The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated lives around the world. The pandemic has exposed sharp economic and social inequalities and has widened the already existing gap between privileged and most vulnerable in the society. The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have not been gender-neutral. Women and girl children are more affected by the virtue of their gender. There is no doubt to say that the crisis brought by Covid-19 has deepened pre-existing gender inequalities.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report 2021 estimates there has been a step back of 39 years due to the pandemic. Healthcare access for women and girls has been disrupted, confinement measures increased gender-based violence, and girls disadvantaged and marginalised. Worryingly, it seems we are not learning from the past, as women and girls have encountered similar issues experienced during previous health crises. During the Ebola epidemic, increases in abuse, violence, and exploitation faced by women and girls were also reported. Hence, the current article attempts to understand gender-based violence as an aspect of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Plights of Women amid Pandemic
The slogan “Stay home, Stay Safe,” really meant, ‘stay home, stay unsafe, stay in fear, stay facing abuse and violence.’ As far as women are concerned, an increase in domestic violence was reported from all over the world as a consequence of the lockdown. According to official data, the National Commission for Women (NCW) registered an increase of at least 2.5 times in domestic violence complaints since the nationwide lockdown in India. Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon.
“Silence and lockdown are the best friends of abusers because they use isolation as an effective tool to control their victims and hide their actions from others” says Rev. Judith VanOsdol, The Lutheran World Federation’s (LWF) Program Executive for Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment. “We’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of women contacting emergency helplines across all the continents,” she notes, adding that “religious leaders have a responsibility to stand up for gender justice and send a strong message that perpetrators of violence and coercion will be held accountable for their crimes.”
How are religious leaders responding? Pope Francis called on society to stand with women victims of domestic violence, and praise women in frontline roles who help society despite the crisis. “Sometimes they (women) risk being victims of violence in a cohabitation that they bear like a weight that is far too heavy.” People from Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh communities have commented that they have reports of abuse at home ranging from psychological and physical violence to spiritual abuse during the pandemic. Social activists warn of a spike in victims fleeing abusive partners as lockdown eases, with support services struggling to make ends meet. Women are the most vulnerable during this pandemic due to domestic violence, economic instability, lack of proper health care that are discussed here below.
Domestic violence is any kind of behaviour that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse. Some examples of domestic abuse include battering, name-calling, insults, threats to kill or harm one’s partner or children, destruction of property, marital rape, and forced sterilisation or abortion. Despite the feminist awakening for more than a century, gender equality seems to be still a distant dream. The prevalence of domestic violence is a clear indication that there is no gender equality.
Domestic violence is an abuse of power. It is the result of unequal power relationships existing in families between the spouses which in turn is based on patriarchal values and attitudes. These are internalised by both men and women from their childhood. As a result, a large number of women don’t seek help when they face abuse because they think that violence against them is warranted.
As the Covid-19 lockdowns trapped women at home with their abusers, the instances of domestic violence spiked throughout the world. In India, reports of domestic violence, child marriage, cyber violence, and trafficking of women and girls increased within the first few months of the pandemic. Violence against women is an existing global crisis that thrives on other crises. Conflict, climate-related natural disasters, food insecurity, and human rights violations all contribute to women and girls living with a sense of danger, even in their own homes, neighbourhoods, or communities. The Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated isolation and social distancing, enabled a second, shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls, where they often found themselves in lockdown with their abusers.
The Covid-19 pandemic and strict lockdown in India have adversely affected the health services, especially for women such as maternal health, family planning, and abortion services. Fear of infection was also one of the reasons that impacted the health of women as many medical facilities denied regular services and even many women hesitated seeking medical help. Although the Government of India deemed and made RMNCAH+N (Reproductive, Maternal, Child, Adolescent Health and Nutrition) services essential and available it continued to be a big challenge.
Financial Stress and Domestic Violence
Covid-19 had a great impact on the economy of the whole world, especially India as a developing country. There is a direct link between financial stress and domestic violence. The rates of domestic violence seemingly rise with an increase in financial stress. Research also shows that the repeated victimisation of women is seen to be more frequent in cases where the family is under some sort of financial strain. Evidence shows that women’s economic life has been affected more in comparison to men. The women earn less and have less secure jobs. Especially the women who head the house are to be affected more.
The situation is worse in developing countries like India where the vast majority of women’s employment i.e.,70% is in the informal economy with few protections and limited access to social protection. To earn a living these workers are often dependent on public space and social interactions, which are now being restricted to contain the spread of the pandemic. Socioeconomic stressors such as financial pressure, employment, food insecurity, and family relations stood out as having a significant impact not only on experiences of safety (or violence) but also on women’s well-being overall. However, there is strong evidence that ending violence against women and girls is possible.
