becomes imperative to create awareness on the plight of women with disabilities, set up accessible hot lines, short message services and Whatsapp messages, both written and with voice over, and reinforce and expand economic and social safety nets. It is crucial to integrate the issue of violence against women with disabilities in the pandemic response system. Women with disabilities are citizens with rights but during crisis situations these are overlooked as there are no guidelines in place. An inclusive Pandemic Emergency Action Plan may be put in place which includes the rights of women with disabilities.
In the final analyses it could be drawn from the above that there is an ad-hocism in response to the pandemic, as States and communities have not been faced with this type of emergency in recent memory. The State action in regard to persons with disability has however been prompt as the guidelines on COVID-19 have been issued, but in the document women with disabilities are missing 6. Women with disabilities are still on the margins and fear of institutionalization is high, thus, what is required is the missing community solidarity to deal with exclusion. The State and communities must ensure that violence against women with disabilities ends and no one goes hungry or without access to health security. We know we have to learn to live with the virus, but we can do so with dignity. Wisdom lies not in further isolating an excluded community, but including them and creating change which will not reinforce inequality. There must emerge in response to COVID-19 a collective humane leadership that believes in the strength of women with disabilities. It may be noted that they have age-old experience in combating loneliness and isolation that gives them insights into the current situation to fight against COVID-19. Their experience and resources, if utilized mindfully, may create understanding about the threat against isolation and flatten the curve of COVID-19 in India.
- Data is collected by SMRC from the field it works in with women with disabilities in Odisha, Gujarat and Telangana.
- Information from women with disabilities in Odisha: Of hundred women interviewed this was a major complaint from 65%
- In this case INR 1500 three months pension, INR 1000 special grant for COVID 19 and rice, lentils etc.
- Asha Hans 2007 A Multi State Socio Economic Study of Women with Disabilities in India. Report for UNDP, Government of India and Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre. undp.org/content/dam/india/docs/a_multi_state_socio_economic_study_of__with_disabilities_in_india.pdf
- Human Rights Watch 2014 Treated Worse than Animals: Abuses against Women and Girls with Psychological or Intellectual Disabilities in Institution in India”
- Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for protection and safety of persons with disabilities (Divyangjan) during COVID 19.