God in Midst of the Pandemic
Where is God in midst of the pandemic? This question assumes God has been inactive. We are living through a period of deep disruption, chaos, and anxiety. Many women who are going through the violence and affected by this Covid-19 ask the question, where is God during this time? Is God not a God of justice? Is God present in their suffering? The answer is when we suffer, God suffers too. God suffers when creative possibilities are bent towards darkness rather than light. God suffers with the widow, the victim, the person with mental health issues, the patient struggling to breathe in the ICU.
Jesus Christ who shows us what God is like suffered – scorn, opposition, and finally an agonising death. That is where we find God in the pandemic – sharing our pain.12
God is a God of love and calls humanity to live in loving relationships with one another. Yet violence and abuse exist in our societies and the Bible recognises this and reflects our lived experience. Sadly, violence and abuse can affect anyone at any time. Violence and abuse diminish a person and can crush them, preventing them from fully flourishing into all that God created them to be.
The Role of the Church in the Context of a Pandemic
The church believes that “Healing was an important part of the mission of Jesus and the Apostles. Plagues, pandemics, and incurable diseases have always been a challenge to it.” The Church is called to serve and equip its ministers and members to care for families. The call or mission of the Church is readily defined by the Lord in the last chapter of Matthew (28:18-20). In short, we are “to go.” The instruction from the Lord “to go and make disciples” also involves the ministry of help and support to those who are victims of a reckless and, in many circumstances, violent society. Churches, and especially the clergy, may be under the impression that domestic violence is not an essential issue facing the Church today.
The Bible confirms that brokenness and abuse in the home must be dealt with. Women of every socio-economic level, culture, and religion encounter domestic violence during this pandemic. It is widespread as a shadow pandemic throughout the world. Restoring families and immediately seeking safety for victims of domestic violence are essential aspects of the Church’s call. The Church cannot, as it typically does, remain passive and be detached from the cry of domestic violence victims. The Church can help break this cycle. Many abused women seek help first from the Church because they see Church as a safe place. Even if their abusers isolate them from other social contacts, they may still allow them to go to church. Therefore, the Church should take into consideration the following points while dealing with women’s problems during this pandemic.
Domestic abuse remains a hidden scourge in our societies and churches that is far too often left unchallenged and excused. Domestic abuse is a sin and can cause lifelong trauma to survivors. As Christians, we are called to love God and one another and to care for each other. This means we have a responsibility to hold each other to account and call out injustice in places where we see it.
Every (Woman’s) Life is Important
All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). The image of God is the fundamental basis for the value and dignity of absolutely all people. The Bible teaches that God is the giver of life, so from birth to the grave we must protect and value everyone’s life. Human life is priceless and no matter the economic consequences that a catastrophe like the one we face brings, we must do everything to care for the lives of all. Any call to victimise some people for the good of others is despicable and contrary to the dignity given by God to all human beings.
Love of Neighbour/Women is the Fundamental Evidence of Our Faith
Jesus clearly stated in John 13:35, “By this, all will know that you are my disciples if you have a love for one another.” In times of crisis, our genuine love for others/women is the light to a world darkened by problems. This love is concrete and has as its maximum example the love that Jesus showed us by dying for us on the cross (John 13:34). Our perspective and mission must be the common good and we need to do what is necessary to protect the well-being of women.
Right Way of Reading and Interpreting the Scripture
Abused women often say, “I can’t leave this relationship. The Bible says it would be wrong.” Abusive men often say, “The Bible says my wife should be submissive to me.” They take the biblical text and distort it to support their right to batter. A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and relationships based on mutuality and love. Right from the book of Genesis, Scripture teaches that women and men are created in God’s image. Jesus himself always respected the dignity of women.
An abused woman may try to explain suffering by saying that it is “God’s will” or “part of God’s plan for my life” or “God’s way of teaching me a lesson.” This image of a harsh, cruel God runs contrary to the biblical image of a kind, merciful, and loving God. Jesus went out of his way to help suffering women. God promises to be present to us in our suffering, even when it is unjust. Pope John Paul II reminds us that “Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.”13 Therefore, the dignity of women should be protected.
The gender dimensions of pandemics are often overlooked, leading to worse outcomes for the most vulnerable. We have the opportunity as clergy and lay leaders to provide helpful resources on domestic abuse through sermons, prayers, education, and pastoral care. One important function the church can serve is, to tell the truth about women’s experiences of abuse, to give a voice where there has been silence. The Churches should take initiative to address inequities, human rights, and gender-related barriers, and scale up and strengthen interventions targeting gender-based violence prevention and response. Through a concerted, coordinated, and intensified effort the churches should continue to work to reach those most vulnerable to violence in any form, safeguard the rights of affected communities and individuals, and realize more equitable and healthy outcomes for all.
Dr Gifta Angline Kumar completed her PhD in Hinduism at South Asia Theological Institute (SATHRI), and has been teaching religions at Bishop’s College in Kolkata, India.
This article first appeared in the March issue of INSiGHT. Click here for more articles: https://archive.cwmission.org/insight/